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Review: Gone Home

Gone Home was the first title in the exploration genre to really get gamers talking and has since been the subject of many ‘video games as art’ discussions. But would it be one that left a lasting effect on Kim?

Title overview   |   Initial impressions   |   Plot   |   Gameplay   |
Visuals and audio   |   Replay and innovation   |
Screenshots and videos   |   Final thoughts   |   Review round-up

Title overview

Name: Gone Home
Developer: The Fullbright Company
Publisher: The Fullbright Company
Release date: August 2013
PEGI rating: 16
Platforms: Linux, Mac, PC, Wii U
More information: Official website

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Initial impressions

After working together at 2K Games on the Minerva’s Den downloadable content (DLC) for BioShock 2, Steve Gaynor, Karla Zimonia and Johnnemann Nordhagen formed The Fullbright Company in Portland, Oregon in March 2012. Gone Home was their first project and to take into account their skills and financial constraints, the team moved into a house together so an office could be set up in the basement and they decided that the game would have no characters other than the protagonist. They also chose to set it in 1995, because they considered it the latest year in which technology hasn’t made the majority of communication digital in nature.

I came across Gone Home shortly before its release in 2013 when there was a lot of hype from the major sites. It sounded just like my cup of tea – an exploration game with a strong narrative set when I was a teenager – so I made the stand at EGX 2013 my first stop. Unfortunately however the developer had sent a promo guy in their place who was more interested in talking to the male members of 1001Up so I didn’t manage to find out an awful lot. This cause me to not purchase the title until over a year later when it appeared at a discount in a Steam sale, and I have to admit that I went into playing it with a touch of resentment; but one of the most sincere stories in gaming quickly made that change.

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Plot

Players take on the role of Kaitlin Greenbriar, the eldest daughter of Jan and Terry. You return to the family home in Oregon in June 1995 after spending a year travelling around Europe; but there’s nobody there to welcome you, just a note from your teenage sister Samantha stuck to the front door asking you to not go ‘digging around’ trying to find out where she is. An emotional message from a tearful female on the answering machine immediately makes you concerned for Sam’s wellbeing and it’s up to you to search the large house for clues as to where your parents and sibling might be. What happened to them in the past twelve months while you were away?

The fierce thunderstorm outside, the flickering lights throughout the building and the creaks of the floorboards all come together to create an ever-present sense of dread.

When starting the game you can almost be forgiven for thinking it may be an adventure-horror and indeed, during conversations with other games about Gone Home they’ve told me they thought this was the case. The fierce thunderstorm outside, the flickering lights throughout the building and the creaks of the floorboards all come together to create an ever-present sense of dread. On the positive side, The Fullbright Company have done a marvellous job at creating a tense atmosphere and keeping it that way from the moment you step through the door of the ‘pyscho house’ (as it’s referred to by Sam’s schoolmates).

But there’s nothing to fear in this title and the only skeletons are the figurative ones that exist within Kaitlin’s family’s past. This has caused some players to form a negative opinion of Gone Home as it does set itself up for being a spooky mystery, and the developer doesn’t attempt to marry this creepy premise with the main storyline. However, I found myself becoming so engaged in the plot and invested in the characters’ lives that I was kind of relieved once I realised there weren’t going to be any jump-scares; any kind of horror would have detracted from the storyline and pulled me out of the Greenbriars’ world.

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Gameplay

Gone Home is one of those titles that regularly comes up in ‘what makes a video game’ debates as there isn’t any traditional gameplay as such. The Fullbright Company’s experience with BioShock 2 is obvious here as it works in a similar way, telling the story of a fractured family through notes and recordings scattered around the environment. You move through the house digging through drawers and examining objects; there are no real challenges to solve or enemies to defeat, nothing to interrupt the flow of the plot or distract the player from this journey of discovery.

You can explore rooms in any order you wish but the necessity to discover clues such as keys to unlock new areas prevents you from uncovering secrets too soon.

The house is cleverly designed and manages to effectively pull you through the narrative in the right direction. You can explore rooms in any order you wish but the necessity to discover clues such as keys to unlock new areas prevents you from uncovering secrets too soon. Although this sounds as if it would make for a very linear title, it certainly didn’t feel that way for me: for example, figuring our how to open the basement door of finding out how to get into a locker in Sam’s bedroom feels as if it would be natural for Kate.

