Review: Gone Home – If the Walls Could Talk…

Gone Home game screenshot
Review: Gone Home – If the Walls Could Talk…

Platforms: Windows PC, Mac, Linux, Steam

Game Name: Gone Home

Publisher: The Fullbright Company

Developer: The Fullbright Company

Genre: Adventure

Release Date: August 15 2013

Gone Home: What We Think

The title spells out the dilemma in two words: You have returned home; your family is gone. It’s unsettling, and it becomes more bleak as the narrative forms alongside a slowly growing pile of knick-knacks and crumpled messages.

I apologize for any vagueness you may read below, but I have endeavored to write about this emotionally complex offering without spoiling anything. I want you to be able to experience it with the same initial neutrality that I did. I recommend avoiding any walkthroughs until you have given it a go, in earnest.

Upon returning after a year of travel, Kaitlin finds an abandoned house, with only a hastily scrawled note on the front door; it’s from her younger sister, and she is begging that no one try to find her. The frantic search is on to locate something…anything inside the house that might provide some faint glimpse into what has transpired.

The mystery begins. That didn’t take long…

Slowly, several potential explanations begin to take form, as objects and writings raise questions about the true personalities of your family members. Amidst the dread is a touching and honest tale of discovery and heartache. The process of uncovering more of this story forces you along for a thoroughly thrilling and unnerving journey. Gone Home makes you a stranger in your own home, forcing you to scrutinize over seemingly trivial items in the hopes of stripping away the layers of a bizarre mystery.

My Life in Boxes

The initial puzzle of how to get Kaitlin into her home will familiarize players with the controls. The action is in first person: move with the arrow keys and use the mouse to look around (gamepads are also fully supported). Pick up or interact with items by left-clicking on them. Once you’ve picked something up, you can inspect them more closely by holding the right mouse button, and using the arrow keys to rotate it. By crouching, you change your perspective just enough that you might find additional items.

You’ll be handling and examining a lot of items; the house is a fair size, and it is bursting with minute details. Each closet, drawer and shelf is loaded with things to investigate. While a good many of them are mundane, you will occasionally pick up an item that will trigger a memory from Kait’s younger sister Sam, or will provide a clue that will tip you off to hidden parts of the house.

Gone Home game screenshot
Why are the color bars of the screen freaking me out…?

Family Ties

There are a number of different stories that develop as you turn the house upside down. Bits of information found about mom and dad reveal that there is more going on beyond the perfect image put on display in the family portrait. As Sam’s story materializes, it’s clear she’s on an emotional roller coaster of her own.

In this home, everyone has their secrets

And then there’s the late uncle Oscar: While he’s never shared the space with Kaitlin simultaneously, he was the previous owner of the home. Noises within the house emerge, seemingly when certain items are surveyed. Could that be the house settling, the wind outside, or is that Oscar typing away furiously on his keyboard? They are coincidences…aren’t they?

Stay For The Atmosphere

The classic horror elements are all present: You’re exploring an old house replete with areas that aren’t immediately accessible. There are hints that dark practices may have been initiated. Each new room renews the fear that someone…or something will be lunging at you from the darkness. Outside, a thunderstorm rages and won’t let up. At times it seems like the lightning strikes are underlining your discoveries.

Add all of this to your inability to place your loved ones, and an outcome that is ever-more bleak as it fleshes out, and you might find that you have to step back from the tale, even within the game’s short 3 hour playtime. Instruments of terror all chime in as the story unfolds, and it can take your mind to some dark places. That said, when all is said and done, the most shocking revelation is that the scariest bits of the game may not have come from the game at all…This weaving of psychologically unsettling and horrific elements is done with subtlety, and is brilliantly executed.

Try looking past it…

A Simpler Time?

The action all takes place on the 6th of June, 1995. Unfortunately, that means there’s no firing off a text message to put a swift end to this nightmare. Fullbright has done a remarkable job fortifying the illusion of the era within the house: the external answering machine, references to Street Fighter 2, Magic Eye images and episodes of the X-files are strewn throughout the seasoned manse, adding the soul of the “modern” family that currently calls the place home.

