This year in games has been absolutely fantastic. There have been some great games that are fun to play and appeal to a wide audience, sure, but 2013 has also brought some unmatched examples of why indie games are the future of the medium. Indie developers are willing to take a concept or idea that might not be widely accepted, something new or exciting in a way that we haven’t seen before, and risk a year or two of development to make it happen. They are the ones that have the commitment to the stories they want to tell or the feel of the game they want people to experience and are not willing to cave to a large publisher’s pressures to change them in any way. Gone Home is a perfect example of one of these games. Made by The Fullbright Company, a small team featuring members with impressive credits (particularly the Minerva’s Den DLC for Bioshock 2, a contained but excellent story add-on), Gone Home is one step further down the path that games should be taking, focusing on creative experiences and meaningful narratives..
The gameplay of Gone Home is relatively simple. Set in June of 1995, you control a young woman who is returning home to her family after a year abroad in Europe. A late flight brings you home in the middle of a stormy evening, and the house seems to be completely abandoned. Wandering around the house, reading notes, and picking up a variety of objects to look at is how you uncover the story of the year you were away from your family. You can interact with an absurd number of objects, plenty of which are completely nonessential and just serve to make the house seem more like a real place. There’s something refreshing about a game with a setting that is so well-realized, entirely unlike the flat, funneled design found in most other games. It also has the unfortunate effect of making those objects you may feel should be interactive but actually aren’t stand out more, an understandable but slightly disappointing limitation of the small team and budget. Certain objects are also paired with audio journals from your younger sister which fill in the gaps even more. Some areas are blocked off at first, requiring you find a key or something similar to explore a new piece of the area. Over the course of a two or three hours, you explore the whole house and put the story together.
Having to put the story together yourself is the main reason I like Gone Home so much. Too many games today constantly remind you what you are supposed to be feeling or what is known at that point in the game, practically shoving it down your throat at times. Any backstory is usually dumped unceremoniously into your lap, and there is no question about how you are supposed to react to every moment. Gone Home, on the other hand, very much drops you into the house and lets you figure it out and feel for yourself. Some slight interpretation means that you could see a particular note or an item’s placement in a way that the developer may not have intended but still seems correct to your view of the household. You can go as far, or not, as you want to with piecing together the lives of the characters. Personally, it made me want to read everything I could get my hands on, to get the next piece of the giant puzzle that is this family. Finding a new note that references something from another part of the house, suddenly having a detail made clear, is unlike any game I’ve played before. It feels very emergent; I didn’t have to find all the notes to enjoy the game, but I wanted to find them all to sate my curiosity about various events.
While you can learn a lot about your family solely through exploration of the house, it is the journal entries that make up the bulk of the story in Gone Home. Sam, your younger sister, writes these journals as a way of talking to her older sister while she is away. Since the game takes place in 1995, there isn’t an easy way for them to easily chat with one another, so the journals are the only option she has. I can’t say a single word more about what this narrative actually is because doing so would rob it of some of its emotional punch. Know that it is an extremely poignant story, one you’ve probably heard before and can easily predict, but it is told in an expert manner. The journals are voiced by an extremely talented voice actress who manages to convey so much in so few words; I think it is easily the best performance I have heard in a game all year. The nature of the story wasn’t something I could personally relate to, on multiple levels, but it still managed to tug at my heartstrings on a constant basis. I couldn’t help but smile or cringe at certain points, feeling that tightness in my chest of real human emotion for a completely fake person, a true testament to the writing and performance found within the game.
The one problem I had with Gone Home was its strange mixing of tones that felt constantly at odds with one another. The house where you spend the entire game is quite eerie, with flickering lights and creaking floorboards. A storm is randomly flashing outside the window or startling you with a peal of thunder. Talk of how the house is haunted is mixed with a few creepy notes or items lying around that make you think the game is going to scare you. But it doesn’t. There are no ghosts, jump scares, or spooky moments (not really a spoiler since the developers have said as much). The house may seem foreboding, but the tone of the story never veers away from being charming and emotional. I kept waiting for something to happen, a twist, something to mess with me as the player, but it never came. Why then did the house need to be so eerie in the first place? I didn’t really have issues with the dark house or the stormy weather and actually think those elements added to the overall experience, but there are plenty of obvious points where the developer seemed to want to put me on edge that just felt like silly, cheap scares. Some may see this as a way of messing with player expectation; I just found it oddly out-of-place. It almost seems like the game wanted to go both directions at a point in development and just gave up on the horror side of things. It felt really out of place and bugged me for awhile, until I realized that it didn’t matter one iota and had absolutely no effect on my love for the game.
Gone Home is one of those games that I could not get out of my head after I played it. Last night after I finished it, I was lying in bed for maybe an hour thinking about it and its effects on me. I had to replay it today to see everything again and find anything I missed. I’ve had that heavy feeling in my gut where I just need to get my thoughts and feelings on it out into this review ever since I finished it. I still feel like I haven’t done the best job of articulating what makes it so special, but I still urge everyone to play through it. There may have been a few minor issues I had with it, but the impact it had on the way I see games swept all those concerns under the rug. They didn’t matter because I could already tell that the experience I had just had was singular and unbelievably important. Games that have this effect on me don’t come around very often; when they do, I make sure to take notice and try to get others to understand too. I can’t help but feel that the industry needs to stand up and take notes on creative games like Gone Home. They are quite possibly the direction for future expansion of the medium, the way to make them intense and thought-provoking in a way that no other medium can hope to emulate.
Don't let cyber attacks kill your game! Join GamesBeat's Dean Takahashi for a free webinar on April 18 that will explore the DDoS risks facing the game industry. Sign up here.