The developer clearly has a good eye for 1990s pop culture and if you grew up during the decade, you won’t be able to help but smile fondly at the VHS tapes containing episodes of The X Files, cassettes with playlists scrawled in biro, gig posters announcing artists such as Lisa Loeb, and notes from Sam’s ghost-hunts (something we all did back in the 90s). There was so much here to remind me of my own teenage years that I had a strange ‘familiar’ feeling during my time with Gone Home, and I think this will stay with me whenever I remember playing the title.

This has to be one of its highlights: it might not be photo-realistic but it all just feels so ‘real’. A form submitted by Jan requesting the permanent transfer of a male colleague to her office tells of trouble in the Greenbriars’ marriage; and the doodles on notes passed behind a teachers back in class between Sam and a classmate show a developing friendship in a very touching way. Many games include objects that are obviously placed to give the player some narrative context, but here they really feel as if they’ve been left by people going about their lives and you just happen to have discovered them.

Gone Home creates a strange sensation for the player: you feel guilty as it’s almost like spying on somebody else’s life.

For example, whilst digging through Kate’s father’s study I cam across a box in the bottom of a cupboard filled with loads of copies of his unsuccessful second novel. It all looked perfectly innocent at first but after removing a layer of hardbacks I uncovered his smutty magazine! This, along with a number of other moments in Gone Home, creates a strange sensation for the player: at first it’s humorous and you laugh at it in the context of a video game, but then you feel guilty as it’s almost like spying on somebody else’s life.

Full credit therefore goes to The Fullbright Company for creating such a believable world and story. It tells of experiences that we’ve all been through as a teenager: keeping secrets when we’re young, the fear of being alienated and the desire for acceptance from our peers, and complicated relationships that exist within a family unit. There aren’t many titles that can make you genuinely feel for and relate to its characters, but Gone Home is certainly one of them.

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Visuals and audio

As mentioned in the section above, players will uncover numerous objects as they explore the Greenbriars’ home. Some of these are absolutely perfect in terms of narrative: for example, opening a closet to find a set of board games faded with use just adds to the feeling that the house is a living place. However, the problem with so many inanimate items lying around means you’ll eventually end up coming across the same things; there are only so many rolls of toilet paper or copies of the same book you can examine before you start getting a sense of déjà vu, and this has the result of pulling the player out of the title a little.

Unravelling Sam’s coming-of-age story, the difficulties within her parents’ marriage and the reasons why Kate left home to go travelling make for a powerful piece of storytelling.

You might not encounter any other characters in the flesh whilst playing Gone Hone but the writing and voice-acting are absolutely top-notch – particularly that for Sam, played by Sarah Grayson. On discovering certain key clues you’ll hear her read an entry from a journal she’s been keeping; the teenager comes across as smart and snarky yet insecure, and you can’t help but feel for her. Unravelling her coming-of-age story, the difficulties within her parents’ marriage and the reasons why Kate left home to go travelling make for a powerful piece of storytelling.

I wrote above about the hype from major gaming sites at the time of Gone Home release, and this in part was due to the game’s soundtrack. Featuring songs from classic 1990s groups Heavens to Betsy and Bratmobile, as well as posters advertising several other bands, it’s just like being back in the decade. The tracks really help to secure the 90s nostalgia and it’s great being able to pick up a cassette tape, see the playlist in Sam’s writing on the label, pop it into a player and hear some classic riot grrrl anthems.

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Replay and innovation

I wrote above that the title doesn’t feel as if it’s linear in nature, but the structure of the storyline means that secrets need to be revealed in a particular order so there’s definitely a path you’re guided down. You don’t need to examine every note in order to piece the story together so I guess there is some replayability value in the fact that you may want to go back and discover all of these; but personally, I don’t think I’ll revisit Gone Home for a while. I already know how the story ends so I don’t feel the need to experience it again so soon but saying that, it’s definitely one that will stay with me for a long time. A great story always manages to pull you back at some point in the future.

I don’t want to give too much away about the storyline but trust me: this is one of the most human and grounded stories ever told within a game.

Dear Esther may have started the trend for exploration games in 2012, but this title was one of the first in the genre to hit the mainstream and has since been the subject of many ‘video games as art’ conversations. I don’t want to give too much away about the storyline but trust me: this is one of the most human and grounded stories ever told within a game. I’m not sure any other medium would have been able to convey it as effectively and it therefore deserves to score pretty highly when it comes to innovation.

