Gone Home

I had the pleasure recently of playing through Gone Home by The Fullbright Company, courtesy of @Raisins.  It’s difficult to discuss the game without revealing key plot developments.  It’s short and priced at a premium for what’s offered ($20 for a couple of hours.)  It’s worth noting that this may look like some sort of “scary” game.  There’s tension, and it can be a creepy experience, but it’s not a game that intends to be frightening.  If you are planning to play Gone Home and wish to have a spoiler-free experience, then you can stop reading here.

Gone Home describes itself as a “story exploration video game”.  This is probably the best way to describe it  as there really isn’t an appropriate genre to assign it to, or another game to compare it with.  The closest genre it compares to is an adventure game.  It’s game play is balanced entirely on it’s plot and does not include any puzzles.  And really, the only interactive element to the game is you.  Your ability to proceed in the game is based on your absorption of the surrounding environment.  Fortunately, the environment is crafted excellently.  Set in the mid 1990’s, you are returning home from a trip to Europe.  Your home is deserted and your sister has left a cryptic note hinting at what has happened, but pleads for you not to dig to find out more.  Naturally, you ignore this and begin rooting around the house.  Of course, it’s not the player’s home, it’s the protagonist’s (and she doesn’t speak, save for a message left on an answering machine.)  The player’s goal is to learn more about the protagonist’s family by rummaging around through their personal belongings.  And it’s surprisingly effective.

As previously noted, the game is set in the mid-1990’s.  It’s not exactly the first time period that comes to mind when choosing a setting for a world, but I actually enjoyed it quite a bit.  For myself at least, it’s easy for the 90’s and the aughts to kind of blur together.  What makes it an interesting choice is that while it resembles the present in many ways, it’s a point in time just before the world embraced the Internet and before the proliferation of mobile computing.  You see it reflected in small ways all across the house: cassette tapes, VHS tapes, corded phones, all reminders of how much things have changed in a relatively short period of time.  There are, of course, cultural references to the 1990’s scattered all though out the game.  Your mileage may vary based on your age and feelings toward that period, but it is like walking back in time, and it gives the player a reason to want to go the entire house.  The atmosphere also adds a layer of tension to the experience.  You’ve come back to a deserted mansion on a dark and stormy night.  And while the game doesn’t try to jump out and spook you, I’m not exactly anxious to explore creepy passage ways to the basement or try to scratch around for a light switch during a thunderstorm in a creaky house.

The game has probably gotten most attention for its story; rare for it’s focus on a non-heterosexual female character without concern for how it plays to a male audience.  The story is simple, though compelling as it takes a forbidden love plot template and applies it to a modern context.  As the player character, you slowly unravel the story of your sister, Sam and her friend, Lonnie.  As you find key pieces of information in the house, you’ll hear Sam reading from her diary.  The voice acting is heartfelt and well performed.  It’s difficult not to feel sympathy for Sam as the game progresses, and growing unease with how her story concludes.  Given that there are no other characters you’ll interact with, or any significant events that will unfold in the present, Gone Home isn’t going to be for everyone.  It stands apart though for it’s creator’s willingness to challenge conventional assumptions in game design.

Gone Home continues to follow a trajectory for games exclusively driven by stories that garnered attention after the success of last year’s Walking Dead series.  It takes this emerging genre a step further by stripping away even more elements that the game community has taken for granted and begins to demonstrate the potential rewards for making games that fall outside the traditional comfort zones for the game industry and community alike.  I look forward to see what the Fullbright Company does next to build on the concept.  I may have spent a lot of time discussing how the story isn’t necessary to the success of games as a whole, but games like Gone Home have gone a long way in building success for a genre that we’re only now coming to recognize.


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