Even a good day and a half after finishing Gone Home, it’s still hard to know what to say about it. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever played. I will warn you right away that it’s a very, very short game. If your favorite part of Skyrim was the dollars-to-hours equation at the end of the game, Gone Home is not for you.
With that said, it’s a unique, interesting game that pushes the boundaries of what games can be about, plays with the expectations that come with that, and accomplishes something genuinely memorable in the process.
Gone Home starts in the entryway of a mansion known as Arbor House. You play as Katie Greenbriar. A note from your sister is all you have as you enter an empty house. While you were spending a year abroad, your family moved into a new home; you enter a strange place filled with familiar things trying to figure out just what went on to leave the house in the disarrayed state you find it.
Please Don’t Shoot Up the Place
Gone Home, as short as it is, has a single, simple mechanic that just about anyone can pick up: first person exploration. As Kaitlin, you move from room to room, digging through drawers and closets, rifling through papers, looking for something.
The simplicity of the controls—WASD keys and the mouse’s right and left buttons are about it—make it a good entry point for people with less interest in games, while also accomplishing everything they need to deliver the full game experience.
Few games are as singular about the narrative as Gone Home, while simultaneously exerting so little control over the way the player approaches that narrative. With a few exceptions, the whole house is open from the beginning. Even then, option menus allow you to unlock the doors from the start, though I don’t recommend that.
Each room you explore has something to add to the story and if you are willing to put the pieces of the puzzle together—the metaphorical puzzle, there aren’t really any puzzles to speak of in the game—the order you explore the rooms in doesn’t matter much.
Those Horrific Creaking Floorboards
With such a short game, it’s hard to avoid going into spoilers when nearly everything you do in the game is a spoiler. The dark, creaking house of Gone Home played with my expectations of what a game can be about.
The house is absolutely, convincingly real, from the way things are laid out to the noises the house makes. Just like in a real, dark house, the question of “what’s around the next corner?” always hovered in the back of my mind. Over and over I searched frantically for a light switch in what was, by everything I’d seen so far, an empty room in an empty house.
I felt a strange sense of voyeurism, too, as I went through this unfamiliar place. As I picked up items, they were often labeled with Katie’s thoughts rather than the name of the object; this isn’t a mug, it is dad’s mug. And so, with my family gone, I’m going through their things, reading their notes. I found my dad’s skin magazines in one room and the combination to my sister’s locked closet in another.
This all collectively made me feel uncomfortable, like an intruder in my own house, and every noise the house made, regardless of how innocent it might be, reminded me of that.
Meet my Video Game Family, the Greenbriars
The real meat of the game is what you find as you explore and, again, it’s difficult to avoid spoilers. Each member of Katie’s family has, as you would expect, a real life and a past; both are on display as you walk around.
The sister, Samantha, is right in the middle of high school. Schoolwork is strewn about her floor, along with some Super Nintendo games (the game is set in 1995, though it doesn’t club you over the head with it like so many other games and movies like this do). The father has copies of his published novels lying around.
As I pieced things together, I quickly stopped seeing video game characters and started seeing people I know. The members of the Greenbriar family have been through things that people in my family and circle of friends have been through. These people aren’t Nathan Drake or Andrew Ryan, but people that feel startlingly real.
You do eventually find out what’s going on, though it’s never shouted in your face. If you’re not looking, characters’ entire stories can fall by the wayside, making the game surprisingly replayable for such a short, focused game. Once I’d finished the main story, going back through the house a second time felt very different. The feel of rooms changed entirely.
Gone Home will stick with me for a long time.
DISCLAIMER: We purchased Gone Home for PC via Steam with personal funds. We completed the game before starting the review.
Gone Home is to action games as independent drama films are to blockbuster action extravaganzas. It’s not the sort of thing you’d play to escape, but rather something to explore someone’s experience and how you feel about it, how it reflects on your own life.
Gone Home will stick with me for a long time. The style and execution are fresh and push games in interesting directions. It tells a succinct, human story that just about anyone can find something of themselves in, and delivers the story incredibly well. This has been a great year for games delivering on their emotional potential, and Gone Home is another step forward.