Gone Home & the Changing Face of Games (Minor Spoilers)
Completely Arbitrary "How Much I Liked It" Score10
It’s hard to talk about Gone Home without spoiling the story because Gone Home is the story. The gameplay is different than what we’ve come to expect in games; there’s no pressure to succeed and no real risk of failure. The magic in this is that you don’t have to be an experienced gamer to enjoy it.
Gone Home is as far from a traditional video game experience as it’s possible to be, and it’s outstanding.
When the game starts you’re told two things: How to move and how to look around.You hear an answering machine message from someone giving flight details. Then you find yourself standing on a porch with a stack of luggage at your side and a note taped to the door in front of you.
That’s what you get. You have to learn the rest for yourself.
You learn pretty quickly that you’re the one that left the answering machine message. You’re Katie, and you just came home from an extended trip overseas. Your family moved into a new home while you’re away and they’re nowhere to be found when you get home.
The game takes place in 1995, before cell phones made everyone accessible all the time, so you can’t call your mom or your sister to find out where they are. What you can do is explore the new house. You can listen to answering machine messages and read notes on bulletin boards and crumpled up bits of paper in trash cans.
You discover things that have happened in your family while you’ve been away, like your mother’s loneliness in her marriage and your father’s frustration with his career as a novelist. You learn about your sister’s struggle to adjust to her new school.
You learn secrets that your family has hidden for decades.
You get to listen to cassette tapes and watch movies on VHS. You find secret passageways. You get to go through other people’s stuff. (I’m not saying this was part of what made this game attractive to me, but I’m also not saying it wasn’t.)
It sounds like a fun exploration game, and it is, but it’s more than that. It’s a beautifully paced story about three people facing very different struggles and trying to stay together as a family. It’s about the choices they eventually make and the consequences of those choices.
I never met the people in the story, but I cared for them. When I found a bathtub splashed with red liquid I had a very real moment of terror. When I read some of “my” sister’s diary entries I actually cried. The things I learn through things like notes, letters, and receipts somehow manage to provide me with characters that felt like people.
Gone Home achieves a level of immersion in four hours that is rarely seen in games ten times as long. Your progression through the house (and thus through the story) is carefully controlled and extremely well paced. The house itself adds to the mood; it’s creepy enough to be unsettling but not enough to be truly scary.
Gone Home could (and has been) easily be called an interactive novel. Some people have argued that it’s not a game at all.
I disagree. You can’t just sit back and watch this story in front of you; you have to pull yourself through it. You have to open every drawer and check every trash can and put together the pieces of this story yourself. You have to find keys to fit locks and combinations to open safes. These tasks happen so organically within the game that you don’t even notice you’re doing them, but you are doing them.
Gone Home represents a new facet of gaming: a game that doesn’t feel like a game. It’s a powerful story experienced in just a few hours rather than in an entire season of television. (Or six. I’m looking at you, LOST.) It features characters so authentic you don’t even have to meet them to care about them.
We’ve come a long way since Mario.