Where the Hell Is
The idea of showing up at a stranger’s house and plundering through all their crap is what initially sold me on Gone Home. Second, I am a ‘90s kid who yearns for days long gone, and Gone Home is set in just perfect 1995, where the residue of the 1980s was over but the technology boom had barely lifted off. I squealed with a girlish glee when I found Sam’s Super Nintendo cartridges, and something melted on the inside after I read the TV listing that included Unsolved Mysteries, Homicide: Life of the Street, Picket Fences and of course, The X-Files. In that sense, I had indeed returned home.
Just like the Greenbriars, we all leave our personal lives sitting in drawers and closets. We don’t hide it because we aren’t expecting someone to barge in and piece it all together. Gone Home provides an opportunity to do just that. The inner voyeur is channeled through elder daughter Katie Greenbriar, who returns home after backpacking in Europe. Arriving from the airport after midnight, she finds her father Terry, mother Janice and younger sister Sam mysteriously absent. The house is in disarray, as if the family simply picked up and left. Bearing in mind that this takes place when the public Internet was in its infancy and cellphones were used for three second emergency calls, it makes sense that Katie made it this far without hearing important updates.
Katie’s task is figuring out what happened. Sam’s explanation is the most overt, told through narrated diary entries triggered by picking up notes. Though Sam is the central figure in all of this, the Greenbriars’ entire living situation can be discovered by poking through their belongings. Among other revelations, we learn the house’s history, Terry’s inner demons, and the negative influence that has run from him to Janice and to Sam.
A lot can be said about Samantha Greenbriar. On the outset she is a typical angst-ridden teenager dealing with the lamentations of a new place, a new school, and Parents Who Don’t Understand. What makes Sam stand out is her wild imagination. She lives half her life in worlds she channels into creative writing. Her time in reality is spent obsessing over paranormal activity, playing Super Nintendo and listening to riot grrl music. Sam’s quirkiness can be offputting in a twee Juno sort of way—at one point I wondered if I’d find a hamburger phone—but she is pleasant enough to be our guide on the journey. She comes off as a real person, more importantly her own person.
There are moments that add an air of creepiness to the mystery, intensifying every corner turn or darkened room. Katie’s trek through the house is accented by a violent storm. Sam’s evidence mentions that her family has moved into ‘the psycho house’ and that its mysterious former owner died under suspicious circumstances; later, when we find said psycho’s crucifix in a cramped passageway, a light bulb explodes, enveloping us in darkness. The upstairs bathtub has what appears to be dried blood all over the porcelain.
Spoiler alert: the creepy moments are all bait-and-switch, smoke and mirrors. There are no ghosts, aliens, or murderers in Gone Home. We expect these because decades of gaming have instilled those expectations within us. Gone Home does a great job playing on our learned fears. The reality is something far more human, and while the absence of the supernatural might seem disappointing, human drama is just as unnerving.
Challenge is virtually nonexistent. There is no fighting, no puzzles(!), nor any way to die or fail. Period. You cannot lose. The developers’ commentary even mentions the doors being programmed to swing in two directions so the player wouldn’t get stuck. The only potential pratfall is losing sight of the next key or note, and neither is ever too far away.
So how is Gone Home a game, then? Interesting question. The word ‘game,’ by definition, implies that there is something to play against. One can win or lose the game of football, Metroid or Monopoly, but unless quitting early counts as losing, one can only win Gone Home.
I wanted to argue that with no challenge, Gone Home is an experience, not a game, but isn’t every game an experience? They let us explore worlds not our own, assume the roles of heroes or villains who aren’t us, and perform feats we normally couldn’t. Gone Home has all of those escapist elements in place. That sounds like a game to me.
With an average reported play time clocking in at about two hours, Gone Home is very brief. The incentive to tread through a second time depends on how much the house was explored in the first round; if all the clues pieced together the grand picture, there is little reason to go back.
The Fullbright Company has enhanced replayability by adding optional modifiers. These bonuses include having all the doors unlocked from the beginning, allowing the house to be explored out of sequence. The biggest perk is the commentary, which adds in dozens of floating nodes that can be clicked on to play developer audio logs. Some of these are insightful and others drag on a bit long, but the feature provides a neat window into the house’s design and what was derived from the team’s own nostalgia.
The final dealbreaker is whether or not Gone Home is worth its price tag. I bought mine during a Steam sale, but right now the full retail price is $20. For that amount you get a large, explorable house, a ‘90s love letter, a good plot, a minuscule play time and no enemies. Tastes will vary.
Paying $3.99 was fine; the whole $20 would have given me pause. However, Gone Home left me thinking and reflecting for a while after it was over. It may be expensive for its length, but damned if I didn’t feel something for these flawed, beautiful human beings and their tragic story.
FINAL GRADE: B-