I was a teenage girl in 1995: passing notes to my friends in class, listening to Buffalo Tom and Nirvana (R.I.P. Kurt Cobain), dying my hair red. Even now, in my thirties, I frequently indulge my guilty pleasure for young adult novels and TV shows set in high school. This specific point in time, smack dab in the middle of the ’90s, was confusing and exciting and extremely meaningful to me, but it’s hardly an experience I ever would have expected to see represented in a video game. Especially not in a game from a team that previously worked on first-person shooters.
So let’s just say I was very pleasantly surprised by my early look at Gone Home, an upcoming story game from The Fullbright Company. This Portland-based indie was founded last year by three ex-2K Marin employees, Steve Gaynor, Karla Zimonja, and Johnnemann Nordhagen, who first worked together on BioShock 2 and later on the DLC Minerva’s Den. Then Gaynor moved to Boston, a short-lived relocation that ended with him and his wife deciding to return to her hometown. “It was like, if we’re going to go back to Portland, we have to figure out how to make it work. There’s not really an established game industry there, so how can we do that?” Gaynor explained when I chatted with him at GDC. “I’d worked with Karla and Johnnemann before and wanted to work with them again, so I reached out to them, and they quit their jobs and moved up to Portland, and we’re all sharing a house. Our office is in the basement. We’re completely self-funded, we’re living off our savings.” Together with environment artist Kate Craig, who works remotely from Vancouver, they dove into the narrative experiment that is Gone Home—a game set in June 1995 about a spooky abandoned house, a missing family and, unexpectedly, the secret lives of teenagers.
In this first-person game you are Katie, the older Greenbriar daughter, returning home after a yearlong backpacking trip in Europe. Gone Home is a game about coming back to a house where something happened while you were away—something you need to piece together on your own, because Katie’s family isn’t there to fill in the blanks. The adventure opens with an answering machine recording as Katie tells her family that her flight home will get in after midnight. (“I’ll get a shuttle from the airport so you don’t have to pick me up. Really, seriously, you don’t have to.”) Arriving at the front door, your first discovery is a note on the door left by Katie’s younger sister, Sam, that reads in part: Please, please don’t go digging around trying to find out where I am. I don’t want [s]Mom and Dad[/s] anyone to know.
Of course, when confronted with a note like that, you have no choice but to go digging—especially when that note was written by your little sister. “We hope that the entire motivation for exploring the house and trying to find out what happened is internally [driven] by the player. You want to find out more because you’re curious,” Gaynor explained. “When we were throwing stuff out early on, we talked about what if you were a private eye or a police officer, and at that point you’re trying to solve the mystery because it’s your job. But I think Gone Home only works if you’re trying to solve the mystery because you want to know what happened to this family.”
Katie being part of the missing family gives the player implicit permission to do those socially unacceptable things we typically do in adventure games, like rifling through dresser drawers, pocketing items that don’t belong to us, and reading other characters’ diaries. “You dig through this house and find out about people and find out all the secrets they’re trying to hide, but instead of being basically a home invader, or someone that’s just really intruding on their privacy, we wanted to say that you have a connection to this family. You’ve been away for a while so you don’t know what happened, and then you arrive, and there’s no quest giver, there’s no objective screen that says, ‘Find out what happened,’” Gaynor said.
Gone Home isn’t a horror game, but it does shoot you up with a distinct feeling of dread as you venture into the Greenbriars’ dark, seemingly abandoned house. “I think the scariness mostly comes from the familiar feeling, the irrational fear of when you get up to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night and you walk past your living room and it’s dark, and you feel weirdly uneasy about it,” Gaynor said. A large area is open to you from the beginning, including your parents’ and sister’s bedrooms, the foyer, the upstairs and downstairs hallways, a family room, and the library. As you travel through these rooms, turning on lights as you go, you find notes and items that hint at what happened here in the months after the family moved in during the fall of 1994. Katie’s mother Janice, a Senior Conservationalist at the Boon County Forestry Service, seems to be spending more time at work than at home. Dad Terry has hit a snag in his career. But the standout plotline involves what happened to Katie’s sister Sam, a high school freshman faced with the stigma of moving into the “insane house” at 1 Arbor Hill, who has a penchant for creative writing and a confusing fascination with a senior named Lonnie.
Some of Katie’s discoveries around the house prompt Sam’s audio diary entries to play, filling in details surrounding the significance of certain items and the events of Sam’s freshman year. “I think the most important thing about the player being Katie, and the protagonist of the story that you’re discovering being her younger sister, is that we wanted Sam to be able to be very open about what had happened to her during this time that the player character wasn’t there. We wanted her to be able to address her diary entries to the player. If someone is being completely honest about what they’ve gone through, you pay attention to that,” Gaynor said. “I think there is a different kind of relationship with two sisters who are a similar age and grow up together, they share a lot. Not always, but in a lot of cases there’s this closeness and openness between sisters, they know a lot about each other and they can be honest with each other. So part of the reason that you’re Sam’s sister, and not her brother, is because we wanted for her to be able to be completely open. You need to be in the shoes of someone that she would totally open up to about what she had gone through.”Continued on the next page...