Gone Home could be the experience that helps you solidify your stance concerning interactive exploration games that emphasise story over gameplay. You’ll ostensibly either find an appreciation for the concept, as a result of the game’s incredible execution within the parameters of the genre, or you’ll discover that you internally loathe a game that’s so self-limiting. Several articles, opinions, and comments now litter the internet either demanding Gone Home to be considered an achievement, or crying foul while insisting it’s not even a video game in the first place. Despite this apparent polarity, Gone Home delivers so exquisitely on nearly everything it sets out to achieve that it’s difficult to imagine a fan of the genre being disappointed.
Gone Home is a first person exploration game that takes place in the confines of one house. The player immediately listens to an audio message from a female who informs her parents that she is on her way home. Everything else within the introduction is shrouded in mystery. In the beginning, the player hasn’t been informed from whom the voicemail originated, why the player is at this house, or even who they are. The player is allowed to make inferences as details become more and more apparent, but there’s always a hint of ambiguity and this plays greatly into the setting of the game.
The mysterious scenery is further complemented by remarkable audio design. Voice-over, sound effects, and the soundtrack are all well implemented and fitting for the environment. Floor boards creaking below you and distant lightning cracks heighten tension. At times, there’s a similar feeling to being a kid sitting around the camp fire listening to a scary story as your senses become more cognizant of your surroundings. In this regard, the audio becomes an essential part that completes the package. Visually, the developers shift attention concerning quality from realism to environmental storytelling. Instead of aiming for technological merit, the presentation is nailed by the details, and ultimately encases you within a superbly well crafted atmosphere.
In Gone Home, you’re not just searching through someone’s home looking for clues, you’re getting to know everyone who lives within. The house and all of its detail become a window into who this family is. You eventually learn about their careers, interests, secrets, even their personalities. Only a small amount of this is actually told to the player as most of it is shown. Much of the narrative is revealed by the scenery and the items scattered within. It’s environmental storytelling at its most sophisticated.
The clutter and contents of each desk tell a tale relating to its owner; each item communicates information from indications of previous use; every locked drawer not only provides a small puzzle for the player, but serves as a sign that someone has something to hide. Gone Home is a tour de force regarding the importance of subtlety. These nuances display creative elegance and keep the gameplay from becoming monotonous. Despite it’s desolate condition at the time of the player’s arrival, it feels lived in and ever changing beyond the scope of what is seen. Nearly everything seems misplaced yet it becomes apparent that nothing settled into place without the result of someone’s actions.
Upon further analysis, I realised this is the way environmental storytelling is meant to be. Without this attention to detail, the atmosphere would not stand out as such an achievement and the tale being told would not be as memorable. This statement may be blatantly obvious but when it’s carried out to this degree of quality, it’s easy to become lost in the world and live in the experience along with the protagonist. This sense is heightened in Gone Home even further as direct result of the narrative.
Despite all of this, the game isn’t going to be for everyone. If you’ve ever used the words “walking simulator” with even a hint of scoff in your voice, you’re probably not going to like Gone Home. You ploddingly explore, pick up items, read notes, and not much else. This game heavily focuses on story both in gameplay and presentation. Therefore, if the player is not fully invested into the narrative or characters, gameplay could seem like a chore. Personally, I enjoyed this as a result of the developer’s skilful execution although I understand that many people may not feel the same toward the end of their journey.
After finishing the game, there were so many things that left me with a deep desire to dig deeper into the lives of those involved. I immediately felt the need to speak with friends about the game. The main story wasn’t even my favourite aspect. Things that I considered to be minute bits of information stuck with me after the conclusion. I had realisations well after finishing the game. I read multiple articles regarding reactions, interpretations, and theories. I also spoke with others regarding their perspectives of various information that they may or may not have uncovered. This is the type of reaction I always hope to happen upon completing a game, but it almost never does. With Gone Home, I was craving more.
Gone Home has made me realise that there is a genre of video games that I had perhaps not given a fair shake before. It has also helped reassert my belief that video games don’t always have to fit into a fixed perspective of entertainment. After rereading this review, I know I may sound a bit overzealous, but perhaps these realisations lend credibility to my appreciation for my experience.
Not since playing Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons have I believed a game marries the concepts of story and ludology so seamlessly. The combination of narrative, gameplay, and atmosphere create a developmental ark regarding the story/protagonist that almost perfectly matches the experience of the player. Obviously this could be argued as each game is a subjective experience but Fullbright deceptively designed progression to help structure pacing within the game from which it is tough to deviate. I believe everyone should at least sit down with Gone Home and give it a try even if they don’t typically enjoy “walking simulators.”
Still a Modern Classic
A succinct yet emotionally dense tale set against an atmospheric backdrop that should make bigger budget titles envious.