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Gone Home Review

Gone Home is a story-driven, mystery game wherein you arrive home from a trip overseas and are greeted by an empty house. You must search the house looking for clues as to your family's whereabouts. The underlying mystery manages to be both captivating and intriguing, yet mundane at the same time. This isn't a crazy adventure; it's the sort of situation that many people encounter in the real world.

Gone Home Review

Introduction

Gone Home is a first-person, story-driven walking simulator that also falls under the mystery and exploration genres. Developed by The Fullbright Company, it was first released in August of 2013 and is available for PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.

You begin the game in an empty house after having returned from a long trip. The point of the game is to merely walk around the house searching for clues that might tell you more about your family and where they may have gone. 

Gone Home is available for purchase on Steam for $14.99

Story

The year is 1995. The date is June 7th. The time is 1:15am. You are Kaitlin Greenbriar; 21 years old and having just returned from overseas where she traveled through and explored all of Europe. She called ahead, of course, and left a message telling her family that she was finally coming home and that her flight was expected to land around midnight. She insists that no one need pick her up and that she'll take a shuttle from the airport. Given the short notice, she does not find it suspicious that no one returned her call.

The game begins when she arrives at her home. The family had moved while she was away to the home of a recently deceased relative who left them his mansion. This is Katie's first time visiting the house. There is a loud and powerful thunderstorm raging outside.
The house immediately gives off the impression of being both large and empty. Some lights are on, a couple are flickering, most are off. There's a note on the front door that has been left for Katie by her younger sister Samantha. Sam's note apologizes to Katie for having to leave and that she hopes they see each other again someday. It's unclear how long the note has been on the door. Katie lets herself inside the house.

Gone Home Review. The first thing you see upon entering the house.

The entrance leads to a large foyer. A staircase to the second floor occupies the center of the room and several doors on the ground floor lead off in various directions. The phone and answering machine is clearly visible and seems worth checking out.
There are three voicemails waiting on the machine. The first two contain the broken sobbing of a girl begging Sam to please pick up the phone. The third voicemail is the one Kaite left the day before, telling her family when she'd be home. The house creaks, the lights flicker, and lightning thunders outside, all to the soundtrack of pounding rain.

[This is the moment when I paused the game and did a little digging to make sure I hadn't accidentally started playing something from the horror genre. I'm all for reading horror books and watching horror movies, but something about playing horror games is fundamentally different to me. Likely because, unlike a book or a movie, a game necessarily requires that you experience and push through the horror yourself. Regardless, my careful research (didn't want to get anything spoiled) revealed that although the game can get downright creepy, there are zero horror components. No jump scares, nothing supernatural, no deaths, etc. Gone Home's atmosphere is inherently eerie and there's no real way around that. The lightning made me jump pretty much every time and there were moments that made me sure I had been bamboozled (damn you, internet tricksters!), but having finished the game I can confirm that the game has no horror elements.]

Gone Home Review. A seemingly normal and happy family.
This is the point where the player is expected to begin their exploration in earnest. Except for the disconcerting voicemails and the even more disconcerting fact that no one has listened to them, there's not a whole lot to go on. All that can be said for sure is that something serious is happening with Sam.

Aside from going straight to the second floor, there are 4 different doors in the foyer the Katie can see. One leads to a bathroom, one leads to a closet, one is locked, and the other opens to a long, unlit hallway with many more doors. As I made my way through the house, I felt compelled to turn on every single light that I could find. The silence, often punctured by creaking and lightning (the rain is more of a white noise at this point), is still unbelievably creepy, but having many lights on slightly helps in mitigating the effect. I imagine that the game's creator predicted this would be a common reaction to the house's unnatural ambiance because at one point I came across a chuckle-worthy note left for Sam from their mother admonishing Sam for leaving the lights on all the time "just like Katie".

