Unkempt hair. Flannel shirts. Grunge music. Do these sound familiar to you? If your answer is yes, welcome back to the 90’s! If you have no clue what I’m talking about, feel free to explore Gone Home, a game set in that specific period of time – actually, it’s set smack in the middle of that decade. Yes, you will find yourself among some (almost) forgotten tech: VHS and cassette tapes and bulky answering machines. You might even find yourself headbanging to the game’s garage band soundtracks. Of course, there is more to this game than just a trip back in time. The key is exploration; in this game, it’s up to you to discover the truth about the people whom you thought you knew very well.
Gone Home is one of those first-person exploration games that focus mainly on story, mood and art. It’s been categorized as a “story adventure game”, as an “interactive exploration simulator” by its own creators, and sometimes even as an “interactive graphic novel” by others. You get to play as Katie Greenbriar, a twenty-something-year-old who has just arrived in her family’s newly-inherited Arbor Hill mansion (a.k.a. the “psycho house”). Your family is not there to welcome you, though. Ah, the mystery. Worse: you find out that your 17-year-old sister Sam is missing. So you search around the unfamiliar house for clues.
You will not be bothered by complex puzzles in Gone Home. Nor will you be inundated by difficult game controls. Just walk around and do as you would had Arbor House been your real home. So go ahead and open all the drawers. Enter the kitchen and go through the fridge. You can even try opening your sister’s locker. The way to navigate in the house is by hitting the arrow buttons. I actually panicked for 2 seconds because I thought you can only use the arrows to walk around. For a right-handed person, handling the mouse and using the arrow buttons would have been tiring (not to mention awkward). Fortunately, us right-handed folks won’t be subjected to that torture; W-A-S-D are just as effective. Besides, getting around is really a no-brainer. If you know how to punch keys and click on stuff, you’re good to go. So you know what? Forget about the mechanics; just focus on the most important aspect of Gone Home: its story.
Early on in the game you uncover clues that will lead you to think the house is haunted: dark rooms, flickering lights, the mention of it being a “psycho house”. There’s a storm brewing outside, too, so every now and then you hear thunder. And what is Sam hiding in the attic that she does not want your parents to know?
But this game is no Amnesia; it’s not even close to Serena. There is nothing in the game that can kill you. It’s just a house, it’s just thunder, and you can definitely turn on the lights. What I like about this game is that the house looks very much like a regular house, like yours or mine. Fear is not the name of the game, but everything about it suggests that something could be lurking amidst the familiar. From the harsh lighting in the TV room to the all-too-perfect facial expressions in the Greenbriar portrait, the atmosphere in the house is enough to make you feel suspicious and distrustful. Even the cassette tracks talk about rejection and rebellion (smells like teenage angst to me). However, it is precisely these awful, uncomfortable feelings – the suspicion, distrust, rejection – that destroy families from within. In search for her family, especially for Sam, Katie has to confront the way her they have handled their issues. It is only until Katie goes through every single room in the house will she find out (and perhaps accept?) the truth about her sister.
The Moment of Truth: Should you play this game?
My views about this game are mixed. I mean, I do love the game; it addresses important social issues in an engaging and immersive way. At the same time, though, I want to avoid categorizing Gone Home as a real “video game”. If I do call it a “video game” in the traditional sense of the term, then I’d be forced to give it a low rating. Yes, Gone Home is technically playable — that is, you get control the main character and you interact with her environment. However, it doesn’t go any further than that in terms of game controls and playability. You don’t win or lose; you just explore. They could have at least made the clue-hunting process more challenging. Still, while the lack of brain-squeezing puzzles is disappointing, the storyline makes this game is highly thought-provoking. The characters are relatable — most of us know a Sam or Katie in our lives. With the digital world become more and more visual and interactive, I guess it’s unavoidable to come up with a new way of storytelling; the kind regular people from Katie’s time — a couple of decades ago — would not have been able to experience. It does not matter, though. Times may have changed since then but there are still kids today who are dealing with the kind of issues Sam is dealing with. Indeed, Gone Home has very powerful storytelling, and for most people that makes up for its uncomplicated gameplay. So should you play this game? Sure, if you want to do “read” a novel the 21st-century way.
View the launch trailer here:
Screenshots used in this post have been taken from Gone Home‘s official website and Steam page. Official launch trailer and Riot Grrl teaser trailer have been borrowed from The Fullbright Company’s YouTube channel.