EDITOR’S NOTE: This review contains minor spoilers about plot points and game mechanics. I haven’t included anything game-ruining, but do be advised that there are points made about details that are below the surface of the game’s synopsis. If you’re worried, go play through the game and come back.
One of my favorite episodes of This American Life is the relatively old episode “House on Loon Lake“. Though Ira Glass found the episode to be a failure, it is totally successful because of the mystery it weaves. The episode’s host, Adam Beckman, tells a story about a house that he and his brother found in the fall of ’77. Inside, they discovered a perfect time capsule left behind in the late 30s: a billfold left on a nightstand with the owner’s glasses, flowers left to whither and die, an invitation to a dance. It seemed that the house’s inhabitants have simply evaporated, mid-life. The reality of the family that lived there is much more mundane than one might hope, but the journey from point A to B makes the episode wholly satisfying. One can imagine walking the hallways and feeling the weight of the life that once inhabited the space, which for some reason simply stopped. As the listener, you’re forced to ask yourself: what would you do, if you found that house? Would you try and unravel that mystery? Just how far would you go to figure out what went wrong?
In Gone Home, the debut game from Portland’s Fullbright Company, you’re given the task of doing exactly that. Returning home from Europe after a year abroad on an outrageously stormy night, Katie Greenbriar (that’s you!) discovers a troublesome note on the door: “Please, please don’t go digging through the house trying to find out where I am. I don’t want anyone to find out. We’ll see each other again some day. Don’t be worried. I love you.” Anyone who says they could resist the urge to ignore the request to not snoop around is plain-and-simple lying. The mechanics of this game are incredibly simple, but equally satisfying: you are tasked with entering your family’s house and scouring each and every single corner, trying to piece together what’s happened. As you walk through the darkened house, you get the sense that something is about to jump out at you, and it takes constant remembering to hold onto the fact that you’re just in a house, and there is absolutely no danger. The game’s creators don’t make this easy, mind you: though each and every horror trope they incorporate is eventually subverted – from the lights that flicker or go out entirely, to the upstairs bathtub covered in red splatters – you constantly get a sense that the game itself is toying with you, if only a little bit. The darkness of the game feels absolutely real, and there were sections of the game where I had to bide my time while gathering up the courage to go into the darker areas of the game – I’m looking directly at you, basement.
(It should be noted that the game features an optional modifier to allow you to start the game with all of the lights turned on – but where’s the fun in that?)
One of the most satisfying aspects of Gone Home is the exploration. Approximately 95% of the environment is open to being picked up and examined up close, from copies of your father’s books to the notes and scraps left scattered throughout the Greenbriar house. These artifacts tell the stories of each and every character so remarkably well, and they do it without saying a word. By the end of the game, I wanted to know so much more about the heads of this household and their marital struggles, but I feel like I already know about the entirety of their lives just by examining the things they’ve left in drawers. You learn about their jobs, about their relationships, about their hobbies – every minute detail, and these characters are never onscreen. The locations of objects can be an equally powerful story, be it a rejection letter in a liquor cabinet, or a seemingly hastily discarded Earth, Wind, and Fire ticket. If the storytelling of the game were to stop here, the game would be a complete success.
Underneath all of the tissue boxes and clipped coupon booklets, we find the undisputed star of the game: your sister, Sam. On the surface, she’s a typical 90s teenager. She listens to Bratmobile and Heavens to Betsy (both of whom are featured prominently in the game, leaving “Cool Schmool” stuck in my head for days), and does rebellious things with her friends when she gets a chance. But, as you interact with the environment and the objects therein, you trigger journal entries from Sam’s point of view: you’re with her every step of the way, as she copes with moving to a new school, finding herself through another, and coping with the possible ramifications of hew own realizations. These journals can be triggered by anything, without much warning, and each find is more satisfying than the last. Portland’s Sarah Robertson’s understated performance as Sam steals the show here, leaving you deeply affected by her story, and wanting desperately to know that, after everything is done, things turn out alright for her. As the heroine of the game, you get the sense that your absence meant that a driving force in your sister’s life was missing, which makes her own emotional journey all that much more difficult. I’m not necessarily sure if you can truly care for a character that never once occupies the same space as your character, but even if it isn’t, I felt myself wanting to reach out and tell her, “It’s all going to be alright very soon.”
Gone Home is a game that does not beg for your adoration or attention. There is more than one way to play the game: you can choose, by way of pre-game modifiers, to unlock all of the doors in the house, and turn off those journal entries altogether (author’s note: don’t do this), allowing you to roam the house in any way that you want, and piece together the events that unfolded yourself. During my first complete playthrough I chose to unlock the doors, which allowed me to feel unconstrained by my own curiosity. That said, I suggest that you play through the game unmodified, but make absolutely sure that you scour every corner and every wall in the house. And for your own sake, make sure you find the 24th journal entry.
One of the best things about this game is that it is, quite simply, totally unexpected. I’ve spent a lot of time this year talking about my adoration for Bioshock Infinite, but here I find myself enthralled by a game that is as far removed from that world as I can possibly get: a world that’s a little like my own past. We live in an amazing time for video games, where people feel comfortable telling the kind of story you experience in Gone Home. In around three hours of gameplay, I felt myself becoming connected to the ghosts in the life of Katie Greenbriar, and slowly came to terms with the fact that Katie herself was, in her own way, haunting her family with her absence without them even realizing it. It takes a game like this one to realize that we should be done with the “are video games art?” argument, because – if I’m honest with myself – it has been a long time since any piece of “real art” affected me as deeply as this little game did.