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Gone Home is one of those games that was bound to be divisive. In a gaming world populated almost entirely by open-world shooters – seriously, go check on Wikipedia how many of the best-rated games of recent years are “open world action-adventure” – it’s a highly non-standard gaming experience, and the themes (or rather, theme) that it explores are none too popular among mainstream gamers. Despite that, Gone Home seems to have gotten a lot of praise from major gaming websites, which is when you should start getting suspicious.
Before I start the review, let me tell you that I was pretty heavily biased when I started playing this game, although in two different directions. On the one hand, I really wanted to like this game. I want games to be innovative; I want them to help loosen patriarchy’s grip on gaming; most of all, I have nothing but the deepest respect for the Fullbright Company, GH’s developers, for coming out publicly against some particularly disgusting sexism on the side of the organizers of PAX. On the other hand, I always knew I would end up hating this game. Every single review I’ve read of it made it clear that you basically do nothing in this game but go around a house and read things, and I hate nothing more than a low-budget movie pretending to be a game.
Gone Home puts you in the role of Katie, a woman who comes back to her parents’ home from a year in Europe and finds the house completely empty. Instead of doing what every other 20-something year-old would do at this point and invite everyone you know for a keg party, Katie decides to explore the house and uncover what happened, reading notes and listening to audio logs (somehow) left by Katie’s sister Sam in order to piece together what happened. Basically, take Bioshock Infinite with nothing but voxophones and way worse graphics and you get Gone Home.
I’m not going to have any spoilers in this review, but it already says a lot that there really isn’t all that much to spoil. The plot is so unoriginal and predictable that I could call the whole story from 5 minutes into the game. Seriously, after the first 2-3 audio logs, anyone with even the most cursory knowledge of 90s pop culture should immediately know pretty much what the ending is going to be, and this game almost prides itself on its abuse of 90s pop culture icons, complete with whole cassettes of crappy 90s music spread throughout the house. The predictability of the plot makes trudging around for clues all the more unmotivated, and if I were Katie, I’d seriously be working on that keg party by now.
But seriously, that’s it – you go around, reading notes, listening to audio logs and – if you’re into that insufferable alt-rock or wannabe-punk of yesteryear – play cassettes. There’s no gameplay and no sophistication. Then I realized that I used to play games like this all the time – back in the 90s, there was a deluge of point-and-click adventure games, and everyone dug the hell out of them. Sure, they were nothing to write home about (get it?), but they were a fun distraction for a few hours, had some cool puzzles and often some very intelligent and funny dialogue and characters. Gone Home is basically a modernization of that genre, except it has no characters, boring as hell dialogue, and 3 of the world’s most trivial puzzles. It is a point-and-click in the spirit of the worst, laziest representatives of the genre, which had you basically clicking on everything in sight until something happened (e.g. Phantasmagoria 2).
Gone Home received a lot of praise for its attention to detail, and yes, you can pick up and examine almost every item in the house, and it’s clear that the developers put a lot of time and effort into making sure that the items you look feel real and distinct. But if anything, I’d say there’s way too much attention to detail. It’s never clear what’s important and what isn’t, and when you can pick up and look at every pen, eraser and book in the house, it’s just too much. It’s a classic rookie mistake in basically every form of art that it’s amazing to me that no one has called the game out on this. When you make everything stick out, nothing sticks out, and the whole games becomes a big pile of nothing.
Sam’s voice acting is pretty good, though not without its weak moments – at some point, Sam tells about a kiss she had, and then proceeds to unleash the most stereotypically girly giggle I ever heard in my life. It is such a weak moment, especially given how it clashes with Sam’s portrayal as a brave girl who, from early on, resisted attempts to peg her into a traditional gender role. Most of all, I am seriously bothered by how meta the concept of the audio logs is. Unlike other games that employ them, there are no physical devices that contain the logs, so all you can conclude is that these are just diary entries by Sam that are being read out. But if Sam is so desperate to hide the full story from Katie – as the game clearly tells you she is several times – why the hell did she go to such lengths to record it for her and leave clues as to the location of the records? Why make Katie go through all of this reading and exploring? The whole basic concept of the game just smacks of lazy design.
I mentioned that there are a few puzzles in the game. Actually, only one really deserves to be called a puzzle, and even that one only reveals the ending to a subplot – you don’t need it to beat the game. The first one was particularly disappointing – you need to find a combination to a drawer lock, and I was looking around for clues, looking for combinations that were mentioned often, and I was so excited to try it on the lock. It didn’t work. I decided to go back for it, only to go a bit further and see a combination clearly written on one of the items in the next room – a combination which had nothing to do with anything in the game. And this is one of your three puzzles, mind you – the only times in the game where you, the player, are actually needed.
Also, this is a minor point, but I have to mention this – why are there so many things in the game written in cursive? I mean, I know a lot of native English speakers can read and write in cursive pretty fluently, but even then it’s not everyone. Why the hell would you force me to read so much cursive? It’s so painful, so straining. The Last of Us had a lot of stuff in cursive, but guess what? You could push a button and get a typed version of the same text, which makes sense given that your character probably knows how to read cursive. Gone Home even does this at one point, but then, for some inexplicable reason, some of the most important documents in the game are this huge page of cursive with no typed version. Seriously, Fullbright, I love you people and all, but screw you with all this cursive.
Don’t get me wrong, there are some very nice moments in this game. I really cracked a smile in the part where Sam talks about this kid she hated, but was friends with because “he always had the best Nintendo games”. Another good one is when you see Katie and Sam’s answers to a school assignment, in which students were given a list of sentences describing menstruation and had to rearrange them in the correct order. Katie just followed the instructions; Sam interspersed them with a story about a woman who rebels against oppressive societal norms and becomes a leader in the Polish in WWII. It really does a great job of building up Sam’s character, though like I said, this portrayal is hardly consistent.
Lastly, I can’t finish this review without saying anything about the game’s price. This game takes at most two and a half hours to finish, and that’s if you read everything, do everything, and examine everything. You can probably finish it in under an hour if you power through it. And yet, the developers had the nerve, the outright gall, to ask 20$ for this game. 20$! Do you have any idea what PC games you could get for 20$? You could get both Deus Ex and System Shock 2 on Steam for less than that, and have 30-40 of the best gaming hours of your life (both games, by the way, have better graphics than Gone Home). Hell, you can probably get some of the most awesome 3DS games for 20$, and you’d have a ball without having to get out of bed. 20$ for this non-game with zero replay value? Shame. Shame!
So, bottom line: don’t get this game. It’s so not worth your money. It is borderline offensive in asking for so much money for so little game. Just watch the Let’s Play on YouTube – you’ll get the same experience without getting ripped off. The only possible reason I could think of to buy this game would be to have Fullbright’s back given their stand on PAX, but I’d like to believe you can be a progressive and still give people a product worth their money. But that’s just me.