Beta’d Review: GONE HOME is a Hauntingly Real Family Mystery
by Dan Casey on August 22, 2013
Warning: This review may contain minor spoilers, so please read on at your own peril. Or, better yet, go buy the game, play it, then read this review.
The short review: A powerful experiment in storytelling, Gone Home is a hauntingly real, emotionally charged adventure that is over all too soon but continues to resonate with the player long after the credits roll.
The long review: Every once and a while, a game comes along that is such a palate cleanser, such a shock to the system in all the right ways that it gets you genuinely excited to be a gamer again. I’ve been fortunate enough to feel that several times over the past year or two in titles like The Walking Dead, Heavy Rain, and Mass Effect, and now again in The Fullbright Company’s Gone Home. As I get older, I’m finding that I’m putting a premium on immersive storytelling, compelling characters, and the degree to which player choice affects gameplay. Obviously, I’m aware that player choice is something of a cipher, a means to give us a sense of agency over our actions while still guiding us along a generally pre-programmed path, but certain titles manage to make the player feel as though they have a tangible effect on how the story plays out, and Gone Home is no exception.
Set in the Pacific Northwest in 1995, Gone Home is a single-player adventure game about a young woman, Kaitlin Greenbriar, that returns home from traveling abroad in Europe to find that her family is nowhere to be found. Not her sister, Samantha. Not her parents. No one. You know how when you get home at night and you’re the only one home in a dark, empty house, how you get that simultaneous mixture of relief to be home and terror at what unknown horrors might lurk in the dark? Gone Home captures this all too familiar sensation beautifully and manages to sustain it for the game’s duration. Even as you turn on a light switch or close a closet door, you’re never quite sure what could happen next and it keeps the player on edge.
The core gameplay revolves around exploring your giant empty house and trying to piece together just where the heck your family went. As you poke around the house, opening drawers and finding Clue-like secret passages in the massive old place, you find letters from your sister Samantha in the form of journal entries detailing her difficulties fitting in at school after moving into “The Psycho House,” correspondences between your father Terry – a struggling author – and his publisher, and notes between your mother – a forest service ranger – and her longtime friend. Have you ever read someone else’s diary or a letter written to them? It feels like a violation of privacy, but it’s also compelling stuff, and thankfully the game does not judge you for looking. Through these fragments, you start to build relationships with these characters and trace the arc of what happened to each family member in the time that you’ve been gone. What you find is a profoundly real portrayal of the Greenbriar family and their trials and travails.
Most compelling of all the story arcs though is the tale of Samantha, who had a tough time of it at school in your absence, and Lonnie, the cool punk rocker in an army uniform that she meets at school. The game beautifully captures the sensations of youth, the sort of deific power we attribute to music in our formative years, and chronicles a friendship so intense it seems destined to burn out and explode like a dying star. It is worth noting that Sam is the only character apart from Kaitlin whose actual voice we hear. As you search around the house, you find Sam’s diary entries, which play out in the form of audio logs, which are alternately sweet and heartwrenching. The game’s writers really tapped into a sort of primal quality in the teenage experience that draws you in and compels you to keep searching. Without giving too much away – it’s best if you go into the experience with as little knowledge as possible – it is their story that drives the majority of the action and keeps the tension level at a fever pitch.
My biggest complaint about Gone Home is its price point, which I realize is somewhat petty of me, but it’s for a good reason. Gone Home was one of the most enjoyable, intense and immersive gameplay experiences I’ve had in a while, but when all was said and done, it was only about a four hour experience for $17.99. While that may be on par with your average movie ticket, it is still a bit higher than I’d expected to pay for an indie game, especially one that isn’t exactly bursting with replay value. Compared to Telltale’s The Walking Dead, which charges $5 a pop for roughly 2.5 hours of content, it seems like highway robbery. If they lowered the price to $10-12, I think many potential customers complaints would be assuaged, and it wouldn’t deter your average consumer who might see that figure as being too high.
At the end of the day, though, the folks at the Fullbright Company have pulled off something of a coup with Gone Home, creating a tactile, intensely personal and eerily realistic experience that is not to be missed. Hell, I’m an only child, and I was drawn into the human dramas and tragedies of the Greenbriar family. This is the kind of game that reminds me why I love the medium as a tool for storytelling, and, if you’re not deterred by the price, I cannot recommend it enough.
For an in-depth discussion with the Fullbright Company, listen to the most recent Indoor Kids podcast. Have you played the game? What did you think? Do you have your own theories about what happened? Lord knows I have an awful lot to say about Terry and Oscar, Terry and his father, Sarah and Lonnie, you name it. Let us know in the comments below, but please be so kind as to use spoiler tags so as not to ruin it for your uninitiated fellow gamers.