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Screenshots and videos

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Final thoughts

For me, the answer to whether Gone Home should be included within future 1001 lists is a resounding ‘yes’. It’s rare for a video game to enable the player to see life so effectively through another person’s eyes and with such sincerity. Sam reveals herself with a lot of honesty through her journal entries and the excellent writing and voice-acting serves to back this up; and it all means that by the time you’ve spent the three hours needed to complete the title, both she and her story will have left a lasting mark on you.

However, that’s not to say that I think it’s for everyone. Gamers who don’t have enough patience to investigate every cupboard and drawer within the house, who would prefer to plough through the plot to get to the end and achieve a goal rather than experience the title as a whole, won’t find much here to please them. And if you like a bit of action this definitely won’t be the title for you – and you’ll likely end up frustrated at the initial horror set-up at the start of the game that never actually come to fruition.

Gone Home is a thoughtful slow-burner whose characters get under your skin and leave you feeling for them.

Instead, it’s a thoughtful slow-burner whose characters get under your skin and leave you feeling for them. It tells a believable story that’s grounded in the real world and focuses on people as complex individuals. I found myself left with a mix of pleasure and unease at the end of the game: almost as if I’d had the voyeuristic thrill of walking into the middle of a normal family’s life and witnessing a pivotal moment for all of them.

Seriously, it was about time you had Gone Home.

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Review round-up

Reviewed: PC
Source: We purchased the game during a Steam for £3.74
Positive: One of the most real storylines, environment and character set in gaming
Negative: Some gamers won’t appreciate the lack of gameplay or horror
Score: 43 out of 60
Grade: Buy it now!
Gone Home, video game, review, graph, Buy it now!

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8 thoughts on “Review: Gone Home

  1. I remember those discussions on Gone Home and I remember I didn’t get it at the time because I felt the exploration genre wasn’t for me. In my adventures, as you know, I like some puzzles and challenges.

    But recently, with how much I loved Homesick’s day phases and how much it made me feel during them, I’ve gotten a new appreciation for this genre and if it blew you away, then it’s a title I definitely need to play.

    Lovely review, I’m now definitely getting this game.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I watched my favourite YouTuber play this game and because I was not paying for it, I had nothing to complain about, as I watching essentially an interactive movie, then got gifted the game on Steam and play through it and felt pretty much the same about it. So my problem is, why should I pay for it, when I can get the same experience from watching a YouTuber play it, for free?

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    1. I think it depends on what you’re looking to get out of Gone Home – or any linear narrative-based video game for that matter. A YouTube playthrough will share the storyline if you’re happy to consume it as a movie, and reveal a players’ insights if you’re listening to their commentary. But for me it would never be as ‘personal’ an experience as playing the title myself; I want to be a participant in the story and immersed in the game’s world, rather than a viewer (probably the reason why I don’t watch films all that often).

      I guess it’s a case of ‘to each their own’. Some gamers are more interested in the gameplay side of video games, while others are more attracted to the narrative.

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      1. But that’s my problem with it 😛

        Take a game like Journey, similar to Gone Home in it’s limited gameplay aspects, but it’s biggest gameplay point is playing with other random people, with Gone Home what ties me to the game?

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        1. For me it was the characters. I grew up in the 1990s (I think I must be just slightly younger than Sam) so I could relate to some of the events – the riot grrrl bands, watching The X-Files, playing Street Fighter at the local arcade. You could put it down to nostalgia but it was more than that: I really felt for Sam and the situation she was in, because I could imagine what it would have been like for her in 1995.

          Do you think you would have liked Gone Home more if there had been more aspects to the gameplay? Some challenging puzzles, perhaps? Or is there some other aspect that would have tied you to the game?

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          1. Most likely yes, The Last of Us for example is a linear, heavy narrative game and that’s probably one of my favourites and the gameplay was very tense, but I understand that the Gone Home devs don’t have the resources Naughty Dog does lol

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            1. A very good point! 😉

              It’d be interesting to hear from the developers as to whether they would have changed anything about the gameplay if they’d had a bigger budget. Maybe we’ll see in their next release in 2016… I’m hopeful for Tacoma.

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