By GrantHeaslip 15 Comments
I grabbed Gone Home on sale a few weeks ago, and played it on a whim last night. I'll be honest, I came into the game sceptical, but I was intrigued enough by the buzz and divisiveness to want to see it for myself. It was about what I expected it to be, and I didn't expect very much. Simply put, it's a two hour game, and I was barely engaged enough to see it through.
The story was trite and predictable. I was aware that Sam was a lesbian going in, but I don't think that affected my experience one way or another given that they practically hit you over the head with it right off the bat. Once I'd seen the picture of Lonnie, spotted the conveniently-placed Bible, and heard the first handful of diary entries, I'd extrapolated a plot in my head, and I was almost entirely right. The only real dramatic tension came from the goofy false suicide leads, and I say "leads" because they come back to the same well at least twice
I know, it's not about the story, it's about the experience, but ruffling through a bunch of carefully-strewn clues wasn't an enjoyable, interesting, or even novel experience. It's been done before, and in the context of more interesting video game fictions. And considering this game essentially has one narrative tool, it's disappointing that it stumbles in the same way ambient video game storytelling so often does: the evidence is so clearly contrived that it undercuts the core conceit of the game. Sam clearly intended for you to find some of the stuff (which in and of itself is a questionable conceit -- why not just put it all in a folder for you?), but it's all so on-the-nose, so perfect, that it couldn't keep my disbelief suspended.
The diary writing itself was earnest to the point of reminding me of the young adult books on tape my Mom would take of from the library and dub for us, especially with the accompanying music. It actually reminded me so much of those books on tape that I'm sort of convinced that it was supposed to remind me of books on tape. That's not necessarily an insult -- the diary entries were the most charming part of the game -- but if we're talking about this game in terms of medium-transcending storytelling excellence, it probably shouldn't bring to mind books on tape I listened to when I was 8.
I also need to point out that the game ran like garbage despite not looking particularly great. My computer isn't a powerhouse -- I don't play many games on it -- but I know it's capable of screaming through games much better-looking than Gone Home. I'm guessing it hovered somewhere around 10-20 FPS, and on a few occasions it freaked out and got so slow I had to open the graphics menu to get it to reload the assets and clear up whatever logjam was going on. This wasn't a crippling issue as there's zero action, but it did hurt my experience, and the game shouldn't have shipped in such an unoptimized state.
If I had more in common with Gone Home culturally or experientially, it might have been able to get a grip on my emotional heartstrings, but good fiction shouldn't require pre-existing familiarity to function. And on the flip-side, there's a difference between familiarity and quality -- a story can speak directly to your experiences and still not be a good piece of fiction. So much of the praise for this game seems to revolve around little ancillary details like "Nintendo tapes", their VHS collection, and the depiction of Riot Grrrl culture. That stuff is neat, and I'm sure it hits very close to home for some people, but it's not a substitute for an interesting story, especially in a game that's all about the story.
I think Gone Home is an interesting thing. I can see what Fullbright was going for, and it seems like they mostly achieved it. I just don't think what they achieved is anywhere near as great as it's been made out to be.
P.S. We read Bottle Rocket Hearts in a literature class a few weeks ago, and if you're into Gone Home, you'll probably love it. It explores a lot of the same themes as Gone Home, but with way more subtlety and believability. I'm not dropping this reference simply to establish that I'm a better person than you for having read a book -- I only read it because it was part of a course, and I read embarrassingly little -- but rather to say that it's a standard by which I judged Gone Home, and Gone Home didn't compare favourably.