Your family’s house lies empty. Investigate their disappearance.
PC Release: August 15, 2013
By Ian Coppock
Gamers and game developers alike consistently underestimate the power of story. In an age where games are judged by the number of polygons you can squeeze into a screen and by how many Russians you can decapitate with one kitchen knife, the element of adventure storytelling seems to be in decline. Luckily, this medium persists, and proves once again how engrossing video games can be with titles like Dear Esther, and now Gone Home. Mindless action seekers stray from these games at their peril. No, there’s no ridiculous action to be had. But what’s there instead may prove to be of far greater substance.
Gone Home is a first-person game set in 1995. It’s driven only by its narrative and some light exploration, and contrary to what its eerie premise might suggest, it is not a horror game.
After spending a year away in Europe, player character Katie arrives to her family’s house in the Pacific Northwest. Thunder and lightning envelop the place, and there’s no sign of her loved ones; just a worrying letter taped to the front door.
Katie ventures into the house, and it’s up to her/you to find out where her family is. She’s unfamiliar with the place, as the rest of her family moved in while she was away, adding a second element of exploration to this tale.
In Gone Home, Katie progresses by finding letters and objects hinting at her parents’ and little sister’s whereabouts. You’ll also find objects hinting at each character’s life and history, ranging from big important things like dramatic correspondence down to a TV schedule and one seriously embarrassing romantic novel.
The focus of Gone Home is Sam, Katie’s younger sister. A rebellious and somewhat troubled teenager, Sam’s story is told through read-aloud narrations, triggered by finding unsent letters she wrote for Katie. Contrary to what you’ll find in this game’s Steam reviews, Sam’s story is plenty deep, and both tragic and heartwarming. It’s a moving story of her making her first true friend, and how the they became something closer, and much more.
I won’t spoil, but the story did, in fact, bring me to tears by game’s end. What we have is a narrative that combines the mysterious atmosphere of the house with an increasingly urgent and complex personal story, of a young girl trying to find acceptance and love in a society corrupted by fear. I was no in-crowd child myself, which is perhaps why I felt so compelled to find more pieces of Sam’s story, which you can only do by exploring more of the house.
Revolving around Sam’s story are subtle subplots dealing with Katie’s parents and a few other characters. Most objects will only imply, never tell, like a liquor bottle next to a rejection letter, or a restaurant receipt tucked into the couch. The open-ended nature of the narrative’s supporting structure not only made the rest of the game feel more mysterious, but added even more impetus to explore this giant, empty house.
I guess it’s fair to say that the main story of Gone Home is not exploring the house itself, but the combination of tales and hints that you get from exploring the house. This tale and the context of what you find will change depending on how thorough you are. There are rewards for the discerning housebreaker, like hidden codes for locked drawers, and perhaps even a secret passageway or two. Yeah, yeah. Just call me Freddie Foreshadowing.
Gone Home‘s gameplay is simplicity at its finest. You can walk around, zoom in on objects, and pick up objects to examine them. Developer Fulbright Company found a good happy medium between freestanding items and static ones, in that you can select an item, examine it up close, and have it snap back into place with the click of a button. Boom. Katie also has an inventory and, thankfully, a map. Because if I haven’t said it enough already, this house is more like a mansion.
A game with this many objects to look at bears the potential for pixel-hunting, but not to worry. Items light up when you look at them, which will save your nerves and reward you for making even passing glances at furniture. There are still some items to search for, some locker codes to sniff out, but finding them is a matter of logic and attention, not minesweeping the granules of the game world.
The artwork and visuals in Gone Home are engrossing for more reasons than decent graphics. Any 90’s kid will find plenty to nostalgia at in this game.
Most of the brands and television shows referenced in this game are real, which made Gone Home more effective at drawing me in. A strong variety of color rounds off some exceptional art design.
Gone Home‘s atmosphere is equal parts creepy and intriguing. By its very nature, a premise like your whole family mysteriously missing packs some chills, but the humor behind some of the objects you find and the complicated though very human story of Sam balances this out. Shadows become inviting and mysterious rather than flat-out NONONONONONO. Music, a soft melody, plays only during Sam’s narrated letters, leaving you with only the creaking floorboards and the thunderstorm outside to accompany you.
I want to take a moment to single out Sam’s voice actress, Sarah Grayson, who infused emotions painful, hilarious and uplifting into the narrative of Sam. She might have been able to save at least part of Afterfall for me, and I commend her for her work here. And let’s be honest; it takes some serious skill to honestly portray a troubled teen.
Gone Home presents a powerful and intricate narrative, wrapped into an atmospheric environment and salted with some humor, some sadness, and some humanity. Simple, workable gameplay never hurts either.
This game is available for $20 on Steam; I found it to be worth every penny. This game’s caught a lot of flak with a lot of Steamers. I can only debate the people who said the story sucked but you can safely disregard the people who cried “MOAR GUNNESS AND BLOODAGE”. Get the game. Two hours or so later you’ll have been absorbed into a great story, and be better for it.
You can buy Gone Home here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.