Reviews Video Games

An empty house full of atmosphere

Gone Home is a first-person adventure game with the player taking the role of Kaitlin Greenbriar, a college student who comes back after a year abroad to find an empty house. In the middle of a stormy night Kaitlin searches for clues as to why her parents and younger sister aren’t home.

While critical reception of Gone Home has been largely positive, the game is quite polarizing in several respects. The length and price are two of the most often quoted negatives, as the game takes 2-3 hours to finish and retails for $20. As an adventure game there is also an automatic perceived zero replay value for most players, furthering the impact of the previous two points.

There are also diverse opinions on how much of an “actual game” it is. Gone Home is completely exploration driven and story based. If you are a gamer that sees a difference between a “game” and an “experience” this is the latter.

With the warnings out of the way (to hopefully give those who will automatically not enjoy the game enough information to determine Gone Home is not for them), let’s talk about why I personally loved it and wasn’t bothered by the “negatives” above.

Gone Home is an interesting experiment in storytelling, and I think it works beautifully. The fate of Kaitlin’s sister Sam, who has left am ominous note on the front door asking Kaitlin not to look for her, is the central mystery and Sam narrates journal entries as Kaitlin explores the house. The story comes together through these narrations and information from notes, books, receipts, observations, etc as we go through the house. The atmosphere created is incredible. Things unfold naturally but still manage surprises.

There is a lot to learn about the year Kaitlin’s been abroad and the house her family moved into shortly after she left. The “gameplay” here is not about action or even puzzles, the backbone of most adventure titles. The engagement aspect of the game is in seeking out all the little clues and slowly forming a picture of what’s going on. This is a subtle kind of mystery, where the game’s draw are the moments of realization as you figure out the next twist or what something you saw earlier meant.

Since the entire point of the game is piecing things together as Kaitlin explores the empty house I am going to avoid plot specifics, but all of the family members’ stories have quite a bit of depth. Including Kaitlin’s – in a wonderful touch you’ll find postcards she sent home that can be read to find out more about your protagonist’s time in Europe.

Little things like that are what really made Gone Home shine for me. Information is rationed such that conclusions can be drawn without finding everything, but the complete stories are there in their entireties if you search hard enough and pay attention. In some cases a key letter or piece of scrap adds new context to what you thought you knew.

It’s all wonderfully constructed and one of the reasons I don’t hold to the theory that mysteries or adventure games automatically have no replay value. I’m certain I missed some things, particularly relating to the parents, on my first play. So I have more to unravel next time. Also, while the game won’t be the same knowing where it’s going to end up, that’s kind of the point for me. All the clues, hints and other little nuances will mean a lot more to me during the second pass.

Add it all up and I thoroughly enjoyed Gone Home. It’s definitely aimed more towards the “games as art” crowd but if you can take it for what it is there’s a lot to like. Overall I feel it was well worth my $20, “short” or not.

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