Gone Home Review. Sam's room; it's messy but has character.
As the story plays out, and with free reign to inspect every nook and cranny of the family's new home, Katie slowly begins to uncover all the details, both public and private, of the lives of her parents, her sister, her great uncle who used to own the house, and the house itself.
Much of it is normal family stuff. These are regular people who have lived regular lives. Her mother is a wildlife conservationist, her father writes reviews for electronics, her sister is your average angsty and moody teenager, and her uncle owned a pharmaceutical store.
Much of it was better left undiscovered; harmful secrets, embarrassing actions, and personal failures run rampant. Marriage problems, missed opportunities, fizzled career goals, etc.The one thing that remains consistent is the unrelenting realism of the issues that are dealt with.

The story mostly focuses on Sam and her adjustment to the move. She's finding it difficult to make friends and is being bullied for her association to what is known throughout the town as "that psycho house". The only person who seems to be interested in hanging out is an old childhood friend of hers named Danny. She doesn't like him very much and chooses to be on her own instead. Her first few weeks and months are miserable. Her parents notice, and they want to help, but they don't really know how to go about doing so in any way other than classic awkward parent fashion.

Gone Home Review. This is up there with sex ed on the list of things no teenager wants their parents to give them.
After stumbling through the first bit of sophomore year, Sam falls in with a crowd of punk senior girls who seem to actually be interested in being her friend. She grows especially close with the leader of the crew, a JROTC cadet named Yolanda "Lonnie" DeSoto, who quickly becomes her best friend. While Katie learns of this friendship, she also learns more about Sam's hobbies and passions. Punk rock and photography seem to take up a good portion of Sam's time. Sam also seems to be acting out at school a lot. This is in stark contrast to Katie's own high school experiences which can be discovered among the various unpacked boxes strewn about from the move. Katie was a popular, straight A student who also won several sports awards.

All of Sam's activities provide further context to what might have happened to her, a mystery that quickly becomes much more urgent and important than the location of their parents (whose absence ends up being not much of a mystery at all).

Gone Home Review. I wonder if it's at all possible for attics in empty mansions to not be creepy.

Looking Deeper

The more you learn about what happened to/what's happening with Sam, the more you realize that this game isn't really a game. Or at least, its goal isn't the same as most other games. It's not an unrealistic mystery, it's not an escapist fantasy, it's a very real and heartbreaking situation that occurs all over the world every day.

I wouldn't describe it as raising awareness so much as taking a more direct approach to the idea of walking a mile in another person's shoes. You experience the game through Katie, and with Katie you indirectly experience the actual story through Sam. It's a marvelous concept made all the more impressive by the outstanding execution.

It evolves from being about a mystery to being about the most raw and basic human experiences. Anger, betrayal, loss, acceptance, denial, and love are all central to understanding both the game and the characters portrayed therein. What's especially remarkable is that one is able to experience all of these things from a video game that requires nothing more than walking around an empty house. The true art of Gone Home lies not in the graphics or soundtrack, but in the superb use of the medium itself.

Gameplay

The controls for Gone Home are as simple as most other walking simulators. You can move the character around, you can move the camera around, and you can interact with certain objects (opening/closing doors, turning on/off electronics, picking up/putting down various objects, and reading papers).

Gone Home Review. No need to second guess every single item in the house; the game will give you a prompt if interaction is possible.
The gameplay itself is equally simple. The goal is to walk around and interact with the things you see until you can puzzle out the underlining mystery (and sub-mysteries) of the game.

As you begin making your way around the house, you'll often come across an item that will trigger a journal entry from Sam. It appears that Sam wrote Katie a long letter at some point before Katie got home and that various items around the house will, when interacted with, prompt a voiceover in which Sam's voice can be heard reading a paragraph or two from the letter. The more you explore, and the more pieces of Sam's letter you uncover, the more the mystery will begin stitching itself together. However, that's not the only way to figure out what's going on, and just looking for journal prompts without truly investigating everything in the house won't get you the full story or the underlying context, nor will it give you any of the pertinent background information relating to Sam and Katie's parents.

