Let’s dispense of one formality immediately: If you’re looking for a “gamey game,” that is, a game that has complex systems and difficult rules, then you’ve come to the wrong place. Gone Home is not that sort of beast at all.
There are no puzzles, no levels, no high score and certainly no bad guys whatsoever. What little there is for a “game” amounts to a cursor that functions sort of like an old point and click cursor might have done in the bad old days of adventure games.
This cursor is your window into the world of Gone Home, since it allows you to hover over items and click on them if they’re an something you can interact with. Often, these interactions are simple: you read the sheet of paper, or you listen to the piece of music that is presented to you, or you look at the drawing. But very occasionally, you’ll have to move one bit of stuff to get to something else underneath that.
While it isn’t a “traditional” game in the sense of, say, a Mario or a Zelda, it does have a slight collection element: as you delve into the titular house from the name of the game, so you will uncover journal entries and game cartridges.
And it is here that we find the real basis of what Gone Home is.
At the heart of this little piece of gaming fiction lies what is – essentially – an experience. You are stepping into the shoes of one Kaitlin Greenbriar, who is returning home from an overseas trip. You arrive home fairly late, so, naturally, the house is dead quiet. You also discover a note from your sister asking you to not go digging too deeply into where she is. She does not want Mom and Dad to know what’s happening with her.
So, of course, you do exactly the opposite, using your cursor, your trusty map and your keen eye for observation to turn the house upside-down, trying to work out what’s going on.
So, since we dispensed with one formality up front, I’d like to dispel a bit of a myth right away. This might be slightly spoilery to some – and I’m sorry in advance if that’s the case, but Gone Home is NOT jump scare game. It sort of sets itself up as one, but almost every “jump scare” that you think you’re going to have is a fake out. Closer inspection of what seems like blood turns out to be hair dye. Ominous thunder and rain is really just thunder and rain. It is, unfortunately, my singular gripe with what is otherwise an excellent story-telling experience: The story is trying to veer in one direction and the visuals and accompanying sound occasionally try to stray in an entirely different direction altogether.
Since we’re talking about the visuals, I’d like to tackle one of the game’s selling points rather briefly. One of the bullet points suggests that this is a “house of the 90’s” and that the game is stylistically indebted to that decade. While that’s true, and while the graphics are reasonably good for a three dimensional Indie game, they’re not what you’re going to remember when you put down the game. There are some very 90’s flourishes to some of the art, though. And that’s certainly commendable. The same is true of the soundtrack – what little of it exists. The songs that exist in the game are very grunge. If you ever liked bands like L7 or Hole, then you’ll probably be right at home, here. [did you see what I did there?]
But precisely because this is an indie game there was no real way for the developers to splurge and include actual products from that decade and this, I feel, makes that aspect of the game a little weaker than it could have been. It’s a money issue, certainly, and it hurts the experience a little, but it is by no means a damning factor.
Most of what I want to talk about, though, is the experience. Independent companies like The Fullbright Company can do these little experiments and make them work because the production cost for something like this is fairly low. This also has a lot to do with creative freedom, of course. An AAA developer is beholden to their publisher and if you walked into a publisher’s office right now [say an EA or an Activision] and you said “I’d like to do a game without enemies,” well…it’d be a very short pitch meeting.
So games like this, To the Moon and The Stanley Parable are fantastic for two reasons: they push the boundaries of story in video gaming. Let me illustrate: Most AAA games are about the hero’s journey. In a typical AAA game, you get given a sword [or other cutting implement] and get told to go save the world. By contrast, Gone Home’s little story involves your sister and what became of her.
I find this a wonderful change and I seriously wish more games did this on this sort of scale. Do we need the constant world-saving angst? Not really. What we need is breadth of story. Different locales – different protagonists – different perspectives. Gone Home most certainly is all of these things.
Do I think you should play it? Yes. Yes, indeed. But with a small handful of caveats. Unfortunately, Gone Home has earned itself a reputation because of its main story thread; however, there is a lot more going on under the surface of this particular experience. Gone Home is very much about connections: connections to place, family, time, space and objects. Only looking at one of these sets of connections is missing some of the greater point of the game. Secondly, don’t touch it if you want a game-with-rules like Mario. You will be disappointed. Finally, this is completely about immersion. Gone Home wants you to brew a good cup of coffee, dim the lights, put on your headphones and live in its world for three or four hours. If you can do these things, then Gone Home will be exactly what the doctor ordered: an exploration-based game with a story-heavy focus.