Gone Home has been called an interactive first-person narrative, but what does that even mean? Game Designers have been exploring the possibilities of the “First Person” perspective for many years now, with games such as Bioshock having already set the standard for narrative without cut scenes. In fact, I could probably argue that this particular design trope has pretty much been exhausted with this generation. Naturally, it was quickly snapped up by the mainstream, and as player demand grew a lot of designers jumped on the first-person bandwagon. Initially it was all about shooting, and then it was with a dash of RPG mechanics, but this ultimately resulted in a lot of average games that were clearly trying to capitalise on a growing trend. Honestly, I have that much “FPS Fatigue” that it genuinely affects my ability to enjoy a lot of games using that perspective. Could Gone Home be a solution?
The first question we have to ask ourselves is, “what sets this game apart from what’s already out there?” It’s simple though – Narrative. Gone Home tells the story of Katie Greenbriar, a young girl returning home after travelling abroad for a year, only to find a confusing note on the front door and her entire family missing. Is it a horror story? No. The house is old and big, there are secrets to discover, and you will have to turn on a few light switches to find your way around, but that’s just a part of the fun. It’s all about exploring and piecing together a story that will ultimately lead you to a concluding point, and this is where this game succeeds so wonderfully. It’s not a conventional tale, either in content or delivery, and I think this is what makes the game stand out so much. Last years indie treasure, Dear Esther, was a brief glimpse at the possibilities, but Gone Home is truly the first step.
There are audio journals that playout during the game to help the player to build an understanding about Katie’s sister. However, this is not the core element that the game delivers so well. Placing visuals aside for the moment, I have to say that this inanely large house is the most lived-in environment I’ve ever explored in a game, almost to the point that had there not been context, I would have felt “naughty” looking through everything. To explain, when you begin the game there are no instructions, you just have to look around, and whilst some information might be conveniently placed in the form of letters and notes, there are so many subtle details to pick up on that paint a clear picture of who Katie’s family members truly are. Certainly, I could tell you basic things about them, like what they do for work, but more importantly, I could also tell you about their passions, their struggles, and ultimately what makes them vulnerable. “What makes them human.” This is the unique reward of environmental narrative.
I think it’s reasonable to assume that Gone Home will definitely not be for everyone, but I don’t think that discredits the experience. Essentially, there are no core objectives for the player to fulfil, and it is also very easy to miss out on a lot of the small detail if you don’t exert the effort into seeing what’s actually going on around you. However, for those who are driven by the thrill of a compelling story, this experience will surely capture their hearts and imagination, and probably rock a lot of expectations as well. I anticipate that many will walk away with their minds blown, and yet, I think we can rightfully expect mainstream to ask us, “How exactly is this a game?”, which is a fair question. Honestly, the term “Game” is a subjective word, and whilst the title-screen describes Gone Home as a “Story Exploration Video Game”, I believe my initial description is a lot clearer. In fact, I have to agree that this is not a game, but then again I also concur that many games are pushing the boundary of that definition.
Basically, to participate in a game means to play, but how often are we actually “playing” anymore? When I compete in an online match of whatever shooter is currently popular or step into the battle arena of an adventure game, that is what I would consider “playing”. It’s a form of competition, and something we want to win at. However, when I’m rummaging through the homes of the local villagers, trying to steal all their cutlery, or maybe walking off into the mountains to provoke a lonesome giant, that’s my own personal choice, and not because I’m trying to win at anything. In fact, it’s probably because I just feel like being a bit of #$%@. It’s true, and this freedom is the reason why I think “games” can be so much more. It’s also why I really appreciate what Gone Home is trying to do.
To be honest, and I say this in all fairness, Gone Home was never going to be technically groundbreaking. The genius of the game design clearly lies within the narrative, and whilst many of the other design elements come together reasonably well, it overall lacks a certain level of mechanical innovation and visual polish. Ultimately, you’re still controlling a floating camera that’s looking around and clicking on things. Players will definitely open a lot of draws and pickup items to examine them more closely (or throw them around!), but it’s not really a lot when you remove the drive of the story. I admit that simple can work really well in some cases, but I also believe that this idea has so much unrealised potential. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I personally adore narrative driven games such as Dear Esther and To The Moon, but we’re not talking about perfection, we’re talking about innovative storytelling. It’s a genre well within it’s infancy, and I’m just not willing to nominate the “Citizen Kane” of gaming. Yet.
The graphics in Gone Home aren’t going to be a lot to look at (assuming that sort of thing is important to you) but at the same time they’re never going to interfere with the players ability to immerse themselves in the environment. I’m a firm believer that graphics don’t make an experience, and through an inspired artistic vision, I think any creator can capture our imaginations. Just take a look at the indie community, and specifically games like “Thomas Was Alone” – which is literally a story delivered with blocks. Of course, Gone Home is so much more than just pixels, and as I mentioned earlier, this big old house genuinely feels lived in, and I very much wanted to discover every one of it’s secrets for myself. I also feel compelled to commend the voice actor of Sam, Katie’s sister, who I think really delivers that extra bit of life in to the experience, especially when she was often accompanied by a captivating soundtrack. A good presentation is derived from so many elements, and I think it does well overall.
Personally speaking, I’m the type of guy that can’t sit through a Twilight film. It makes me sick to my stomach when I have to listen to Kristen Stewart express her undying love for a “minty fresh” vampire that’s actually over one hundred years old. Okay, how is this possibly relevant to my review? Well, simply put. The game will embrace it’s share of melo-drama when it comes to the perspective of Katie’s sister, and you know what, it never bothered me. Not even once. Sure, it’s not a stereotypical scenario as it actually addresses some uncommon themes explored in gaming (which I won’t spoil), but it wasn’t actually that either. There was something about Sam’s experiences that brought me back to a different point in my life, and whilst I thought her logic was often that of an inexperienced teenager, it was still so relatable to someone who probably would have been equally passionate when I was that age. It’s unlike any story I’ve experienced, and I don’t think it would have worked as well with any other medium.
It’s incredible the way that the simple act of storytelling can capture our hearts and bring out our deepest emotions in the most unexpected ways. I would often argue that a good story can help anyone get through the toughest times, and this is why I think a game such as Gone Home is going to be critically successful. It’s our first major step into completely new territory, and I suspect that many editorials will initially pardon its shortcomings because of how the experience makes them feel – and I appreciate that, I really do. However, I want to see this for what it truly is, and that’s a beginning for something great. It’s not a perfect experience, and it’s not really a great “game” by definition either. Gone Home is simply an incredible story that approaches subjects that once would never have made sense in a video game; and, you know what? One of the greatest things about it is that the fact that I’m confident it would fail as a film. This is an unbelievably important achievement for our industry, and why this game deserves to be recognised. Regardless of what score we assign; If you’re looking for something new, download it!