I am somewhat acquainted with first person exploration games where you delve deep into an eerie house or mansion where the supernatural and evil creepy things lay. There seemed to be a trend of them a few years ago on Flash games sites but it has been something that I have not explored since. Going into Gone Home, I experienced the same sense of anxiety I would normally feel playing that style of game however Fullbright games haven’t utilised these game mechanics for cheap, jump-scare reactions out of the gamer. No, Gone Home is nothing like this, instead it is a short, concise game with a strong narrative that garners a deep emotional response from the gamer as the story progresses.
Instead of a spooky abandoned horse asylum on a haunted hill, the game instead invites us to explore an abruptly abandoned Greenbriar home. Playing as the young, twenty-something year-old daughter, Kaithlin, who has just returned from the rite of passage of a trip through Europe, we find an intentionally deterring letter on the front door from troubled, younger sister, Samantha, that kick-starts us searching for clues to find out what happened in this deserted abode. From one room to the next, the player unfolds more of the mystery before them in an exquisite manner.
Each room is not a puzzle that you have to figure how to get through, rather it is something we pass through to learn more about the Greenbriars. The gameplay is pure and simple but it gives the player the chance to dig deep into the history of the house, its inhabitants, and the sometimes strained, sometimes exalted relationships that exist inside and outside. Picking up a key item, like a letter for example or notes exchanged between Yolanda, Samantha’s close friend, will trigger one of Sam’s monologue where she discloses some of the intimacies of her life. These diary entries, spoken by Sam, is our main viewfinder into her state of mind as her story progresses, but various other visual stimuli enable us to follow a main narrative as well as a sense of verisimilitude with the surroundings.
Big revelations progresses the story but I would be amiss to not mention the impressive amount of small detail that add to the game. Nearly every object in the game can be picked up and examined, telling you more about the family this game is centered on. Everything from letters, pictures, insurance forms will tell you about the father walking a tightrope of being a writer of pulp fiction, working real life jobs to provide for his family and being a father to Katie and Samantha. Every room is different, you would find a plethora of common household items and foodstuffs in the kitchen with plenty of nutritional labels or price labels on cans and condiments to pore through. Tapes, a common every-place piece of media can be found throughout the house, playing mostly punk music, giving us a grounding in the year this game takes places while also it tells us more about one of the main characters of the game and her interest in Riot grrrl bands. All sort of cultural artifacts exist in this nineties nostalgic home that add to the sense of a home exposing the lives of these people that live here. All these objects found in the game creates the sense that this building we are exploring is a living breathing home rather than a stale, cold house. The game also rewards your curiosity, someone with a keen eye might learn something new or quirky to enhance the experience. I don’t want to be overly spoilery even for something so ostensibly trivial but one small example of this is found in the library in a box containing some of the father’s literature.
The game is a sensory, tactile experience that the player can interact with at a leisurely pace. It does not require overwrought set pieces or unstoppable action to have any sort of positive effect from the player (not that there’s anything wrong with either). The game opts for quiet moments and seemingly small and unimportant plot details about characters like a trickle that garners the player’s admiration for the character development of this game. The fact that this game takes from the first person perspective is noteworthy in how it lets us interact and view the story in a way unconventional from storytelling in games where it is almost customary to cut to cinematic style events to spur stories onwards. This game lets you explore at your own pace in what I think is a more personal style as we are vicariously reliving the events through the camera. Everything in the game requires you to see with your eyes and it’s just wonderful. The soundtrack for Gone Home is also exquisite, composed by Chris Remo whose work on Firewatch I also found enjoyable. It is very reminiscent of the music from Twin Peaks, a careful synth serenity that is very uplifting to the game overall, giving an emotional emphasis on a moment where we learn about someone’s life in the game. Often I would just stop to listen to the next track played every time there was a new diary entry instead of the monologue.
That sensory experience I mentioned also creates this feeling of dread as the paranormal is a constant theme in this game, akin to other games that feature exploration in a first person perspective. To me it was running counterpoint to the story a lot of times where the mystery of this house sometimes conceals sinister elements, or at least the idea that something bad could happen or has happened in a certain room. I’m not sure if this was intentional or not, but the reasons why you might feel this way, the story, the location, the slow pacing does add character to the house overall.
Gone Home is not a gameplay masterpiece, the slow pace of walking might be irksome for some, there is some replay value if you want to go back and collect some journal entries or find some secrets you might have missed, but not a lot. The short length and its original price point when it was released might deter some players but it has been reduced since then (I got it for “free” for being a PlayStation Plus member). The debate of whether a short game is worth a certain price is a subjective one is worthy of its own argument outside of a few lines mentioned in a review however I will say it does not deny the fact that this game is a unique experience that is deserving of admiration. The exploration of the mundane and finding something entertaining and even at times extraordinary with its characters and themes is something I have not found in any game I’ve ever played.