Moreover, Gone Home is a spot-on loving tribute to Gen-X latchkey kids – from the packaged foods, to the pop cultural references to the authentic Riot Grrl and ‘zines and soundtrack (Sleater Kinney, Heavens to Betsy are just two of the bands for example), supported flawlessly by composer Chris Remo.

Sam I Am

Although the hinted histories of Mom and Dad are packed with their own juicy tidbits, Sam’s is the tale that drives things forward. Sam seems to have taken over the house in her folks’ absence, and her personal effects can be found in many of the rooms.

While a surprisingly rich tale can be constructed just from the notes she passes back and forth in school (there was a time before text messages?) and the evidence of the activities in which she engages, the real heart of the character is in Sam’s voice-overs. Deftly and genuinely delivered by Sarah Robertson, these snippets into her life reveal the journey of a young girl who struggles to establish a normal life in a new town, and without her sister there to guide her. She feels out of sorts, she makes friends, and sneaks out to concerts. It may sound like typical teenager fare, but the presentation is handled exquisitely.

Sam – Chances are you knew someone a lot like her growing up.

Even in her absence, the developers have created something remarkable in Sam. Her tale is conveyed in a way that is every bit as genuine and intricate as the layout of the house. Amidst all the subtle (and sometimes hilarious) signs of her having inhabited this space at some point, you start to envision a real human being. You also feel for her as she has to deal with her own issues.

It’s been a long time since I was a teenager, but I can remember how my problems then led me to feel like my world was coming apart. I did stupid things, and contemplated doing even stupider things when it seemed like nothing would go my way. In this sense, I could identify with Sam’s dilemma…and I shuddered with the dread I felt as every new material trapping that was somehow connected to a piece of her life revealed more information, but not her location or what had happened.

I’ve heard that their songs are better

Prime Real Estate

The $20 USD price tag may seem a bit high. It isn’t. When you consider the intimidating size of the mansion and the obsessive level of detail, I consider it an appropriate price tag for that alone. Throw in the the terrifying twists and turns and the emotional depth of the deliberately fractured, ingenious narrative, and 20 bucks is a song. And yes, it’s true that you can complete the game in three hours, and even less if you hurry through it.

I would caution against trying to blast through the game: Part of the fun/terror comes from meticulously poring over the minutiae. There’s not a lot of replay value on the surface, but I found that retracing my steps actually let me to reconsider some of my initial assumptions about just what had taken place in the house and even find some startling new items. That said, the punch of the game’s resolution is quite specific, and though it may leave several different interpretations, no second or third playthrough could really build on it.

Gone Home screenshot - Zine
The dying art of the zine, in the Internet age

As an interactive narrative, Gone Home is a masterwork; The Fullbright Company – compromising a bunch of BioShock development team ex-pats – provides you with a massive area to explore, and still manages to plant enough evidence to deftly steer your suspicions. Mentally and emotionally, where you end up and where you came from couldn’t be more divergent, and yet the progression is precisely administered and logical.

It is interesting to note that Christine Love (best known for her deep interactive fictional titles Analogue: A Hate Story and Hate Plus), Andy Schatz (Monaco) and Jonathan Blow (Braid, The Witness) are among the many indie development luminaries given Special Thanks in the credits. Most notably, Blow was also thanked for his help on last year’s standout interactive narrative title Dear Esther. I make a point to mention it, because while beautiful, poetic and haunting, Dear Esther was ultimately far more linear than what Fullbright has accomplished with Gone Home.

At Home With the Genre

To create an environment that requires information to unfold in a certain sequence while still affording a sense of agency in how and when that information is received is quite a feat, and that is accomplished so seamlessly herein that it has arguably pushed the emergent genre forward a step. There is much that is left to conjecture and speculation, but at the same time, the conclusion is satisfyingly clear.

Gone Home is a terrifying, touching and intimate glimpse into the lives of family members who, like most of us, have some serious baggage to sort through.

Gone Home- The Official Site

Get Gone Home on Steam

[xrr rating=”5/5″]