Gone Home, a computer game from The Fullbright Company, is the latest in a recent trend of first-person walking-simulator story exploration adventure games (wow that’s a mouthful), like Dear Esther or the upcoming Firewatch. In it, you play as a college student who’s just come home from studying abroad, only to find that you’ve come home to an empty house. You explore the vast mansion, reading notes left behind by your family, listening to journal entries by your younger sister, Samantha, and picking up and examining objects for clues. Those are really the only mechanics in the game: walking around and picking things up. If you’ve played Dear Esther, which has even less mechanics (just walking around), you may already be used to this. But I must warn you that this is not really a “fun” game. This isn’t a game I would play if I wanted to let off some steam and relax. This game is more like a short story, the plot points of which you unravel as you make your way through the mansion.
The story centers mostly on your sister, Samantha, and her experience in high school and relationship with her parents. You, Kaitlin, are the perfect daughter who always followed the rules and did what she was told, and your parents love you; whereas Samantha is more of a punk-rock girl who doesn’t really fit in with her surroundings.
The setting is mid-1990s Oregon. As such, you won’t find any modern commodities like laptops or iPods, but instead tape cassettes and tube TVs. It’s a really interesting time period to explore, since it hasn’t really been done before, and it’s not even that long ago, even if it feels dated at this point. It was sort of the “in-between” period before the internet was really a widespread phenomenon and changed everything. People still send each other letters and pass notes in class instead of just texting. This actually makes for a much better game, since you spend a large portion of your time examining notes left behind by your family. It probably wouldn’t have been as engaging if you were simply reading emails off a terminal screen.
The game is really all about uncovering the story, so I will try to refrain from giving any of it away, as it would ruin your experience with it if I did. Needless to say, the story is an interesting one, just not one that I personally felt much connection to. And by the end, I had pretty much predicted everything, so don’t expect too many surprise twists and turns. This is a somewhat straightforward story about teenage rebellion. What I actually found more interesting was the parents’ side stories, like the father who failed to find real success as an author, and the mother who has little secrets she’d rather keep hidden from him. What’s nice about this game is that there are many, many threads to unravel, and if you don’t like one, you can try following another.
You do have to be thorough, though. You can’t just speed from room to room like you might in a first person shooter. This is a stop-and-smell-the-flowers game, and you will spend a lot of time searching every room’s nook and cranny. If this doesn’t appeal to you, you probably will get tired and won’t like this game.
But it is very rewarding for the thorough player. The mansion is extremely detailed and has little hidden curiosities for the initiated. For instance, I was digging through a box of copies of the father’s manuscript when I uncovered copies of a dirty magazine. The graphics are also very pretty, which they sort of have to be in a game like this, where all you do is walk around and look at things. However, it’s not pretty in the way Dear Esther is. That game had beautiful scenery and nature that I could stare at for several minutes at a time, like I was looking out at the view on vacation somewhere. Gone Home, on the other hand, takes place entirely indoors, so most of the stuff you see is pretty commonplace. I found myself getting bored.
I usually like these kinds of games, but I honestly didn’t like this one that much. I really thought I would, after seeing how well it was received by critics. Perhaps they liked it so much because stories like this don’t really get told that often. I applaud the creators for that, I really do. But as a game, it didn’t really hook me or keep me engaged. This was probably due to me not being able to connect with the story, and the lack of many interesting mechanics. However, if you’re a gamer who just wants a good story, this may be for you.