Where the Heart Is
In the recent endeavours of interactive entertainment to bring us more human and relatable stories one area has gone significantly neglected, and that’s setting. We can all name a handful of games from the last couple of years in which the characters, plot, or dialogue touched us as people, but I can think of almost none in which the world of the game resembled the one we live in every day. The Fullbright Company’s Gone Home manages to fill this space perfectly, using nothing more than a humble family home to strike a powerful emotional chord with its audience.
The game is set in June, 1995 and has you step into the shoes of Kaitlin Greenbriar, a 21 year old college student who returns to her home in Portland, Oregon after a year of travelling. Unfortunately, her return is not met with the warm hugs and “It’s so good to have you back”s that she might expect as Kaitlin discovers her family missing and a note from one of them urging her not to try and work out where everyone went. Mechanically Gone Home is comparable to titles like Thirty Flights of Loving or Dear Esther, containing no actual gameplay and instead presenting a bare-bones experience where you wander around an environment in first-person, occasionally interacting with the objects around you. When these mechanics are combined with the narrative it’s striking how unique Gone Home is as a piece of entertainment.
On one level the game acts a mystery, having you poke around your family’s dusty, old abode, searching for clues as to their whereabouts. A little time with the game teaches you that there’s another more important level here though; it’s less about discovering where your family are, and more about discovering who they are. The game is supremely skilled at giving an impression of the Greenbriars as people, not just because the house is detailed enough to look like somewhere people actually live, as opposed to a compromised video game version of a house, but in no small part because it is a house. We all naturally leave an imprint of our personality in the way we decorate the spaces around us and in the things we leave behind, and the game understands that, letting every bedroom poster and cluttered desk play its own little part in painting a portrait of the family. You discover it all piece by piece, every new room turning over just a little bit more and a little bit more, leaving you compelled to keep playing.
A key tool in your exploration of these spaces is being able to pick up the countless objects scattered around them and rotate them with your mouse. This may not sound like much, but just turning over objects over in your hands really does give you a greater sense of familiarity with and attachment to the world around you. In addition to these 3D items, you will stumble across pages of text written by or to characters which can give some crucial backstory for them, but are equally as likely to simply reflect their quirky humour, loving tone, or some other endearing personality trait. Here and there you will also find journal entries that are read aloud to you by one of the characters, which through some exceptional vocal work by voice actress Sarah Grayson become perhaps the most gripping part of the game.
It must be said that Gone Home has impressive emotional range. At any given moment it can be happy, sad, funny, nostalgic, or unsettling, and it’s wonderful to see such variation in the way it tugs at your heartstrings, especially considering this all happens in the space of about two hours. However, the game does have a slightly bizarre tonal issue. From beginning to end it indulges in a considerable effort to lay out exploration of the house as a creepy experience, making the building feel desolate, filling it with the sound of creeks and periodic lightning crashes, and so on. For certain portions of the game this unnerving air works perfectly, reflecting among other things the natural emotions connected with coming home and finding your family missing, but other times it just gets in the way. You can find parts of the game trying to convey uplifting or sorrowful moments or letting you explore environments that would otherwise feel homey and honest, and yet awkwardly intruding on all of this you find the kind of atmosphere that would be far more at home in a horror game. It feels like if Gone Home could just drop this barrier and let some of its other genuinely emotionally provoking content speak through more, it would be far better off for it. For those who are concerned about the length-to-cost ratio of games, you should also be aware that Gone Home is a £15/$20 game that can be completed in about two hours even if you’re moving through it at a leisurely pace, although you’re likely to want to jump back in at least one more time to see it all again.
It’s hard to talk in any more detail about Gone Home without beginning to spoil the story itself, but I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that it stands up as one of the most powerful and experimental exercises in interactive storytelling to date. Just by wandering around the house and pouring through journal entries, you finish this game with the kind of clear mental picture of the Greenbriars that you don’t get from spending even hours with characters in most other games. While it’s occasionally undermined by an odd atmospheric choice, Gone Home is touching, memorable, and feels far more relevant to the lives of us as people than just about anything else I’ve played.