Home may be where the heart is, but for many of us it is also the source of our most private moments, cherished possessions and darkest secrets. Traditionally games have often set their ambitions on the macro scale, envisioning whole world, civilisations and futures for us to explore and experience. The Fullbright Company in their first title have instead embraced the micro. A first-person exploration game, Gone Home sees you filling the shoes of Katie Greenbriar. Freshly returned from a year of travelling around Europe she arrives at her family’s new home in the middle of the night, only to find it empty. Through exploration and some light puzzle solving you spend the game piecing together the events of the last year, and often some time before, in order to find out what has happened to her family.
Using the first-person perspective you navigate the house, interact with objects and pick up clues. At certain key moments you trigger audio messages, left by Katie’s younger sister Sam, filling in more of the story, and it is through these that the real focus of the game is revealed. In fact calling Gone Home a game is almost doing it a disservice, and yet it weaves a touching and personal narrative in a way only possible through the interactive nature of videogames. The act of rummaging through an empty house, reading personal notes, receipts, letters and diary entries is quite possibly a familiar one, and there is a sense of voyeurism that emerges as you make your way from room to room.
The house itself has great character; you begin the game in the dark and with a raging storm outside, setting a very deliberate atmosphere of dread to your first movements around the house. The game is wise to never spoon-feed you answers, there is so much backstory and detail buried in every corner of the house that it rewards exploration and curiosity. What stands out above all else though is the way the characters in the game are brought to life. Outside of the voice recordings from Sam (which are wonderfully acted by Sarah Robertson) there are no people you meet in the game, and yet by the end you feel a deep connection to each of their stories.
Regardless of your background there are universal themes dealt with here, of love and loss, pain and disappointment, captured in the microcosm of lives just lived, and handled with a grace and subtlety that is uncommon in gaming stories. Coupled with Chris Remo’s moving score Gone Home draws you in and delivers a unique experience that anyone with an eye for interesting and alternative game narratives should play. However this won’t be for everyone. For a start the game is relatively short (but felt an appropriate length for the scope of the story) and doesn’t hold a great deal of appeal for repeat plays. A lot of the enjoyment comes from that sense of exploration and discovery which is lost second time round. As such the asking price may seem a little steep for those looking for more of a traditional gaming experience, there are no real mechanics here, or puzzles to solve. This isn’t a game to master, or return to, but more a story to engross yourself in that will linger with you long after the credits roll. But there is no shying away from the fact that the actual gameplay element is slight. The level to which this may bother you will largely determine what you take from the experience.
Games can encompass such a wide range of experiences now that it becomes a folly to try and compare them at times. Personally Gone Home resonated strongly with me. The nature of the gameplay meant I was eager to move on into every new room to explore further, but also scared of rushing through and the game ending. As it is the game tells exactly the story it wants to and does so by focusing on the best way to communicate this. The sheer variety of objects you can interact with, and nostalgic nods to the 1990s are a testament to the amount of work that went into every corner of every room in the house. It feels lived in, and alien at the same time, playing on the very real feelings we all have with regards to home and family.
Ultimately the game feels like a risk, an antithesis of much of what gaming currently aspires to be, but it also uses the medium to its advantage, to tell a personal story in a new and innovative way. Hopefully it leads to more developers stepping out in a similar fashion, and together pushing the medium forward in equally interesting and unexpected ways.
Reviewed on PC; game provided by The Fullbright Company
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