After years of chatter, praise, and the mean-spirited derisiveness that was all targeted at this game, Gone Home managed to blow me away.
Gone Home and the games that it inspired have been among the most contentious pieces released in the video game space. Without bullets, without brawling, without jumping, driving, strategy, or fail-states, Gone Home is an interactive storybook. You play as Kaitlin Greenbriar, a college-aged woman returning early from a European excursion. Kaitlin arrives during a thunderstorm at your family’s new home in Arbor Hill, Oregon. Entering the house, you come across a note on the desk from your sister that reads: “We’ll see each other again someday. Don’t be worried. I love you.” I have three siblings, but I don’t think I would need even one for this hook to be this affecting. Kaitlin then spends the rest of the night exploring this unfamiliar home, walking from room to room over creaky floorboards, and around stacks of cardboard boxes. It’s a home in flux, and it’s crammed wall-to-wall with clues to an unknown mystery that the player spends one stormy night unpacking.
But Kaitlin explores a lot more than post-it notes and cardboard boxes labeled “BEDROOM”. Kaitlin overturns desk drawers, opens private letters, reads journal entires, and listens to cassette tapes, and out of that comes an outpouring of family history, and family secrets. Gone Home shows you just how much you can find out about somebody by going through not just their purse, wallet, or glovebox—but an entire family house.
Gone Home was initially released in August of 2013 and has been available on consoles since the Winter of 2016, but it would be a small travesty to spoil the story for the uninitiated. Instead, here’s a quick aside.
One of the games early areas is the office of Kaitlin’s dad, Terrence Greenbriar. Terrence writes for a Home Theater enthusiast magazine, reviewing consumer electronics. Elsewhere in the office Kaitlin discovers stacks of unsold books authored by her father, and if you take out all of the copies, a porno magazine is hidden at the bottom of the box. Pale onscreen text under the player crosshair reads “Ew, dad!”.
What does that have to do with the overall arc of Kaitlin and her family? Not much—and that’s why I chose to share it. But it’s a tiny, indispensable brushstroke that eventually reveals the unseen principal cast as three-dimensional human beings.
Gone Home is a game so exceptional that it inspired a new genre, and with it, an exciting new pejorative: “walking simulator”. That can only mean it’s something worthwhile. Meaningful new art is often met with vehement disapproval at first blush, but Gone Home manages to breathe free of praises and condemnations. Five years and change since its initial release, it also has so-far escaped being outmoded by later games in this style.
Within Gone Home, Fullbright Studios has lovingly crafted a believable space, with an art style that trades photorealism for something that seems realer. Although, the handwritten notes and doodles might as well be photographs. The spoken audio is eminently believable as the words of people, and not actors playing people. When desk drawers are opened, pens and pencils roll around. You can inspect cereal boxes in the pantry to no end, and even though there are a lot of pizza boxes lying around, the cardboard inside is slightly darkened by grease.
More than anything, Gone Home is about people. We get to know these people through their quirks, hobbies, uncertainties, and private joys. Affectation in someones voice, writing, or even handwriting is what makes the light detective work in the game so special.
Gone Home is a game I had thought I understood after reading a million-billion words about it, but I was still wrong. Gone Home is a lot more than a novelty—it’s an achievement. Gone Home is a game that may remain the best in its class, and the experience of Gone Home is something that consumers, journalists, developers, and I will be thinking about for a long time to come.