Gone Home (PS4)
The Fullbright Company | August 2013 (PC/Mac), Jan 2016 (Console)
Platforms: Playstation 4, Xbox One, Windows, Linux, Mac OS X
This review is going to have two parts in two separate posts: a spoiler-free review and an in-depth analysis that covers the whole narrative (including lots of spoilers). If you have never played Gone Home, I highly recommend you do not read the analysis. This review, and it’s introductory disclaimer, is designed to give you a good idea of the game and hopefully help you decide if Gone Home is for you or not. The analysis is for people who have already finished Gone Home or have no intention of ever playing it for whatever reason. This is going to be a long one, so without further adieu, let’s dive in.
Disclaimer: first of all, Gone Home is not for everyone. If you need the following things in your games then you may want to skip Gone Home: tons of action, a fast pace, lots of killing, over 10 hours of gameplay, a story handed to you on silver platter, an ability to turn off your brain while playing, a fantastical setting and story, or extensive “gameplay elements.” If you like your games to be purely narrative driven, emotional, and inhabited by real, fully developed characters then you should give this game a chance. Also, be warned that this game is less than 5 hours long, but quality greatly outweighs quantity in this case. Lastly, this game is going to appeal more to people aged 21+ because of the setting, references, and mature storyline. The reason I’m giving this disclaimer is because I’ve seen a lot of hate for Gone Home in various review comment sections, and I felt the need to explain these things up front. If you are okay with everything I mentioned, then I think you will absolutely love Gone Home as it was one of the best narrative gaming experiences I’ve ever had.
I really loved Gone Home. A lot of the strengths of the gameplay experience lie in the player not knowing too much about the game before beginning; that is how I experienced it, actively avoiding too much information about its story. Because of this, if you think you will enjoy Gone Home at this point in my review then I would recommend stop reading now, play it, then come back. What I loved so much about it is hard to explain without spoiling anything, but I will do my best.
The game starts with very little information given to the player. You are presented with a black screen while you hear the protagonist’s answering machine message to her family. She, you, say that you’ve decided to take the cheap flight home from Paris so you would be arriving after midnight and would get a shuttle home. The scene fades in. You are standing on the front porch of a large, beautiful yet cryptic house while a storm rages on around you. There is a note on the front door from someone named “Sam” who you come to learn is your little sister. It is hard to parse out what exactly the note means at this point, but you are soon presented with your first puzzle as you notice the front door is locked when you try to enter. Once you find the key (it’s not too hard) you enter the house and it is now time to start piecing the narrative together.
Nothing about Gone Home’s story is explained to you, the player, until you find the right item tied to the narrative. This is essentially how the whole game unfolds: you look around the house, picking up and examining objects, trying to discover what the hell happened and where your family is. There is a looming sense of dread as you soon discover your family, while you were backpacking in Europe, recently moved into the house that formerly belonged to your great Uncle, a man whom the whole town believes to have gone insane before dying. Lightning flashes, lights flicker, and there’s a constant downpour of rain. There’s also no cable, the landline is disconnected, and it is 1995 so there are no cell phones. You have nothing to do but walk around the house and explore. And exploring the world of Gone Home is a treat on so many levels.
Great detail is put into every inch of Gone Home. Everything from the handwritten notes, fake novels, and family portraits to the empty pizza boxes and whiskey bottles tell a story. Granted, there is some repetition in the objects you find such as the countless useless markers and the same red pack of playing cards, but the unique details put into every other object greatly outweigh this small oversight. One thing that amazes me about Gone Home is how the developers at the Fullbright Company manage to get you to go exactly where they want you to go in the order they intended without their pulling of the narrative strings becoming too obvious – at least that was the case with my playthrough. With that said, there are some moments that don’t quite make sense, but I don’t know how they could achieve telling Sam’s story without bending the rules a bit. For example, there are some objects you find in places that don’t really make sense logically, yet the developers can’t really have the player finding them earlier or the story could fall apart. This small issue did cause me to stop suspending my disbelief for a second, but as soon as I found the next object and heard Sam’s voiceover journal entry I was engrossed in the narrative once again.
Speaking of the voiceovers, they are fantastic. Gone Home has some of the best voice acting I’ve ever heard, especially for an indie game. There is a real sense of sadness and joy in Sam’s voice as you listen to her story. And Gone Home is, without a doubt, Sam’s story not Katie’s. Katie, the character you control, is simply a cipher for experiencing Sam’s coming-of-age tale and serves as nothing more than a foil to Sam, and your means of exploring the home. I would have liked a bit more characterization for Katie so I could have cared more about what might happen to her. Again though, as I previously mentioned, this is not Katie’s story so this is not too heinous an offense. Sam, on the other hand, is a character I really seemed to connect with despite some glaring differences between her and I – this is a sign of great storytelling. There is also some solid development in the tertiary characters, Katie and Sam’s parents, so it would have been nice to get to know our protagonist just as much as her family. I can’t say too much about the parents without, again, spoiling anything, but I will say their collective relationship story as well as their individual struggles are pretty interesting.
Ultimately, the thing about Gone Home is this: you only get as much as you put in. There’s a fully fleshed out story about the Greenbriar family available to you but you will only learn what you seek out. The Fullbright Company will not hold your hand through this playthrough; it is up to you to discover what happened to the family upon being dropped on their front porch in a thunderstorm.
This story won’t resonate with every player, but with Gone Home being free this month for PlayStation Plus subscribers, why not give it a shot anyways? I personally know lots of gamers who would probably hate this game and say it is boring, but they also hate the Portal series and all movies that aren’t Fast & Furious or The Expendables. If you are looking to dodge a bunch of explosions and kill relentless waves of bad guys, then there are plenty of games for that, but if you are looking for a small, delicate, and moving story full of great details and thoughtful character development then Gone Home is for you.
Note: this reviewer does not mean to put down action-heavy titles or games without much story as there is a place for all kinds of games. In fact, some of my favorite games are completely driven by gameplay mechanics and have terrible stories. There is a spectrum in gaming, and, in my opinion, the best games meet somewhere in the middle, perfectly blending their gameplay and story. Gone Home isn’t quite there, but it’s pretty damn good.
Joe Portes is a writer of Fiction and Essays, as well as a Creative Writing instructor in Upstate New York. He has edited literary journals and online magazines where his stories, interviews, and reviews have also appeared. His work has been in or is forthcoming in the Indianola Review, Pitkin Review, and Free George Magazine among others. Aside from writing for the Pop Culture Beast, he maintains a blog at JoePortes.com where you can read about everything from teaching college freshmen, to his love of podcasts, to playing video games.