You Can Do Better
HIGH Understanding where a particular post-it note message came from.
LOW Seeing all the arcs come together in the same general area.
WTF So, is the idea here that Sam stole these clothes?
Gone Home is a game built around the idea that every house tells a story. Made by a now-independent team of people who had a hand in designing BioShock 2's excellent Minerva's Den add-on, Gone Home is of a piece with the contemplative finale of that adventure—it's a quiet, unchallenged meander through a space that tells a story.
"Tells" is the problem.
Katie Greenbriar has just arrived from a months-long trip in Europe, to a house she's never seen before, in the middle of a downpour. While she was away her parents and younger sister Sam moved into the old family mansion previously inhabited by her great-uncle. Her family isn't there for her homecoming, however.
To find out where they've gone to and why, Katie has to explore the house and find clues. There's no peril here, nor any scares aside from the ordinary sort of creepiness that comes from walking around a large, empty, poorly-wired house at night. Despite the storm, the power never goes out, so it's not even necessary to hunt up a flashlight or batteries.
The challenge of the game, if it can be seen that way, is in discovering the correct items to tell the story of Katie's family. In the tradition of found-object storytelling, the right things consist mainly of notes, letters, and other scraps. There are audio logs as well; entries from Sam's diary that play when Katie finds something relevant like a flyer or a bottle of hair dye.
It might seem difficult to find the right things in the messy house—Katie's family seems to have been in it for almost a year without fully unpacking, or even tucking still-packed boxes out of sight. Important items tend to be reasonably well signposted, though, and any systematic search of the house should turn them all up. By designing Gone Home with this in mind and by blocking off certain areas with locks, the developers have even ensured that the storytelling items show up in (roughly) the right order.
The main story being told is Sam's, and she's the only voice the player will hear, but the materials in the house offer up narratives for the mother and father as well. Strangely, all three arcs follow the same pacing—the conflict, climax, and resolution of all three seem to appear in the same places. The house links space and time in a way that feels too pat and drains Gone Home of a sense of mystery it could have really used. Although the mansion seems messy, the distribution of materials that reveal its intertwined arcs is all too orderly.
Because finding and arranging the narrative is so convenient, Gone Home feels like a story that's being shown to me, rather than one I'm piecing together myself. That's a real shame, because the game is at its best when it steps back and lets its world breathe. The understanding I drew from connecting a note here to a post-it there, from reading about a transformation in one of Sam's stories, or connecting a calendar full of scratched-out activities to a classroom note, was much more valuable and engaging to me than the plot the game read out for me.
A lot of that has to be laid at the feet of the medium. Had this game appeared in the year when it's set, it would be a shining example everyone would point to as proof of the potency of audio logs. In this day, however, found-object storytelling feels like an exhausted mechanic. While Gone Home tinkers with that formula a bit, it doesn't succeed in rejuvenating it. Having a game read its story to me feels lifeless and overly declarative, especially when that's essentially all there is.
That's a pity, because Gone Home tells an affecting, personal story about realistic, human characters. I felt for them—sympathy for their pain, pleasure at their happiness, and even a moment of real fear when I wasn't quite sure what one of Sam's later entries meant. Even though the player and Katie are in much the same position, however, the game feels too much like listening to dictation. I appreciated the story, but didn't feel a part of it. As wonderful as Gone Home is, it mostly demonstrates that there's still a long way to go.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via retail download and reviewed on a home-built Windows 7 PC equipped with an Intel i7 processor, 8 GB RAM, and a single Radeon 6800 HD-series. Approximately three hours of play was devoted to single-player modes (completed twice).
Parents: As of press time this game has not been rated by the ESRB. Gone Home contains adult themes concerning adultery and sexuality, and alcohol references. There is no violence, gore, or explicit sex. I would probably rate the game E10, with the caveat that teenagers and up are more likely to get something out of it.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: Gone Home is completely playable without sound. Voiceovers are accompanied by subtitles, and much of the material is written anyway. Certain environmental sounds, especially the music, are valuable to the experience of the game and are not conveyed by any on-screen element.
Currently Sparky works as a scientist in Rhode Island, and works gaming in between experiments and literature reviews. As a writer, he hopes to develop a critical voice that contributes to a more sophisticated and interesting culture of discourse about games. He is still waiting for a console port of Betrayal at Krondor.