Warning: Mild Spoilers Ahead
Gone Home, developed by The Fullbright Company, was originally released on PC in 2013 and has now made its way to Xbox One. When originally released, Gone Home won a multitude of awards, including Best Independent Game and Best PC Game. Now that it has shifted to consoles some two and a half years later, is it still a game worthy of such high praise?
Let’s get something out of the way right away – Gone Home is not a traditional video game in almost any sense. Sure, you move your thumb sticks to guide the character around, but there are no levels to beat and absolutely no enemies to fight. Gone Home is simply a game about exploration, nostalgia, and finding answers.
If you are a child of the 1990s, Gone Home will appeal to you from a nostalgia standpoint. Set in Oregon in 1995, the house you explore will provide you with many memories of that time. You can find a TV listing showing shows from 1995, as well as VHS tapes everywhere labeled with shows and movies such as The X Files, Top Gun, 2001, JFK, and The Andromeda Strain. Also, a staple of the 1990s – the mix tape – is extremely prevalent throughout the house as you explore it.
You play as Kaitlyn Greenbriar, a 22 year old just returning home from a trip to Europe. As Kaitlyn arrives home, she discovers the house empty with her sister, Sam, nowhere to be found. This is where the story of the game commences, as you begin to explore the entire house, finding clues and gaining insight into what has happened to Sam. Each room provides hints of varying degrees, and you start to put together what happened.
Gone Home’s story focuses on two prevailing themes. The first is Kaitlyn and Sam’s parents and their careers. Their mother is an accomplished conservationist, while their father is a largely failed writer obsessed with the JFK assassination. As you travel through the house, you will discover letters, communications, and objects that provide insight into the lives, careers, and relationship of the parents. It also becomes apparent what an influence Sam’s father had on her writing.
The second, and more prevalent, theme surrounds teenage security and ultimately sexuality. This is where Gone Home really hits its stride as a storytelling game. Through the various journals you collect, you learn of Sam’s struggle as a teenager in a new place, trying to fit in while being the kid in the “psycho house”, and ultimately her friendship with a girl named Lonnie that grows throughout the story. As ideas of sexuality and how people dealt with it in the 1990s are presented, it forces a bit of introspection from the player. I found myself amazed that just twenty years ago, young people that struggled with sexual identity still had to reside in an internal hell out of fear of what would happen if people knew. It is this struggle that defines Sam as you search for clues throughout the house, culminating in the final moments in the attic.
A strong and compelling story aside, the real star of Gone Home is the house. Almost every drawer and cabinet in each room is available to open and look in, with many of them having items of nostalgia or story progression for you to examine. The house features hidden passageways and compartments which will play a large role in discovering the truth as you find them. Each room is constructed to represent either the family in general or a specific member of it – for example, Sam’s bedroom is far different from that of her parents, both in style and in feel. There are locked doors, filing cabinets, and safes throughout as well – be sure to examine everywhere so you don’t miss any keys.
The controls in Gone Home are very simplistic. The A button will open/close doors, cabinets, and drawers, picking up or setting down objects. The triggers will help you more closely examine an object you picked up or turn the page in a note you are reading. Thumb sticks are for movement and turning only. That said, since Gone Home is a game without enemies or levels, there aren’t really any other controls needed.
Visually, Gone Home is good, but I’d be lying if I said it was the best thing I’d seen in a while. Where it does shine visually is that much of the house is dark with the lights not illuminating the entire room. This, along with the setting of a dark and stormy night in Oregon, are reflective of the struggle Sam experiences as we discover her internal journey. There is a good amount of detail paid to the setting, like a TV that broadcasts severe weather warnings as the storm rages outside. However, Gone Home is clearly not out to wow you with cutting edge visuals – Fullbright wants the story to carry the experience.
The audio in Gone Home is very fitting of the setting and tone of the game. Thunder is audible every so often, and the only other audio you hear is when you turn on a TV or put a mixtape in a player. Otherwise, it is quiet, and that adds to the feeling of being alone in a dark and lonely place, which also nicely represents Sam’s emotional journey.
I experienced a few glitch moments when playing through Gone Home. The game completely froze for about thirty seconds when picking up an object a couple of times, and the left stick became completely unresponsive in another room. I had to reload the game in that instance. However, the single greatest drawback to Gone Home is its length. I was taking my time for the review and still I was done in two hours. In fact, if you know the exact location of the key to the attic and want to speed run the game, you can complete Gone Home in less than sixty seconds. I did miss four of the twenty-three journals while I was playing, but I can’t imagine that finding those would add hours to the experience.
Ultimately, on the back of a phenomenal story that is emotional and reflective, I highly recommend Gone Home. The real question for gamers though is whether this great game can overcome the one non-gameplay issue it has: the price. If it was $10 or even $15 USD, I’d have little problem recommending the game no questions asked, but at $20 (or £16 in the UK), gamers have to ask themselves if this short but poignant story is worth the investment. Since that is up to each gamer to decide, I’m not going to factor price into the review score. However, as far as the game itself is concerned, Gone Home is a story worth experiencing both for the message it has and the great nostalgia of the 1990s.