I don’t really spoil anything in the video (and even less in the transcript below) but still, I’d strongly recommend you play through the game blind if you have any intention of doing so. It’s a game about discovery and unearthing the story, and if you read about what that story is it will change your reaction to it and your ability to be engaged with the otherwise simple mechanics. Like Little Inferno, it’s only about two and a half to three and a half hours long depending on how thorough you are, so it’s not a huge time investment. It’s very much worth a look.
So typically when I write about specific games on this show the resulting videos are full of spoilers. However, the good people at The Fullbright company were kind enough to give me a press copy of their game before launch – and since I’ve played the game before it’s even out, I don’t want to spoil anything. The mystery of what happened to the people that lived in the house at 1 Arbor Hill is what drives the whole experience, and if I just tell you what’s what it genuinely takes away from the game by undermining how its core mechanics are supposed to work. So I’m going to try to avoid spoilers as much as possible. That having said that I’m sure if you try speed reading any note or letter that gets put on screen you may be able to spoil yourself at least a bit. So just… don’t… pause and read anything and you should be good.
For those unfamiliar with the game, Gone Home is about a 20 year old woman, Katie Greenbriar, returning home from her big European year abroad. Well, “returning home” might not be the best way to phrase it. Her family moved to a new house while she was in Europe. When she arrives to this house that she’s never been to but is now ostensibly her home, she finds that the house is completely empty with no one there to welcome her. With phone lines down due to the storm and no transportation, Katie begins exploring the house in an attempt to find out what happened to her family.
For the player Gone Home is an archeology dig; a site where we find artifacts to tell us a story of who these people are and what what happened to them. Clues litter the walls; they’re scattered in desk drawers and they line the floor. Sometimes they’re letters and notes for you to read, sometimes they’re a sentimental object you can hold in your hands and examine, and sometimes they’re simply an environmental detail that makes the house seem lived in and real. But regardless of what form they take these artifacts and your interactions with them all contribute to more than just solving a mystery about where Katie’s family went but instead tell a story about who they became while she was gone.
While it might not look that way at first glance, there is a full-on story here, complete with revelations and side characters and episodes. While the game’s hook might be the mystery of where everyone went, as events are uncovered characters will become fleshed out and they’ll have gone through entire arcs. And that’s the meat of the game – it’s not a puzzle you solve but a story you slowly reveal. To that end, player movement through the house is designed to flow with a sense of chronological progression. The first few rooms have exposition duty, and as you progress through the house you’re mostly following the story forward in time with occasional callbacks or foreshadowing. The game may be an archeological dig, but it’s a sort of directed archeology aimed at making the answer to its puzzle something you unearth naturally by playing rather than by assembling complicated pieces after the fact.
Three of the developers of Gone Home worked on Minerva’s Den and various other Bioshocks, and they’ve taken that series’ penchant for environmental storytelling and honed it. There may not be graffiti scrawled in blood or audio logs to find, but Bioshock’s influence on how you tell an environmental story is felt throughout. Bioshock had each area tell its own part of the story – for example, the medical bay tells the story of Steinman’s twisted attempts to redefine beauty. Gone Home takes this formula of making a space represent a single story inside of a larger narrative and compresses it. What Bioshock would spread over an entire sprawling level, the Fullbright company compresses into a room or two. Each room tends to have an overall topic or event or theme that shapes the family, and the result is that it’s actually really consumable as a story broken up into chapters. It would have been easy for this to be like the film Primer; an experience that just throws all of its clues out there without context or meaning and asks that you sort them out. And it also could have ended up such that missing one key object could confuse or alienate players by cutting out a large chunk of the story. Instead the rooms flow into one another and form a cohesive narrative that’s rich and affecting without being too taxing or hard to parse.
But while the mechanics appear superficially simple – walking around, reading notes and fondling objects – they’re really just tools for the excavation of that narrative. And it’s that context that makes them surprisingly engaging. A brush isn’t exciting by itself, but if you’re using it to clear off t-rex bones then suddenly it’s really cool! Similarly rotating an object in 3D isn’t something you’d normally be all that excited about, but here it’s not just a tool of inspection but a tool of discovery.
