If you’re an adult and you’ve ever lived on your own before, you probably know that feeling you get when you come back to visit your family and see that life has moved along without you. Your siblings have grown up, your parents’ relationship may be different, or maybe things just aren’t how you remember them.
I moved away from home at 18, but I could still draw you a map or describe every single room in that house, all the way down to the most minute detail. Whenever I’d go back to visit my parents, I’d open the door to my old room and still imagine it littered wall-to-wall with Korn, Coal Chamber, and Marilyn Manson posters, Playstation games alphabetically ordered along my shelf, crumpled pages of practice graffiti smothering my art desk, and a stack of old horror VHS tapes a mile high, all covered in a thin layer of dust.
With all of the good memories also come the ones from the darkest period of my entire life; from the relentless bullying in school to the rocky, hopeless relationship I had with my dad at the time (that has since been repaired, thankfully). It’s weird how just thinking about a home can draw in all of these memories, but they’re all things I was constantly reminded of while playing Gone Home.
When I started looking in to Gone Home, it was explained to me in its most basic form as a “dem feels game where you walk around your house, read notes, and your sister is gay”. Well, alrighty then.
As a heterosexual only child, I didn’t really feel like I was going to connect with Gone Home right off the bat. Imagine my surprise when, 2 hours later, I’m watching the credits roll and strongly considering it for my Game of the Year.
In Gone Home you play as Katie, the big sister who has just returned from her overseas travels and finds her parent’s house in shambles. Clearly the house appears to be lived in, but strangely everyone is missing. You’re given no background information in regards to their disappearance, no clues of what to do next, and the house is yours to explore from top to bottom in a first-person perspective.
You can open drawers, read notes, journals, old magazines, personal letters, and listen to the occasional mix-tapes left around by your younger sister Sam. See, in Gone Home, the story is a lot less about you and more about Sam’s common struggle of being a teenager; having parents that don’t understand you, feeling alienated from your peers for being different, wanting badly to be treated as an adult, watching your friends grow up and change–for better or worse–and, the most devious of emotions, love.
Exploring your home does not pose any form of threat, as there are no terrorists to shoot, no dragons to slay, no combos to learn, no hi-score to achieve. There’s no penalty for taking your time and exploring the mystery of your empty house and missing family. That’s all there is to it.
In the end, what makes a game a game is going to vary from person to person, and I completely agree with the Destructoid review of Gone Home where they claim that it’s “not a game for everyone.” If you need more action in your games, more complex mechanics or a central focus on the main character, Gone Home is definitely not for you. It’s what the internet ignorantly refers to as a walking simulator, but it’s much more than that. It’s a narrative experience. It’s a story as good as any coming of age novel. It’s relatable. Whether or not it’s a game is up to you, but it’s truly one of the most memorable experiences I’ve had in a long, long time.
As I sit here writing this review, I can vividly remember exploring the home, learning about Sam’s personal struggles, her love of Street Fighter, listening to her mix-tapes spanning the Riot Grrrl movement of the mid-90’s, and reading her ghost hunting diaries and various short stories about Captain Allegra and her “first mate”.
Few full-length games deliver such a strong narrative, so the fact that Gone Home is roughly 2 hours long doesn’t bother me at all. It’s the same length as most modern films, or a few episodes of a television show, which also exist to tell a story. I liked that uncovering the mystery was left up to the player, and it reminded me of Bioshock’s Rapture; discovering and listening to recordings, finding letters, and uncovering the lore yourself.
My initial interest in Gone Home was non-existent, but eventually my curiosity got the best of me and I’m glad it did. I stand by the game (if you agree with calling it one) based on its stellar narrative, solid voice acting, and letting the player uncover everything by their own free will. I feel that Sam’s story, however similar it may or may not be to how you felt as a teenager, is something that we can all relate to on some level.
Gone Home is not a cinematic experience and doesn’t try anything fancy with its bare-bones gameplay, but developer Fullbright’s apparent knack for storytelling definitely paid off. It may be short, it’s not too pretty, and it’s lacking the action that so many crave in their games, but, in my opinion, Gone Home is definitely worth playing and ended up being the biggest surprise of 2013.