Environmental storytelling at its finest, Gone Home is less fascinated with the “how” than the “why,” “when,” and “where,” as well as remarkably fresh not for what it includes, but for what it excises. Guns? Absent. Regenerating health? Nope. Boogeymen waiting for the next jump scare? Well, the atmosphere is unsettling, just not fatal. For a narrative that totally disarms the main character, then, you would never guess that Gone Home’s scariest feature is how deeply moved you may be.
After a year of traveling across Europe, Kaitlin Greenbriar returns to the States to find her family’s home empty, the sight of the manor palpably unwelcome. Since her parents changed residences during her classes abroad, Katie is as much a stranger to ol' Arbor Hill as the player. And upon reaching the front door, Katie finds a note from her younger sister, Sam, with disconcerting news: Sam disappeared. Why? Where to? While she says no one should worry, any horror fanatic knows that line is immediate cause for concern. Katie finally peers inside, the foyer’s flickering light her only greeting.
The Greenbriars are far from the prettiest video game cast.
While Gone Home’s ominous setup matches Slender: The Arrival, no dangers lurk within its walls. Instead, a mystery lies ahead. Where is everybody? What happened during Katie’s sabbatical? As players rifle through boxes, bedrooms, and bathrooms, a year’s worth of familial troubles provides much-needed answers. Katie’s father was once a published author; now unsold books and crumpled manuscripts haunt his study. Paintings and notes depict her mother as a loving spouse, but secret letters suggest an unfaithful romance. And Sam, the most conflicted of all, struggles with her independence, sexuality, and rebellious personality, yearning for acceptance.
Ironically, judging a book by its cover almost ruined Gone Home for me. I likened Sam to another turbulent teenager suffering through pubescent pains, but rummaging around their household, my connection to the Greenbriars grew. Having his sense of journalistic worth built up, then deflated, I know Mr. Greenbriar’s agony, and my ex-girlfriend could write novellas about cheating. And yet the fears I remember most arose from moving into a strange house, transferring to a different school, and trying to find where I fit in while learning how shallow adolescents can be ... at the age of 11. I recall nobody caring what my name was or where I was from, then finding the one person in my existence that gave life meaning.
The narrative eats at the heartstrings successfully, primarily due to Sam’s portrayal. Players scour various rooms, picking up postcards, reading notes, and examining photos, slowly unearthing Sam’s inner secrets. She monologues about her day-to-day toils, introducing her sharp wit and strong will, and giving those notes, photos, or drawings significance. It's obvious developer Fullbright worked tirelessly to arouse emotions with every pause, sigh, and sob. I pitied Sam. I wanted to tell her life gets better. Although Sam’s whereabouts became clear before breaching her inner sanctum (i.e. bedroom), the writing is adept at covering its tracks, too. In creeps the terror once again before all is said and done.
Dads giving friendship advice are among the most awkward adolescent moments.
The Greenbriars, however, are only half of what makes Gone Home special. Set in 1995, the house is as much a character as its inhabitants, a window into the past I never wanted to close. Computers, smart phones, DVD players? Sorry, kids. The TV Guide lists Full House and Boy Meets World air times, Street Fighter II arcade cabinets beckon new challengers at local 7-Elevens, and VHS tapes advocate old-school piracy with recordings of The X-Files, Airplane!, and Blade Runner.
Gone Home allowed me to project my own memories onto each scene as I searched under every bed, beneath every pillow, and behind every chair. Nearly every meaningful object can be grabbed and inspected, like a cassette tape and its hastily scrawled labels, the TV Guide’s legible catalog of shows, or a soda can’s nutritional facts. Gone Home exhibits texture details rarely seen, while the narrative gradually shifts from a story about life’s unavoidable hardships to one of hope and finding where in the universe one's heart lies. It might be a spoiler saying players will not have all the pieces to the puzzle by the end. The developers leave something to the imagination, and that is one mystery I completely understand.
Publisher: The Fullbright Company
Developer: The Fullbright Company
Release Date: August 15, 2013
Number of Players: 1 (Campaign)
Platforms: PC (Reviewed)