Gone Home Review
Gone Home is one of the best games that I can only recommend under a big pile of conditions. But if you meet them, this could wind up being one of the most important games you play.
Some who try Gone Home will walk away very angry about it, insisting that it's not even actually a game since there is no combat, nor are there any puzzles. But it's an interactive medium with rendered graphics and/or text with choices I had to make, so yeah, it really is a video game - just not for everyone. Gone Home is a game that, once I played it, I desperately wanted to review it, because I played through it in a two-hour sitting and I can't stop thinking about it. It's an important game, even if only a relatively small slice of PC gamers out there will really enjoy its brand of casual exploration and lack of puzzles, combat, or really anything that many of today's gamers will associate with what we call a game.
The premise is simple: It's June of 1995, and you're playing as Katie, a student that got the chance to spend her first year in college off in Europe. Katie ran out of money after the school year finished and she had to reschedule her flight to come home early. She's just gotten an airport shuttle to bring her home late at night at her family's house. The house was recently inherited from a great uncle that passed, and it's a large mansion-like monstrosity out somewhere in mildly-remote rural Oregon. It happens to be stormy tonight, the house is mostly dark, and there's no sign of Katie's family. Controlling her from a first-person perspecive, you find the front door key under the Christmas duck in a little cabinet on the porch, and walk in.
What should ensue after that is a slow, methodical exploration of the house where you learn what's going on by glancing at notes the family has left for each other, looking at book covers, seeing the state of the house, and piecing together a story of mom, dad, and the sister, Samantha, who becomes the focus of the story through the audio logs that are attached to objects the player finds. Katie, the character you're playing, only offers her opinions on things by way of a rare few other objects that you find - otherwise, the player is left to be sort of a voyeur.
The game gives a sense of unease in at least a few ways. First, it feels almost invasive to just rifle through everything in a stranger's house, and Gone Home's little sub-narratives and bits and pieces are so meticulously crafted that it's hard to feel like this is anything but some kind of home invasion - even though you're playing a character that, at least in the story, should be welcome there. Second, though, is the rather creepy atmosphere that the game generates. The house is dark, and while nearly all of the lights work, it's a big, old house in the woods, and the light coming from wall sconces and lamps - nearly all of which must be turned on by the player, sometimes after crossing a dark room - isn't always enough. This can be a pretty dark game if you don't adjust the brightness in the options accordingly. But the biggest thing is that the developers do things to create that atmosphere, and while I don't want to spoil anything, I'll say that at the very least, Fullbright didn't intend on scaring the bejeezus out of players the way first-person horror games do.
There have been jokes going around recently about the term "ludonarrative dissonance", which is a fancy way to complain about how many of the high-minded plots and religious or political themes in games like BioShock Infinite seem like they're at odds with the brutally violent combat that dominates the time spent playing them. (Another example would be Luis in GTAIV: The Ballad of Gay Tony as he laments about his desire to live a quiet life in cutscenes, but when the player takes the controls, Luis is suddenly tasked with committing mass murders just to progress the game.) I agree with that sentiment of these complaints - even if the term people dug up to name this phenomenon is silly - but either way, in the case of Gone Home, it's the opposite of whatever you want to call that effect. The gameplay matches up with the plot and overall tone almost completely. Sure, adventure games have been finding much better harmony in theme, gameplay, and style for many years, but often even they get bogged down by puzzles. Gone Home is about learning what happened to a person's family over the last year in much the same way one would in real life.
Unfortunately, it's difficult to talk much more about Gone Home without getting into some real spoilers, but what I can say is that this kind of game feels... important. Certainly there are improvements that could be made: for one, I'd like to feel that the order I'm clearly meant to explore the house in shouldn't feel like it was being so arbitrarily decided by developers' use of locked doors that create a single, solitary path. Oh sure, the developers still need to enforce a path that tells the story properly, but a more subtle use of guidance by way of light, sound, and level design drawing the player towards certain points of interest may have allowed the developers to lock fewer doors, giving the players more freedom while still getting the story pieces mostly in the intended order. The house itself is also just so dark even with the lights on - I recommend liberal use of the brightness setting if you play it - and it felt very large and cavernous, like an old-style mansion with just way too many rooms. Hopefully, the small team at the Fullbright Company sells enough copies of this game to create more games that are similar to Gone Home, but maybe they can get the budget to build multiple, slightly smaller locations - including well-lit ones - to travel between, so that they don't feel like they have to create such a large maze-like single house to stuff everything into next time.
Even though I enjoyed Gone Home immensely, I think that most gamers, if they spend $18-20 on this game might feel sorely disappointed if they expect to have action, horror, or a slew of puzzles. Our expectations of what a game should be have changed a lot over the years, and at this point, a game where you aren't near-constantly killing or at least physically fighting things has become weird or unconventional; some will even hesitate to call anything remotely like Gone Home a "game" in the first place. The reason that Gone Home is breaking new ground is because even though it's played from a first-person perspective - a video game viewpoint that's been associated with getting in enemies' faces and then violently killing them for the last two decades - it's entirely centered around exploration and plot, and it's grounded in the real world.
No, this isn't the only first-person game ever made that's lacking in combat or puzzles, but this is the first major one I've seen that's actually based on real life and not some fantasy environment. What's unfortunate is that we've gotten so used to player-generated violence as a staple in games that this one is never going to sit well with some gamers. So here's my recommendation: if you think eighteen bucks is too much to spend on a very memorable two hours of interactive story about a family and its conflicts, then stay away. In that case, I think everyone will be happier. Gone Home is still a bold and important move forwards for modern games that don't have to have violence as the primary way to play, and after two decades of playing games where I gleefully kill things nonstop, even I'm enjoying the change of pace from developers like Fullbright. If you're interested in a more grounded story and don't mind calling a game without violence, well, an actual game, then you should definitely consider Gone Home. For everyone else, the best I can recommend is to keep an open mind in the future and maybe catch the next one.
Disclaimer: This review is based on a bought copy of the game.