And despite the incredibly simple mechanics the core play taps on a number of surprisingly satisfying gameplay impulses. It’s done lightly and delicately but also deliberately. Turning objects over in your hand scratches some fundamental explorational itch of taking the unknown and marking it. What makes that feeling all the more incredible is that this game invokes it not by letting you explore a new area to fill in a map, but by letting you grab an SNES cartridge to read its label. It’s an exploration of the banal in search of the day-to-day truths it can hide. We’re not discovering secret waterfalls or hidden mine enterances but titles of books and what that might say about whoever may be reading them. There’s a bit of a progression and a collectable element to finding items that trigger Sam’s diary entries. It’s a gentle acknowledgement of progress that pushes the player and the narrative along without feeling like a find-the-diary-page collectathon. That impulse you get in Fallout or Skyrim to search every nook and cranny of a room for objects is just as powerful here. And I think it’s a testament to the way the game sucks you into its setting that searching a teenage girl’s room for 1990’s music magazines is as captivating as searching a fallout shelter for bullets. There’s a subtle form of game design going on here, and not in the way balancing a lot of intricate systems is subtle. It’s subtle in the sense that it’s cautious about when to apply traditional game systems at all, providing just enough tactile feedback and mechanical engagement to keep you playing but only that amount in an effort to keep the systems themselves from drawing focus away from Greenbriars’ story.
In a very real way I think Gone Home is probably the closest a commercial, non-text based game has really come to being Young Adult fiction in my adult life. Earlier this year I compared Tomb Raider to Hatchet, and this game handily highlights how absurd that comparison was. It may have meant well, but Tomb Raider was young adult fiction filtered through the lens of the AAA manshooter; a story that equates finding oneself with finding your inner mass murder. But if Tomb Raider is young adult fiction by way of Michael Bay, Gone Home is young adult fiction by way of John Greene. Which is to say, actual young adult fiction – well written, hilarious, tragic, and above all, human stories about everyday people on the cusp of adulthood.
And that, I think, is part of what makes Gone Home so worthwhile. Much like the objects in the game themselves, the characters are memorable because they’re banal, because they could be you, or me, or anyone you know. It’s not a human story but with zombies, it’s not a human story but with shooting, it’s not a human story but wrapped in a fantastical metaphor. That’s not to say those games are bad at all, but it is to say that developers have a fear of making retail games about the real world as it stands, naked and unadulterated. Hell, even our janitorial sims have to take place on a space station where you’re cleaning up alien blood and guts. So when games like Gone Home, Cart Life, Dinner Date, or I Get This Call Every Day come along it’s a breath of fresh air.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with fantasy – like Papo y Yo shows, it lets us deal with complicated issues through metaphor in powerful ways. And The Walking Dead and The Last of us prove stories about people can be affecting even in the face of absurd genre fiction. But too often and too easily we don’t use that artifice to construct meaning; we just take shelter in it. We champion escapism because it feels good even as it means our coming of age stories need to be about gunning people down and our father-daughter stories need to happen in zombie apocalypses. We use it to give crackle and zing to stories that might better be told here in the real world with people you grew up with or people know today; people whose suffering isn’t due to zombies or monsters but the way we operate socially, culturally, or economically. Escapist fantasy is wonderful, but escapist fantasy can only hint at problems that affect real people in real ways. This game, and a precious few others, take a bold, powerful step in trying to reclaim a relatable humanity in video game characters, and it does so by insisting they’re as boring and normal and real as everyone else.
Gone Home tries to paint a picture of a family – nothing more, and nothing less. The fact that it does so without guns or monsters or contrived game systems shouldn’t make it notable. But it does. And while that fact may underscore a weakness in the greater canon of games, the fact that this game exists at all is cause for celebration. Let’s hope that more boring, run of the mill, everyday games join it soon.