There are letters and documents all over the house that provide a more full picture as to what's going on and what has been going on. There are clues that don't even seem like clues until you later come across information that ties things together, such as a Bible in a desk drawer or a movie ticket stub stuck in an air vent.

Gone Home Review. I think I now have more appreciation for detectives.

Graphics and Audio

Although neither the graphics nor the audio are anything to write home about, it accomplish exactly what it sets out to accomplish in terms of providing a proper atmosphere, which is all it really has to do.

The graphics aren't particularly high quality, but neither are they subpar. Everything in the house looks real enough from a video game perspective, and the detail given to the textures and modelings of the house and the objects within are above average. It might not seem like much to say "this lamp really looks like a lamp", but that sort of attention to detail goes a long way in making a game more immersive and enjoyable for the player.

Something that I was particularly impressed by was the intuitive design of the house itself. I would walk into a dark room and I would instinctively turn towards a specific spot on the wall with the expectation of there being a light switch in that location. I ended up being correct every time. Not because I'm any good at guessing those sorts of things, but because the house was designed so realistically that everything, even down to the light switches, was where you would naturally expect it to be.

Gone Home Review. Don't mind me, just gonna turn on every light I can find.
The audio was similarly impressive. Again, nothing that you could point to and call exceptional, but managing to so accurately provide the proper music and sounds for any given situation that it enhances the overall game immeasurably. The soundtrack itself can only be described as ghostly. It's the sort of music you'd expect in a horror game, another one of the reasons that I was originally thrown off. On top of certain aspects of the story itself, it really seemed to lend credence to the idea that I had completely misjudged the game's genre.

Dropping an object would provide the proper thump or clatter depending on the object itself and how it was dropped and what it was dropped onto. The house creaked appropriately for such an old and large estate. The rain became mere background noise, but would grow louder when closer to a window. The flash and crash of lightning was always jarring, but spaced out enough and occurring randomly enough to appear perfectly realistic. The opening of doors and drawers, traversing a wooden staircase, and pressing play on a cassette were all perfectly recorded in such a way as to be unnoticeable. This is not a bad thing, you'd only really take notice of those sorts of noises if they were off in some way.

There wasn't a lot of voice acting aside from Sam's journal entries and what was recorded on the house's answering machine, but that didn't stop it from being excellent. The emotion that was able to be conveyed through a few scattered sentences at a time is almost unbelievable. Like the rest of the soundtrack, it made immersion that much easier. Sam felt like a real person. 

Conclusion

Gone Home is intriguing, enjoyable, and expertly crafted. I hesitate to call it fun, not because it isn't satisfying or entertaining, but because I'm not sure that "having fun" was the goal. As much as there are lighthearted moments, the story is a serious one that examines mature subjects that are real life issues.
The overall plot is easily capable of keeping one's attention, assuming that you already understand what to expect from a walking simulator (i.e. no action), and there are enough details and secondary mysteries to keep the game from feeling overly simplistic.

This is not a game for all ages. It contains inappropriate language and deals with mature concepts such as infidelity and sexuality. It seems to mostly be directed towards those in their mid-teens to mid-twenties, but I believe that most adults in general could get a lot out of this game.

Depending on whether or not you're rushing through the game or taking it slow and steady, the entirety of Gone Home can be played in 2-4 hours. It's a great game for if you have a free afternoon or evening (although I should reiterate that, despite the lack of any actual horror, the game is eerie enough that I'd personally recommend trying to avoid playing it at night).

Gone Home managed to touch upon important, modern issues in such a way as to be both respectful and helpful. I'm sure there are those who can learn a lot from this game just as I'm sure there are those who could be greatly comforted by this game. I would normally say that even the best walking simulators shouldn't cost more than $10, but Gone Home makes a good case for challenging that assertion.

PROSCONS
 + Unique take on a common game style – The uncle could have been fleshed out more
 + Unbelievably immersive atmosphere
 + Realistic story that invites emotional investment
 + Believable characters
8
Great

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