So THIS is what games are capable of.
From the time a plumber was asked to save a princess, all the way to a man developing a familial bond with a young girl on a cross-country trip in a world infested with infected, story in games has been a growing priority. Sometimes games forego it entirely in favor of gameplay; other times games drown you in cinematics and put gameplay in as a formality. Either way, developers often have a tough time telling a story using what makes games unique – interactivity – to create the perfect blend of gameplay and story.
Gone Home is a shining and wildly important example of that done to perfection.
The Fullbright Company is a team of only four, so instead of biting off more than they could chew, these bright minds created a small, intimate experience that uses gameplay as a storytelling mechanic, not as a thing that happens between cutscenes. Gone Home is a personal tale, a story that could happen in real life. There are no wizards or dragons, no cyberpunk fantasies, no handsome white men cracking one liners as they slaughter thousands – you’re just a girl who’s come home from a vacation.
Gone Home opens at the front door of your parents’ new (really big) house in the northwest United States. You’re Katie, a 20-year-old returning from a lengthy excursion in Europe a little earlier than expected. You come home expecting to see your parents and sister welcoming you with open arms, but the house is empty. Hey, you had no way of knowing – the game takes place in 1995 so they couldn’t just call your cell phone and give you a heads up. Instead, you see a note left from your sister, Sam, saying she’s gone and not to come after her, she’s fine.
Once you come home and begin to explore the house, a house both you and Katie have never been in before, you slowly begin to unravel the story. I won’t say where your family is, because that would ruin the core of what makes this game beautiful, but you find out. You don’t find out through cutscenes or character interactions or anything being spelled out for you, though. You find out by exploring the house. Documents, pamphlets, notes scattered throughout – they tell you everything.
You don’t just find out about the present, though. Everything around the house tells you exactly who your family is. You find out about your dad’s career, your mom’s social life, and all the teen drama and gossip that goes on in your sister’s life. It all builds up as you explore the house, telling you the entire who, what, where, when, and why of your family. And it’s up to YOU how much story you get.
If you wanted, you could breeze through the house like an idiot and get the bare essentials to rush your way to the end, but you’d be missing the entire point. This is a game about exploring. All you can do in this game is interact with objects around the house. Pick up assorted cups and mugs, open pizza boxes, turn on a TV – it’s a fully interactive house and yours to mess around in. Not every object tells a story, but tearing the house apart is key in finding hidden objects here or there that reveal something about someone in your family, including yourself. The house is yours, and the story is YOUR responsibility to unfold.
All of this could be insanely boring, or insanely fascinating, depending entirely on the writing and execution. Thankfully, the writing in this game is extraordinary. Every character feels like a real person, fully defined. By the game’s end, you can practically make up decades of family history in your mind based on what you encounter. You can picture your dad’s mannerisms, or your sister’s jokes, all based on things they’ve written and things they own. You feel like you’re a part of the family.
Even better is how the content is handled in the game. Again, I won’t spoil anything, but there are complicated, mature themes in this game that hit close to home and feel real. Success, failure, friendship, love – everything that makes us human is dealt with in an honest, genuine way without feeling like it’s pandering or pretentious.
This game may sound boring to some people, and if all you want to do is hurt stuff or solve puzzles, it’s just not for you. And that’s okay. But for people who believe games don’t have to be challenging to be great, this game will blow your mind. You can’t get stuck or lost in this game, or require the use of a walkthrough (unless you want to make sure you find every last item). It’s simply an open house to walk through and be told a fascinating, personal story.
Gone Home proves that games don’t have to be like movies to tell a great story. Gone Home takes full advantage of what makes video games unique and tells a story that simply could not be told in any other medium. And it tells that story masterfully.