Mini Review: Gone Home
Despite the notion that the Internet has long passed newspapers for the traditional place to get one’s information, it seems the Web has really just become the new newspaper for our generation. It functions in the same way, essentially; we all read something in the morning, and it blows up, and we talk to all of our friends about it, and then the next day brings along something else to talk about until the next day, and so forth. That’s the daily cycle of it all, but now we get to photoshop images and hashtag jokes and post it on people’s walls in an effort to make NOTHING escape without being read and argued about. Sometimes the stories fade fast, and sometimes it seems a phenomenon can hit out of nowhere and simply take over the general discussion. That’s exactly what happened with The Fullbright Company’s Gone Home, a game I never heard of until it was the biggest game, and then the most praised game of the year, and then the most divisive game. And all of this happened in the blink of an eye, and just two weeks ago I was asking myself “what the fuck is Gone Home and why won’t anyone shut up about it?”
And then I played it. And now I understand why everyone couldn’t stop talking about it. It’s an incredibly ambitious game while oddly being minimalistic and limiting. There are almost no options, no innovative mechanics, nothing to set it apart gameplay wise. It’s two hours long, and somehow by being so miniscule and linear, breaks the narrative form most stories are told in. But Jared, this game is just a waste of $20, and it lacks any replayability, or modes, or anything for that matter. I don’t understand why critics give it perfect scores and say it made them cry. It doesn’t do anything particularly well, and I’ve seen/heard/played better ‘art’ games before, and experienced better stories before too. What a rip.
And you would be totally right, other Jared. There have been other stories about this very same thing done better, and there are exploration games that accomplish more. The Walking Dead is a perfect example of something with more bang for your buck, and I would never get upset about someone expressing their opinion on art. It’s all subjective, and if people feel ripped off buying Gone Home, I completely agree with them. Any game that doesn’t fulfill your needs or expectations, or pleases you, or is overvalued, you should have the right to complain about it on the Internet to no one in particular. I could just as easily tell you to go fuck yourself, or to lower your expectations, or to maybe not take risks purchasing games, or to just do more research on a title before you drop your money. But who am I to say these things? I mean, I’m only some sham who writes things anonymously from his room, anyhow.
Where was I? Oh yeah, Gone Home is amazing, and you should buy it, if you have any appreciation for where the medium can go.
Reactions have been rather…well, should I say, mixed? Mixed is a polite word for it. Vitriolic is another word I might use, and I’m not implying that there’s some Idiocracy battle going on between people with class and those with no brains, but this is one of those indie darlings that really splits us down the middle. I can’t see anyone in their right minds saying this is merely okay, or that it was a good effort. You will either love Gone Home, or hate it and feel cheated, and that’s perfectly acceptable. This really is one of those murky times where your individual playthrough and past experiences can fill in the background to the story, or connect the dots, or even push emotional buttons with you specifically. If you get through the entire game and have no feelings towards any of the Greenbriar’s, or to the setting, or the atmosphere, or the ambience, or to the 1995 time setting, then by all means you have every right to not enjoy this game. But as so many have done so before me, and undoubtedly will after me, I was literally blown away by Gone Home. I don’t remember ever playing a video game and getting the rush I did of concern, and curiosity, and fear, and of empathy.
If you don’t already know the plot: don’t. The less you know, the better, because that’s really all the game is. It’s walking around a big house, and collecting clues and examining objects. Most of the locked doors and combination numbers you get by house nothing more than tiny pieces of a larger puzzle, the puzzle in this case being a fleshed out depiction of a family stuck in a time of crisis. The crisis itself is most of the mystery, and I really don’t want you to be spoiled, but it’s just one of those things I can’t help but want to yell about. No one I’ve asked has heard of this thing, and I really don’t think anyone I know will end up playing it. Which is a real shame, because the nuances crafted into Gone Home make everything so believable and lived in, and the dynamic between what you know and don’t know work perfectly into how you play the game. Every room you go into tells a tale, and the more you poke around the more interesting the world gets.
Interesting, and inevitably sadder.
You play as Katie Greenbriar, and you’ve just flown in from a vacation in Europe. Your family has moved into a new house, and no one is home, so you’re put into her shoes literally and figuratively. Everything you touch and everywhere you go is unfamiliar to you, because it’s all new to both the player and Katie. But since I’m a ‘90s child, and I’ve also lived as a teenager in a red-blooded American household, it all feels weirdly true to life. All of the crannies and nooks and posters and TV’s and VHS tapes and leftover papers and old homework assignments and pens in drawers, it all just feels like a real home. Mr. Greenbriar’s career can be traced, but his empty bottles on the chair next to the record player speak volumes about who he is. The whole house works to both act as your setting, and your MetroidVania labyrinth, but really as another character you learn more about when snooping around. Unlike when playing Batman, your detective skills don’t ultimately matter when solving the case. And since you’re really never sure what the case is in the first place, the creepiness of it all quickly sucks you in to Gone Home. It’s raining outside, lightning illuminates whatever room you’re in sporadically, and for the first hour of the game I legitimately thought I was playing a horror game.
It fucking freaked me out at times. That’s just a creepy image, I’m sorry.
But for the other moments, there are bits of humor, and somber signs of misery and discontent, a tale centered on your sister Sam and her attempts to break from her rusty cage of conformity and misunderstanding. It can seem like a typical teenage “I hate my parents” sob story, but the lone instances of voice over cement what makes Gone Home so effective and chilling. Whenever you find something of importance, the narrative marches forward, and Sam reads from her journal. Sam is a heartbreaking character, and you never really get to see what she looks like (outside of a few photos you can zoom in on) but you won’t forget her anytime soon, I can guarantee you of that. The way the game frames certain journal entries and where you find them, and how it lays out the story to be found, it can be construed in a number of ways; at times you’ll think it’s about Satanism, or human sacrifice, or a haunted mansion filled with ghosts. Sometimes you’ll think the game is going towards figuring out the JFK assassination, or will result in some kind of a suicidal effigy. And all of those things might be true, which is why it makes Gone Home compelling and spooky.
I don’t know if others will agree with me, and I don’t care. I know for a fact no one can feel the rush I had towards the climax of this game, and the twists it makes you turn in your head without doing anything at all. Gone Home simply lets you create a narrative on top of the one it lets you explore and find, and you will jump to conclusions and picture the worst, and the game brilliantly takes the foot off the petal while pushing you forward. It’s truthful, it’s haunting, and memorable. The ending is just as discordant and alienating as the rest of the game, but if you have the heart, Gone Home is something that shouldn’t be missed. Unless you don’t have the money, or just watch a Youtube video of it all. I don’t recommend you do so, since interactive entertainment/storytelling/art should be played and not just watched, but I don’t begrudge anyone for viewing it. It’s painfully short, but the impact will still be had, just without the fear of reaching the attic, or turning a corner and hearing the crackle of a TV you forgot to turn off. Gone Home reminds me of living in a past memory, one you didn’t have, but it just feels so close you connect to it. I don’t know how quite to explain it, but there’s a nostalgic quality to it all, and along with the engrossing story and the brutal verisimilitude, I have to both recommend it to those who are intrigued and tell people to not buy it if they aren’t. I don’t think I’ve ever done that in a review before, but too bad, I just did.
See? That feeling you just got? Being confounded and hurt, and a little angry? That’s Gone Home, but with way more resonance and profoundness. And a lot of awesome ‘90s references, like Pulp Fiction and Street Fighter II. You’ll be glad you played it, if you do. Which you should.