Gaming nomenclature has changed a lot since the industry’s inception. Entire genres that didn’t exist have cropped up and the idea that 3D didn’t just mean rasterized polygons has only recently been challenged with 3D-capable televisions and devices like the Oculus Rift. The one that’s most fascinating, however, is how we talk about completing a game.
Back when the task of playing a game was the unequivocal challenge of overcoming a series of obstacles that tested your skills (or quarter reserves or closing time of the local arcade or whatever), “beating” a game made sense. You beat that level, which in turn led to you beating the game. The word itself represented your ability to dominate the walls laid before you, to virtually climb them. You won, you defeated, you etc’d your way to the end of a litany of difficulties purposefully put in your way.
There are games now, though, that have a challenge beyond the twitch shot and the instinctive dodge. They exist less as a test against your mettle and more as a list of things to be done, a stack of checkboxes that, when ticked, sets off a series of experiences that culminates in you thinking of or feeling something. To The Moon. Dear Esther. Proteus. It wouldn’t be right or appropriate to say you “beat” any of these games. You wouldn’t say you beat that recipe for cheesecake, would you? The difference is that you don’t know that you’re making a cheesecake.
The question, then, is how to review a game of that sort? The already subjective nature of reviews (if you subscribe to the camp that reviews are, in fact, personal critiques and not objective buy-this-don’t-buy-that placards to be hung on a wall, which you should because the latter is absolute nonsense) is put even further under the lens of introspection. These games make you consider things outside of the game and move your contemplative state to yourself, examining why and how they managed to shake you up and let your emotions bubble over.
Gone Home, the first release from the Portland-based indie quartet The Fullbright Company, fits into this mold, but like any game that falls under that banner, it pushes and breaks through its bounds and forces you to reconsider a multitude of preconceptions about both the game and the medium as a whole. If contorted properly, Gone Home could fit within the confines of a first-person adventure game where pick things up and uncover secrets, but it quickly shatters such a constricting framework.
The entire game takes place within a single house in Portland, Oregon, one that you come home to after a year abroad in Europe. It’s 1995, you are Kaitlin Greenbriar, and you’ve arrived at a mysteriously empty house. The front door is locked, but there’s a note on it. Light flickering and rain pouring down outside, you see that it is addressed to you. It’s from a person named Sam, and whoever he or she is, they’re sorry for not being there to see you. But they’ve gone missing, and they don’t want you to find them.
This opening bit establishes much of what you’ll come to expect from Gone Home. All you have control-wise is WASD to move and the mouse to look, but you can press C to crouch and Shift to zoom. Much of what lies around you is interactive, so you can turn on and off the light, pick up and examine a cup, and open drawers and cupboards. And almost everything is of such a high fidelity in regards to texture that zooming in to read the letter is both natural and effective.
But the purpose of this scene is to set up what the game gives you, which is to say ample opportunity to connect and uncover all the dots you want. Only through looking at your baggage tags, for instance, do you know when, where, and who you are. Only through inference and context clues can you determine that Sam is either your brother or sister. It’s so incredibly important to the game that you pay attention to everything around you.
Its presentation, though, is what kills every single part of me. This house and this time and these people are so completely and disgustingly real that I felt almost voyeuristic in exploring this empty mansion. But a couple swift and neat narrative tricks (this is, after all, Kaitlin’s first time in this house, too) in the beginning implores and imbues you with the sense that this is your home because you family lives—or maybe lived—here. And eventually it felt like rediscovering a past that I’d long since forgotten, even though it was something I never knew to begin with.
Perhaps it’s because I grew up a child of the 90s. Born in 1987, a lot of the things strewn about the house are familiar to me: television listings with certain shows marked (Boy Meets World!), an abundance of VHS tapes labeled to denote pirated broadcast versions of my favorite movies, and so much more. There’s an old school answering machine, but still notes are left around the house with missed call messages. Glow in the dark stars are stuck to part of the ceiling. It triggers every single nostalgic mouse trap in my brain, snapping and popping not memories but emotions, not moments but experiences.
