Home isn't always the way you left it
Hand written letters, tube TVs, cassettes of grating underground garage punk playing from boom boxes, a VHS collection featuring X-Files episodes and double features such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Fugitive… Yep, it’s the 90s alright.
It’s 1995. You are Katie Greenbriar and you’ve just arrived at your family’s new home with no one there to greet you after you’ve spent a year in Europe. In roughly two hours you’ll learn a lot about Katie’s parents and even more about her younger sister, Sam who is still in high school. The central part of the story revolves around her and her adaptation to moving while her big sister was away, but there is a lot more going on alongside that central story.
Basically, Gone Home is an extravagant scavenger hunt. You wander the house picking up various objects, and when you pick up one of the right objects the story advances. It doesn’t get much more complicated than picking up, examining and putting back notes, pictures, books and the like. There is a lot of detail put into these things. Handwritten notes and drawings help reveal the personalities of the characters who wrote them, and callbacks to the 90s and pre-internet age are everywhere.
Some objects have special text associated with picking them up, such as “Man, Sam had this in the 4th grade.” It’s a simple and clever way to give additional relatable context to objects, and it also gives Katie some personality by showing what stands out to her while also distinguishing what she probably already knows from what she is learning.
The minimalist approach to gameplay works well for the story Gone Home is telling. It is ingeniously dressed up as a horror game. It even plays tricks that keep you thinking it is a sheep in wolf’s clothing, but it is about as creepy as actually exploring a seemingly abandoned house, that you’ve never been in, in the middle of the night, during a raging thunderstorm, and by that I mean, it’s all in your head.
To be sure, there is something otherwise eerie and unsettling about the whole experience. Because of how real the story is and the way it unfolds, it might even be horrifying. The house holds its secrets and it's up to you to unravel the mystery, regardless of if you like what you're finding out.
It’s easy to think you’ll come home and everything will be just how it was when you left, but it often isn’t. That is what makes Gone Home so appealing. Beyond the new house, you get the short version of what can happen in a year, making it that much more alarming to learn what you do. In just two hours you’re filled in on what everyone in your family has struggled with for the past year while you were off having the time of your life. It is a different kind of narratively driven experience. Its subtle, ambiguous direction means you’ll get out of it what you put into it and that only helps Gone Home leave that much more of a lasting impression.