This is the part of my game reviews where I usually wax philosophical about the genre, developer or some other aspect of the game I’m about to review. I’m not going to do that with this review, instead I’m going to state quite clearly that this review is only for those who have played the game. The reason behind this is simple, whilst I could do my usual spoiler-free affair I feel like I couldn’t spend more than a paragraph talking about it before I inadvertently walked in spoiler territory. So before you go any further I’d urge you to hope on steam, buy Gone Home and immerse yourself in it for the next couple hours. Then when you’re done come back here, and we’ll talk.
SPOILERS FOR THE REST OF THE POST. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.
The setting of Gone Home is one that will be very familiar to any Australian. It’s something of a coming of age ritual for residents of my home country to leave it for a year after finishing college to go abroad and see the world. For me that instantly set the tone for the game, pulling up memories of seeing friends off and then, usually a long time later, seeing them come back with so many stories to tell. It’s also twinged with a slight feeling of loss as I never did that, choosing instead to go straight into university, and it instantly felt like I’d been pulled back to those times. I was a young adult once again.
The atmosphere that Gone Home sets up initially honestly had me a little worried. It’s no secret that I’m not a fan of the horror genre, consistently rating anything in that area lower, and whilst the recommendations I had received to play Gone Home couldn’t have been more exuberant the opening scenes did lead me to believe that I was, at some point, going to be spooked by something or walk in on some horrific scene that had befallen the occupants of this house. Still with none of it forthcoming I began to stumble my way through the house and this is where my usual drawing conclusions based on the evidence at hand seems to have led me astray, something I give the writers a lot of credit for.
In terms of lay out I was really quite impressed with the way Gone Home guides you through the environment. Now after I had rummaged through all the nearby cupboards I headed straight for the answering machine (which did nothing to allay my fears that I was walking into a horror scene) and then proceeded to continue exploring from there. I’m not sure how my experience with Gone Home would changed if I had decided to go upstairs first as it feels like much of the base narrative is set up in those first few rooms on the bottom floor. Indeed that’s where the beginnings of your father’s narrative begin and where you start to learn that Sam has been struggling at school due to her being the girl from the psycho house.
I think that’s what hooked me into Sam’s story initially as the experiences she describes in her notes, specifically the ones about isolation, really hit home. After primary school I was constantly bullied, from the moment I got on the bus to the second I got home, and so I instantly had this rapport with Sam’s character as I knew what it was like to be on the outside. It was made all the more poignant by the blooming unrequited romance with Lonnie which drudged up even more memories of my time in school.
This was when my overacting imagination started to lead me to conclusions that I desperately hoped weren’t true. You see after being in a similar position myself I knew what the potential outcomes where for this story and the most likely one chilled me to my bones. I remember one of the journal entries saying something to the effect of “I can’t live without you” which, given the circumstances that followed it, instantly led me to believe that Sam had committed suicide. I was panicked, I grabbed the attic key and moved myself as fast as I could to where it was, those glaring red lights feeling like an omen of epic proportions, indicating that someone had gone up but had never come back down again.
You can then imagine my relief as instead of finding a body up there I found the notebook, the one which had been playing in retrospect throughout the whole game. I’ve heard that a lot of people think that this is a hollywood ending, and it is in a way, however for me it’s much more of a bitter sweet moment. Sure I was extraordinarily happy that Sam and Lonnie had decided to follow their hearts rather than let the world tear them apart however I’m also someone who can still vividly remember the naivety of youth and the challenges that pair will face are only just beginning.
I think my favorite aspect of gone home is how the narrative starts off dark, which pushes you towards thinking it is going to be some kind of horror/ghost story, but the more you read and discover the brighter it becomes. You learn in the beginning that your father is a writer who has unfortunately hit on rough times but later on its revealed that his first book had been republished and, due to that success, he had written another novel. Your parents relationship seemed to be on the rocks although their absence in Gone Home appears to be because they’re celebrating their anniversary. They may be on a couple’s counselling retreat however, but that at least shows they’re willing to work on it.
I did wonder for a while whether or not the ghost/uncle sub-plot was necessary for the overarching narrative as it really is an aside to everything else in Gone Home. It did help to generate some tension at the start as you couldn’t be quite sure which direction the story was heading in however once you’re invested enough in Sam and Lonnie that sub-plot instantly becomes secondary. Now I admit that that was probably the writer’s intent all along and therefore credit is due to them because of it but, I don’t know maybe it’s just my aversion to the horror genre that is driving this feeling I have.
Gone Home is a beautifully written interactive story. It touches on so many issues that at least one of them will resonate with you and from there you’ll be dragged down into Sam’s world, echoing her every emotion. I have to give the writers credit for showing me one potential story path which I eagerly concluded was the most likely and then, at the last moment, they upended my expectations with a reveal that could not have been better. If you’re someone that favors narrative over game play then you really can’t go past Gone Home as it is one of the most well written games I’ve come across in a long time.
Gone Home is available on PC right now for $19.99. Total game time was just on 2 hours.