Safe, emotional and unoffensive, Gone Home does it just right.
I’m not one to shy away from games that focus on exploration and discovery, like your Minecraft’s or your Terraria’s or your action games, but in these cases, said exploration brings you rewards like treasure or upgrades; rewards that improve your character and gives you reason to go out of your way to locate them. When it comes to finding rewards that merely give you plot or story points however, my drive begins to wane since your character or your player abilities aren’t improved. You’re merely learning lore or backstory which, unless I’m invested in the game’s world or characters, doesn’t hold my interest for very long. Whether this is the fault of myself or the game’s storytelling I don’t know, but it’s often the reason why point n’ click, adventure or dialogue driven games often go right over my head. Not because they’re at all bad, but my investment in them was already checked at the door. Gone Home however is entirely story-driven, and I found myself wanting to see its tale to the end (and not just because I was doing a recorded playthrough of it!).
Gone Home requires you to hunt down and discover story elements, since when you first arrive at the Greenbriar home you find it vacant and must discover why, having no knowledge of the family starting off. This information is revealed slowly by discovering various clues around the house, a majority of them in the form of notes or memos, often attached to things for further emphasis. Some clues however will trigger an audio file by Samantha (she’s referred to as Sam in the game so the same will be done for this review), the player character’s younger sister, who reads aloud from her journal about things going on in her life, around the house or with the family. The more clues I discovered and the more audio excerpts from Sam’s journal I unlocked, I began to put the pieces together that this wasn’t exactly a happy family, and soon an unconscious switch was tripped in my brain that suddenly made me want to ‘solve’ the mystery behind the empty house and why the Greenbriar’s were divided across all fronts.
What’s genius about actively looking for these clues or audio pieces is that paths through the house are locked, so keeping an eye out for keys results in peeking into drawers, rummaging through waste baskets and generally investigating each room of the house carefully which, like it or not, means you’ll find more story elements that could be minor, major, or are not relevant but breathe in a few welcome sighs of realism, like a pillow fort in the TV room with a pizza box and discarded soda cans nearby. Soon you’ll discover some smaller side stories within the family, like Janice (the mother) and a new colleague, Terrance (the father) and his struggling hobby. These don’t add very much to the overall plot, but I viewed them as side-quests more than anything else. You can’t just rip through the house like a bat out of hell without natural curiosity taking hold, and for someone with a slight completionist streak in me, I felt like I had to 100% the game mentally by finding everything I could. The satisfaction of knowing everything about the main story and side plots hasn’t tingled the back of my brain since playing the first Pheonix Wright game.
And then there’s Sarah Grayson, the voice actress for Sam. The occasional mistake of breathing a bit too closely into the microphone or popping of breath aside, Grayson brings an eerie level of comfort in her performance, since she’s the only voice you’ll be hearing in this spooky, big house. Her performance brought out sympathy in me when Sam talked about her hardships, and despite my desire to want to learn everything about the empty house, I wanted to find out what happened next to the troubled teen. Perhaps growing up in the same time span as her garnered a higher relation to Sam, but I’m not afraid to admit that I had to swallow my heart a few times during some of the more emotional confessionals. The game only benefits from such an honest, respectable performance, since when you’re listening to only one voice throughout the game, it’s best that such a fine job is done.
Gone Home doesn’t try to do anything out of its element, and that’s both its biggest strength and weakness. It’s here simply to tell a larger story and a few smaller ones; no shoe-horned garbage minigames, no fluff to purposely distract the player and alienate them, no quick-time-events, just explore a house for story elements. Obviously if one lacks the drive and interest to do only that for the entirety of the game, or if story-driven games don’t interest you at all, then this game is a natural pass. However, for those with the patience to wander around an empty house while a rainstorm rages outside, then Gone Home will be worth your quiet time.