Gone Home Review
Environmental storytelling at its finest, Gone Home is less fascinated with the “how” than the “why,” “when,” and “where,” as well as remarkably fresh not for what it includes, but for what it excises. Guns? Absent. Regenerating health? Nope. Boogeymen waiting for the next jump scare? Well, the atmosphere is unsettling, just not fatal. For a narrative that totally disarms its main character, then, you would never guess that Gone Home’s scariest feature is how deeply moved you may be.
After a year of traveling across Europe, Kaitlin Greenbriar returns to the States to find her family’s home empty, the sight of the manor palpably unwelcome. Since her parents changed residences during her classes abroad, Katie is as much a stranger on Arbor Hill as the player. Even worse, upon reaching the front door, Katie finds a note from her younger sister, Sam, with disconcerting news. Sam has disappeared. Why? Where to? While she says no one should worry, any horror fanatic knows that line is immediate cause for concern. Katie finally peers inside, the foyer’s flickering light her only greeting.
While Gone Home’s ominous setup matches Slender: The Arrival, no dangers lurk within its walls. Instead, a mystery lies ahead. Where is everybody? What happened during Katie’s sabbatical? As players rifle through boxes, bedrooms, and bathrooms, a year’s worth of familial troubles provides much-needed answers. Katie’s father was a published author. Now, unsold books and crumpled manuscripts haunt his study. Paintings and notes depict her mother as a loving spouse, but secret letters point towards unfaithful outings. And Sam, the most conflicted of all, struggles with her independence, sexuality, and rebellious personality, yearning for acceptance.
Ironically, judging a book by its cover almost ruined Gone Home for me. I likened Sam to a turbulent teenager going through average pubescent pains, but rummaging through their household, my connection to the Greenbriars grew. Having his sense of journalistic worth built up, then deflated, I know Mr. Greenbriar’s agony, though my ex-girlfriend could write novellas about cheating. And yet, the issues I dealt with most were the fear of moving into a strange house, transferring to a different school, and trying to find where I fit in while learning how shallow adolescents can be. I remember nobody caring what my name was or where I was from, then finding the one person in my existence that gave life meaning.
The narrative eats at the heartstrings successfully, in part thanks to Sam’s portrayal. Players scour various rooms, picking up postcards, reading notes, and examining photos, slowly unearthing Sam’s inner secrets. She monologues about her day to day toils too, introducing her sharp wit and strong will, and giving those notes, photos, or drawings significance. It's obvious that the developers worked tirelessly to rend emotions with every captured pause, sigh, and sob. I pitied Sam; I wanted to tell her life gets better. Although Sam’s whereabouts became clear before breaching her inner sanctum (her bedroom), the writing is also adept at covering its tracks. In creeps the terror once again before all is said and done.
The Greenbriars, however, are only half of what makes Gone Home special. Set in 1995, the house ‒ the setting ‒ is as much a character as its inhabitants, a window into the past I never wanted to close. Computers, smart phones, DVD players? Sorry, kids. The TV Guide outlines Full House and Boy Meets World air times, Street Fighter II arcade cabinets beckon new challengers at local 7-Elevens, and VHS tapes advocate old-school piracy with recordings of The X-Files, Airplane!, and Blade Runner.
Gone Home allowed me to project my own memories onto each scene as I searched under every bed, beneath every pillow, behind every chair. Nearly every meaningful object can be grabbed and inspected, like a cassette tape and its hastily scrawled labels, the TV Guide’s legible listing of shows, or a soda can’s nutritional facts. Gone Home exhibits texture details rarely seen, while the narrative gradually shifts from a story about life’s unavoidable hardships to one of hope and finding where in the universe one's heart lies. It might be a spoiler saying players will not have all the pieces to the puzzle by the end. The developers leave something to the imagination, and that is one mystery I completely understand.
Originally written for WikiGameGuides.com.