In addition to the licensed music, you’ll stumble across many other cultural references that set Gone Home in a specific time and place. A magazine cover pays tribute to Kurt Cobain (1967-1994). A brochure for Reed College, a liberal arts university in Portland, can be found in Sam’s room. A highlighted TV listing and movie ticket stub suggest that Sam’s into The X-Files and Pulp Fiction, while a jokey note she passed in class reveals that Beverly Hills, 90210 has already begun its downward spiral. And though My So-Called Life is never explicitly referenced, the posters on Sam’s bedroom walls and the flannels in her dresser would have made Angela Chase feel right at home.
The 3D graphics are more functional than pretty, capably depicting the massive house and its lived-in clutter. With their limited resources, Fullbright has wisely avoided character models that could detract from the game’s realism and instead brings the world to life via pictures, household products, and scraps of paper that boast a great variety of visual styles. Many of these objects can be picked up and rotated to examine even more carefully. Although some mundane items obviously appear in more than one place (e.g. tissue boxes, potato chip bags), the amazing attention to detail in Gone Home’s found items goes a long way to immerse the player in the Greenbriars’ domestic lives.
While Sam’s junior year of high school is at the forefront of the narrative, her parents’ lives have also been in turmoil since their move into the house at 1 Arbor Hill. Mom Janice is a forestry service employee with an hour-long commute whose job increasingly takes her away from her family, while dad Terry, a writer, is floundering on a follow-up to two conspiracy novels he published in the '70s. Wrapped up in their own unhappiness, both appear to be unaware of what’s going on with their youngest daughter—a true-to-life setup that, as any former rebellious teen surely knows, promises dazzling fallout.
The closest you’ll come to solving puzzles is finding three keys and a locker combination needed to progress through the house. (There are also two locked safes that I didn’t find my way into; I’m assuming hints to their combinations exist, but they could have been red herrings.) Once you’ve found the keys you need, you can access new areas of the house that present later parts of the story. With these gateways, the designers have deftly applied structure and pacing to an otherwise non-linear experience: you can only proceed into the basement to uncover the story’s second act after you’ve experienced the full arc of act one, and so on. There's an opportunity at the start of the game to select “unlock all doors,” but again, I don’t know why you would (at least on a first playthrough). Reconciling story structure with player agency is a perpetual challenge in interactive storytelling, and Fullbright has figured out how to do it in a way that makes sense, hiding secrets behind just enough locked doors to be believable in this sprawling house. They’ve also done great job with pacing—no small feat in a game you play at your leisure. I’m usually turned off by games with vast areas to be explored and backstory brain-dumps required to make sense of the world. But by scattering a few clues at a time throughout a familiar setting, Gone Home’s designers kept me on a path while also giving me a ton of freedom. And as the story built to its climax, my own mounting anxiety about what I would discover in the final locked room provided the end-of-game urgency that might otherwise have had to be manufactured with QTEs or cutscenes.
Truly, my only complaint about Gone Home lies with its controls. It’s a first-person, direct control game that you play with a gamepad (left stick to move, right stick to pan the camera), or keyboard and mouse. Like many people who shy away from action games, I’m a klutz with keyboard controls and would have preferred the gamepad, but neither of mine worked quite right. (Fullbright explains that only the Xbox 360 controller is fully supported.) Because the exploration is leisurely and there are no lurking dangers to dodge, being clumsy with the controls won’t prevent you from playing, but I worry that people uncomfortable with the keyboard and mouse setup (or, for that matter, non-gamers who are drawn to Gone Home for its story alone) won’t put up with the learning curve. It took me about 15 minutes to feel like I knew what I was doing, and for the entire game I kept bumping up against little hang-ups like having to repeatedly back up and reposition the camera before I could reach a light switch, or getting stuck against an open cabinet door I meant to go around. I wholeheartedly recommend the game in spite of these annoyances, but controls I didn’t have to keep thinking about would have boosted an amazing experience to a near-perfect one.
About three hours in duration, this is a compact game, but I thought it was a good length for the story being told. The ending had me in tears, which I generally consider a plus in dramatic games—particularly when the story is surprising like it is here rather than falling back on melodramatic clichés. But whether you reach for the Kleenex or not, chances are Gone Home will give you something to think about. For those whose teen years were like Sam’s, her story may dredge up bad memories, but I think the care and sensitivity Fullbright has exercised in telling it will be appreciated. For everyone else, the game provides a chance to experience a perspective we don’t often see, and that’s interactive storytelling at its best. Many people read books for the opportunity to see life through someone else’s eyes, but it’s rare for a game to do it as well as this one does.
Like my beloved My So-Called Life, a “little” show that struggled for ratings and mainstream acceptance, I fear that Gone Home may face an uphill battle when it comes to finding its audience. As an indie adventure, it’s small potatoes compared the team’s previous AAA credits (Fullbright’s founders worked together on the BioShock 2 DLC Minerva’s Den). And in an industry that largely dismisses women’s stories and perspectives, its singular focus on a teenage girl’s high school experience is risky. But that’s part of why I love it. Gone Home excites me not only because it tells a great story, but also because it hints at what more adventure games can achieve. Now that the door has been opened on this sort of narrative experience, I’m optimistic that others like it will follow. Some players want action—there are games out there for you. Others want puzzles, and you have plenty options, too. Me, I crave games that suck me into a story I can care about, introduce me to characters I can empathize with, transport me to a world I don’t want to leave. Gone Home did this, brilliantly.
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What our readers think of Gone Home
Posted by JohnS on Dec 23, 2015
Worst game ever - no adventure or puzzlesWe started this game thinking there was something interesting like puzzles or relevant game play involved. Well, there is not... do not play this game it is a massive waste of time (we were a family of 6 and very experienced in playing Nancy Drew... Read the review »
Posted by thorn969 on May 12, 2014
Felt too small and linearGiven the reviews, I was expecting much more from this game. By the end, it felt more like a series of tasks I needed to complete to finish the game than fun. I found the story rather predictable and stereotypical and the world too small and... Read the review »
Posted by Fma42081 on Aug 31, 2013