You come home after a long European vacation to your family’s new house… but it’s empty and there’s a scared voice on the answering machine. What’s going on? What’s happened? That’s up to you to find out in Gone Home.
A month or so ago, this interactive narrative game was being given away for free, so I picked it up. It didn’t seem like the kind of game that I would buy, but I had heard some good things, so it at least warranted a playthrough. And considering that it took about an hour from start to finish, it wasn’t like Gone Home was going to suck up an entire evening.
At the onset, Gone Home really seems like a horror game, what with a giant empty mansion in the middle of a thunderstorm at night that you can’t escape. Yet once I got used to the creaks and thunderclaps and poked around, I found this game to be something completely different: a story told through its environment and written letters in that environment.
The goal, such as it is, is to learn about the family of your character Katie, why nobody is home, and what’s going on with each of the three members: the conservationist mother, the author father, and the high school daughter. A secondary goal is to turn on all of the lights, because ain’t nobody wants to be exploring some haunted mansion in the dark.
You know how there’s supposedly five stages of grief? Well I went through about three or four emotional stages of Gone Home. First, I was apprehensive that I had stepped into a horror game. Then I got a little curious as I explored and learned about the characters. Then I started to get fidgety and bored. Finally I was just ready to be done with it.
There’s a lot of elements that I very much like at play here, including the heavy use of environmental storytelling and epistolary narrative. Playing sleuth and putting the pieces of a family’s life together strictly from finding stuff around an otherwise hollow mansion is usually what I go for.
But something about this game wore out its welcome quickly. It was weird piloting a character that had no voice or thoughts of her own other than the incredibly brief mouseover descriptions of interactive objects. The revelations about the family members were rather tepid… I guess I expected a lot more in the end. It’s a quiet piece about a family that isn’t as together as it should be, but I felt like the game was setting me up for something a lot more shocking or exciting than what it actually was.
I also kind of resent the whole fake-out of the ghost/psycho house thing. The game keeps building up a whole haunted house thing before just dropping it entirely. It’s something that I didn’t like about Firewatch and don’t appreciate here. Red herrings are all well and good, but not when they’re dragged on for this long and then turn out to be nothing.
Considering the length of the game and its free cost, I can’t say that I regret playing it. I enjoy a well-told story, and the fact that this one utilizes video games to do so in a slightly different way than I’m used to is always welcome. Hearing Sam’s occasional journal entries helped me realize that I wanted a lot more voice acting (if nothing else, maybe some quips or verbal observations by the playable character). And there’s very little replayable value here, so it’s a one-and-done experience.
In a year where I’ve played Firewatch, Life is Strange, and Tales from the Borderlands, Gone Home had a lot to live up to in the adventure game storytelling department — and it just couldn’t meet those expectations, especially after the word of mouth recommendations. Still, it does a solid job in its own way of getting you involved in this family and telling a story with no visible characters on the screen. That’s something at least.