Spend enough time online and you’ll definitely experience the Streisand effect, wherein a bit of controversy (or censorship) has the side effect of raising more attention and interest in a subject than ever before. As it turns out, when it comes to video games, I tend to fall for that bad publicity. It was the controversy surrounding Zoe Quinn that got me to try out her game Depression Quest and it was the same kind of social media uproar that got me to play Gone Home.
Designed by Steve Gaynor and developed by Fullbright, Gone Home is an exploration game set in the mid-Nineties. You play Katie Greenbriar, a young college girl coming back home after spending a year abroad, only to find yourself in an empty house. While you explore every corner of your creaking, shadow-filled home, you discover that the real horror element of the game isn’t in possible ghost sightings, but in the clues of unhappiness between your absent parents and in the journal entries collected from your sister Sam, who’s been wrestling with her identity and sexuality while you’ve been away.
It’s easy to dismiss this game as another Dear Esther knockoff. Both games feature a first-person POV and a common goal of telling pieces of a story through exploration of an ethereal setting and fragments from a disembodied narrator. But while the island of Dear Esther is strange and remote, there’s something so familiar about the house in Gone Home. Yes, it’s a big, scary mansion, but any player can see something that resembles their parents’ bedroom or the living room they had while growing up.
It’s on that theme of growing up that older players might get a lot of enjoyment out of this game. Because it’s set in 1995, the story relies on crumpled fragments of notebook paper, self-help book titles, and Riot Grrl mix tapes to tell its story instead of whipping out a smartphone to figure out what’s been happening with Sam, Lonnie, and the Greenbriar family. On the one hand, the game does an excellent job of putting the player in the Nineties, but it could also be read as a nostalgia trip for people who were Sam’s age at the time—a way of working through their own past.
I will say that, going into the game and not being a fan of the horror genre, I was a bit unnerved at the setting’s Gothic atmosphere and trekking through darkened hallways and secret passages. But there’s nothing to actually fear in this game, apart from a single jump scare of a light in the basement suddenly going out. If anything, the creepy atmosphere does a good job of keeping you alert and focused on uncovering more journal entries and clues about Sam’s past and eventual fate. You come to rely on finding those clues as their own little beacons of light, hope, and sympathy.
While I enjoyed the game from start to finish and felt like I got a good, multifaceted story out of it, I would’ve liked to have seen more of Katie (the character you play) and her personality. Going back to the comparison with Dear Esther, in that game I enjoyed the narrator’s poetic vocabulary and blurred consciousness, which made for a distinctive voice. But in this game, we’re never given too much of an impression of what memories Katie and Sam shared as sisters or the relationship between Katie and her parents for that matter. Sure, it could have been a bit distracting from the players piecing together Sam’s story for themselves, but I would’ve liked to seen more of the dynamic that siblings can have.
It’s no surprise that a lot of serious gamers don’t like Gone Home. When most games are about racking up skill points and achievements, Gone Home is about telling a coming-out story and little else. While some gamers would rather chase or be chased in an Amnesia-style horror game, the creepy atmosphere of the house only serves to focus attention on family drama and Sam’s heartfelt journal entries.
After reading so many other reviews, “pretentious” is the word I’ve heard most commonly thrown around in regard to this game, but what of it? I personally enjoyed this little dip into the Nineties and hearing Sam’s story, and if you have the patience and imagination for interactive storytelling, then you might like it, too.
Bibliography: Gone Home. Designed by Steve Gaynor. Developed by the Fullbright Company. Published by Midnight City. Unity (engine). Microsoft Windows, Mac OS X, Linux, Wii U. Original release date: August 15, 2013.