As the videogame industry has developed in recent years, developers have increasingly experimented with different ways of using interaction to tell a cohesive story in games. This is especially true with recent titles such as Heavy Rain, Beyond: Two Souls, Journey, The Stanley Parable, and now the Fullbright Company’s Gone Home. Gone Home rests itself on a simple premise: You’ve finally come home after spending a year abroad to find your house empty and have no idea where your family is. The task as the player character is to then explore the house and piece together the story as to what happened to your family and the house since you left using just what you find around the house. The resulting game uses this really unique way of story telling to create a truly memorable experience.
As a game, Gone Home has very minimal mechanics and yet completely takes advantage of games as a medium. Environmental exploration and collectibles, which in other games are put aside to their respective game’s main mechanics, are featured here as the main mechanic and actually work really well. Exploring the house is extremely important and Fullbright did an amazing job setting up the atmosphere of the game. After you’ve arrived in the dead of one stormy night, walking around an empty house feels incredibly eerie. The environment is not quite scare but it still always feels really tense and unnatural. The game is set in the 1990’s, which is pretty unique in videogames but was probably done so they could have a modern setting and not have the issue of “why don’t the characters use cell phones” conflict with the story.
Throughout the game you’ll find a lot of letters that give you more of the story and also keys that unlock more parts of the house. My only complaint about Gone Home is that it doesn’t go far enough in its experimental style of game mechanics and story telling. When you pick up objects, they fill the screen and you can move it around to look all around it. However, when you look at notes and letters scattered around the house, they fill the screen in a slightly different way that you can’t interact with or move around. The problem is that notes and letters are the things that clue you in on more of the story of what exactly happened at your house and regular objects barely reveal anything more than what kind of people your family members are, and those regular objects (i.e. a box of pencils or a tissue box) don’t need to be able to be picked up to accomplish that. It would’ve been just a little better if both these types of items were presented in the same style, because then it would’ve given a purpose to the whole mechanic of picking up and looking at anything other than notes and letters.
Also, whilst Gone Home does utilize its exploration-based storytelling to a great extent, most of the actual story of what happened is told through the use of audio diaries that play when you find certain items across the house. And while the audio diaries do tell a very deep story, it just doesn’t exactly take advantage of videogames as a medium to the extent that the premise promises. Ideally, there wouldn’t be any audio diaries and the player could gather the whole story from scraps around the house in a nonlinear fashion and also get the whole story. This problem is only enhanced with the mechanic of finding keys that unlock further parts of the house. While the key-finding mechanic is not inherently detrimental to a nonlinear game, adding the audio diaries does create a somewhat linear way of having to experiencing the whole story. And again, while linearity and audio diaries are not inherently detrimental to any game, it causes Gone Home to fall short of the promise of a completely non-linear exploration-based game.
The story itself is where Gone Home really shines. As you explore the house and look at things around the house, you eventually come to realize that your adolescent little sister is actually in an increasingly serious lesbian relationship with another girl. In addition, the protagonist’s mom is actually having an affair with another man, and so the parents have actually went to a couples retreat to help spark their relationship again during their anniversary. Both of these topics, homosexuality and promiscuous relationships are topics rarely explored in videogames so it’s really interesting to see a very personal take on these topics in an interactive medium. The story told through the audio diaries is really top notch and one of the most intimate stories in all of videogames.
The problem with the main story of the sister’s homosexuality and discovering who she is is that its mostly told through audio diaries, which don’t take advantage of games as a medium as much as the promise of Gone Home’s premise. If you listen to all the audio diaries straight through, you can pretty much get the whole story without having to play anything. The story of the mother and father’s relationship, however, is told exclusively through things you find in the house so it’s a little better in that respect. The sister’s story is way more memorable though, so maybe they had the right idea all along. There’s also a side plot of the main character’s great uncle haunting the house, but it doesn’t lead anywhere nor add anything and seems like its only included to capitalize on and enhance the natural eeriness of the situation. If anything, the juxtaposition of the serious and intimate storylines of the sister’s discovering her sexuality with a ghost story of your dead uncle slightly detracts from the overall experience.
Gone Home is a great game that makes a lot of interesting experimental gameplay decisions to tell a very powerful heartfelt story. It makes great strides towards the promise of a completely nonlinear story-driven game completely told through collectibles, but it unfortunately doesn’t quite reach that promise. What the game does accomplish, however, is pretty close and combined with the deeply personal and well-told story, Gone Home creates a truly unique and memorable experience.