Still, the age of Kaitlin is far beyond what I was in 1995, but I did—err, still do—have a sibling. An older sister, in fact. So some of the bits and pieces of the relationship between Kaitlin and Sam (and definitely between them and their parents) ring many bells, some sharp and crisp while others are kind of fuzzy as if someone dampened their sound with a mitten. But the words delivered by each of the characters delivered by paper and voice in this odd and moving narrative are so realistic and pointed and purposeful and heartbreaking and like little nuggets of gold that I want to horde and never share with anyone.
It’s really hard to talk about this game without ruining it because the very act of playing it is what unravels the thread. You start pulling and keep pulling until the wrap is bare, and each little sliver of previously hidden secret becomes aired fact. Those are the checkboxes. Those are the steps to your cheesecake. Every single one runs in sequence and is intensely necessary. I can’t imagine skipping anything the game offers you because each missed element diminishes the final product. It’s not like choosing not to go after a piece of intel or picking up an audio log. These are the bricks and beams of the house’s foundation, and you don’t want to let it crumble.
But it’s also incredibly hard to ruin an emotion. I can tell you what it feels like to feel overjoyed and gutted all at once but you just won’t know what I mean until you feel it, too. And you may not even feel what I felt. Scott Nichols over at GameFront didn’t just draw parallels with the game’s story; he practically lived parts of it (it’s a bit of a spoilerish review, so maybe don’t read it until after you’ve played). Some folks I talked to that don’t have sibling experienced entirely different emotions than me by the end. It’s not like “I felt great after I finally shot the terrorist to save the world.” It’s a lot more someone reached into your heart, grabbed whatever they could find, and just started squeezing, ripping their way in.
That’s perhaps because there are so many stories to keep track of. This is a complex family with complex issues and full lives, each their own. This is not a video game family where everything they do focuses on your existence. You begin to unearth stirring secrets kept from each other, lingering love left unspoken, and so much more. Every person in the house and out of it, some not even in the same state, all have their own story that you begin to follow through crumpled up pieces of trash, bottles stashed away from view, and notes best hidden from prying eyes.
The agency afforded you as a player, though, is perhaps the greatest achievement in Gone Home. By allowing you to explore and discover at your own will, it gives the feeling that you own this particular story, that no one else will have this exact same experience. It made me feel like consequence outside of the game had permeated my play, where at any moment Sam could come through the door and ask why the hell I left all those lights on or why I didn’t close the front door. Whenever I picked something up, I would put it back exactly where I found it, an action facilitated by being able to click over where an object originated so it’ll snap back to its home. And if I found a lid off of a box, I would put it back. Every cabinet door closed.
Maneuvering things in this simplistic control scheme felt immensely powerful. If I picked up a purse, under it would be a pamphlet. If I picked up the pamphlet, under it would be a half torn note. And when I put it all back, Kaitlin would arrange it with the purse standing, pamphlet folded, and note half stashed away. It told me so much about both Kaitlin and the owner of all three objects. And good god, when you first pick up a cassette and put it in a cassette player.
Some problems certainly crop up, though. In the moment, it definitely felt odd that some notes would be lying about unattended to for over eight months. Why are there locked doors gating off major parts of the house like the dining room and laundry room? And by the end, it felt as if the overall story had pulled a few punches instead of going as far off the normative trail as the rest had gone, but what an incredibly paltry and inconsequential list of complaints for an otherwise breathtaking game.
How do you review a feeling? How do you put down into words with our finite alphabet something as grand and infinite as the human heart? A review that tells you what parts of a game work and don’t work can inform you if you want to take cover and shoot dudes or build cities in this particular way, but a review that tells you exactly which emotions it put in a cup, stirred, and poured out onto your porch holds value to exactly one person: the one who wrote it. All I can say that you should play Gone Home see if it can do the same for you. All I can say is that I didn’t beat Gone Home, but I certainly did finish it, but it’s far from finished with me.
+ Incredible detail for what made the 90s such an incredibly weird and amazing time (fuck yeah X-Files)
+ Ambient storytelling that scares, angers, and inspires you one at a time and all at once
+ An explicit narrative that is going to burrow deep inside of you and stay there for a long, long time
+ Sweet, sweet 90s punk music
– Some incongruous, anachronistic bits pertaining to the Sam story
Final Score: 9 out of 10
Game Review: Gone Home
Release: August 15, 2013
Genre: First-person story exploration
Developer: The Fullbright Company
Available Platforms: PC, Mac, Linux