Gone Home Review: Exploration and Introspection
The short-form video game has seen a bit of a proliferation over the last 18 months. What fringe developers like Tale of Tales and Anna Anthropy once practiced has broken into the mainstream gaming consciousness. These commercial projects owe their existence to the rise of downloadable games and the explosion of independent development. Thatgamecompany’s Journey used evocative visuals and procedural characterization to weave a powerful metaphor for life and the Campbellian Monomyth, Dear Esther used environmental storytelling to tell a story about a man’s guilt over hurting his wife, and Thomas Was Alone varied the feel of each of its character’s jumps to let players tell an irresistibly cute story about friendship, love, and interdependence. This approach to game design has been remarkably successful, and last year’s Journey defied every expectation be built up over the last decade to win myriad game of the year awards.
The latest entry to the short-form canon is indie Steam game Gone Home, a first-person exploratory adventure game developed by The Fulbright Company, best known for their work on the Minerva’s Den DLC for Bioshock 2. Their authorial touch and attention to detail can be seen throughout the entire game, like in Bioshock, investigating objects and character artifacts scattered throughout the environment passively conveys the narrative to the player. Players act as archaeologists piecing together the mysteries of the gameworld to find out what happened to it and its inhabitants, a shot glass in an office, a crumpled-up piece of paper, and a self-effacing stickynote can all be imbued with narrative meaning and serve to define a character who the player never meets.
There’s no combat in Gone Home, and the few puzzles there are are rudimentary and simple, overall, the entire game can be completed in two to three hours. At $19.99, the game’s short length and high price could legitimately dissuade some players from the game, but for those willing to pay the substantial price, Gone Home is one of the year’s most poignant and engaging story-driven games.
The player takes the role of Katie Greenbriar, a 20-year old college girl returning from a year abroad in Europe to her family’s new home at 1 Arbor Hill, Boon County. She arrives at at the vast mansion under the darkness of a rainy summer night to find it mysteriously deserted, with only a note from her sister Sam hastily taped to the front door asking her not to go searching for her. Katie enters the house, searching for clues that might tell her what happened to her family in the nine months she was away for college. Gone Home is at its heart a story about family drama and life as a misfit teenager, epistolarily told though mixtapes, faxes, and boxes of personal belongings taped-up and hidden away deep in closets.
Gone Home‘s progression is mostly linear, each member of the Greenbriar family has colonized a part of 1 Arbor Hill as their own. Katie explores each member’s quarters, and by picking up and examining their belongings as she goes from room to room, learns about the demons they faced during her absence. As she snoops deeper into her family’s possessions, we see the Greenbriars go through entire arcs imbued with internal conflict. Despite never appearing on screen, the spaces that these characters create and inhabit conveys a wealth of narrative information nary a line of dialogue. Despite being systemically and artistically simplistic, there’s an exciting sense of discovery to be felt when uncovering an object and discerning what it says about its owner comparable to discovering a new city in Skyrim. Elegant signposting and level design make traversal feel natural, flowing, and intuitive in a way reminiscent of Half-Life 2, even in spite of the nonlinear path that players can potentially take.
While the core story of Gone Home could have been theoretically told in another medium, the formal traits of video games are completely suitable for a story about arriving home from college to find one’s family changed. Aside from perhaps Disneyland attractions, video games are the only medium that permit the traversal of a 3D space and the examination of 3D objects (done here by rotating the mouse). Gone Home‘s choice to convey its narrative about family drama passively through created spaces and character artifacts creates a form of storytelling unique to video games. While many contemporary games make the unfortunate choice to emulate film or literature, Gone Home explores uncharted formal territory that last year’s kinetic espionage romp Thirty Flights of Loving dug open.
Mundanity is Thrilling
What is perhaps most remarkable about Gone Home‘s approach to its themes is the lens through which is contextualized. Gone Home deals with themes are unheard of in video games, in fact, a number of missions in Mass Effect 2 have dealt with very similar relationships and conflicts. But Mass Effect 2‘s epic sci-fi setting and greater emphasis on its heroic fantasy layered its more personal and relatable themes under layers of metaphor and sometimes contrived combat sequences. While fantastic metaphor has communicated some powerful fiction like Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, comparatively realistic and mundane fiction like A Raisin in the Sun is relatively more accessible. Gone Home‘s setting in suburban Oregon during the mid-nineties sets the stage for a conflict common to many contemporary families, and is paradoxically more fascinating than many of the incredibly imaginative locales to be crafted in recent games.
The care and attention to detail with which 1 Arbor Hill is crafted is comparable to even such games as Portal 2 and Bioshock Infinite. Except in place of a massive underground research facility or a floating city, we have a snapshot of upper-middle class American life in the mid-nineties. Allusions to the period are not given Forrest Gump-style with clips of Bill Clinton on the televisions or headlines about the Oklahoma City bombing, but rather through the subtle imagery and artifacts of the period: blank VHS tapes marked with Sharpie-labels, a satisfaction guarantee on a bag of chips with an address instead of an email, a period typeface on a home and garden magazine. Mixtapes with 90s grunge rock can be found in certain areas and played when inserted into stereos, adding a layer of authenticity to what is already intricately atmospheric, if not nostalgic, setting.
Gone Home‘s setting in the late 90s allows its narrative and play to hit closer to home, as the authentic recreation of a period’s aesthetics and lifestyles evoke memories of a time that its target audience has an emotional connection to. The Walking Dead and The Last of Us told stories about love, loss, and fatherhood through the distancing fantasy of a zombie apocalypse, while those games were effective in exploring themes about tribal relationships and survival, managing a conflicted party of survivors and sneaking one’s way through a bandit-occupied Pittsburgh is something that many of us will never do. Gone Home‘s mundane setting, contextualized through the eyes of a college kid returning home for the first time, can evoke bittersweet memories of one’s own adolescence and how one felt at the time.
Gone Home nonetheless is slightly marred by a few minor problems. There are times where it is unclear whether or not a puzzle can be solved with the tools the player currently has or must be returned to later in the game. This oversight could potentially send players on a lengthy hunt for a key or a password to open a door that they cannot open until much later. The visuals also suffer at lower settings, textures on objects fade into fuzziness on slower machines, compromising some of the world’s period believability.
In A Theory of Fun, academic Ralph Koster stated that video games could never achieve the narrative potential of novels because their systemic nature suits them for external conflicts about actions rather than thoughts or emotions. Play psychologically prioritizes objectification, classification, and quantification, whereas reading prioritizes empathy, introspection, and reflection. Gone Home challenges this academic dichotomy by telling a quiet, introspective story driven by the player’s actions in a virtual environment. Coupled with a touching and impactful narrative, this defiant design makes Gone Home one of the best games of the year.
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