by Tim Gruver, Staff Writer
Games like Gone Home are experienced like a good book. Akin to an all consuming mystery novel that you can’t put down, its twists and turns leave you enamored by its questions as much as your emotionally invested in uncovering their answers. It’s this mesmerizing element that The Fullbright Company’s point-and-click adventure pursues in many more beautiful ways than one. A fascinating blend of interactive storytelling and thought provoking narrative, Gone Home displays some of the most unique qualities of any indie game this year and it’s not one you’ll soon forget.
Gone Home spares no time throwing you into its universe. It’s 1:15 AM on June 7th, 1995. You begin the game on the front porch of your parents’ sleepy Northwestern home in Arbor Hill, Oregon as college student Kaitlin Greenbriar, who’s just returned from a year abroad in Europe. Instead of a family just waiting to greet you, you find a note on the door from your younger sister, Samantha, warning you away. What’s going on? Where is everyone? Wandering your way through the house to answer these questions, players will discover something all the more personal behind the mystery and even more engaging for their efforts.
From your first moments stepping inside the Greenbriar household, it won’t take long to be swept up in the game’s haunting atmosphere. The house is dim upon your arrival as lights are shut off and darkened hallways and foreboding crawl spaces invite you to explore their every secret. I was hard-pressed to resist the urge to search every nook and cranny I came across and simply refused to leave a room before searching all of its contents. Thunder crashes outside as you progress through the house’s impressive size and a sense of dread follows you with every moment. You never know what you might find through the game’s clever talent at artifice. In truth, I was frequently tricked into believing the false leads that the game lead me on in my attempts to piece together Sam’s whereabouts, but I was gladly surprised by what I uncover in the end.
Complementing the game’s atmospheric sensibilities is its immersive sense of exploration and discovery. The house's every room is beautifully rendered with The Fullbright Company's Unity engine and its plentiful attention to detail makes it feel alive. Haphazardly rummaging through dresser drawers and filing cabinets provides an addictive feeling of intrigue as you grow more acquainted with the Greenbriar’s lives. Bedrooms are filled with family photos and keepsakes while the house’s office and garage are littered with work items and long forgotten junk. Finding a couple’s retreat brochure from Kaitlin’s parents or a class note from Sam’s things reminds you of the fragile relationships being told through the environment. My prying eye left few stones unturned as I poured through letters and old newspaper clippings to learn the histories behind each of the family members and by the game’s end I had no doubt gone through everything except the colloquial kitchen sink.
Noticeable among the game’s ambience is its further use of nostalgia. An eclectic soundtrack featuring cult hits from Riot Grrrl from the 90s era cassette tapes players will find around the house adds a nostalgic flavor to the museum of VHS tapes and primitive cell phones among Street Fighter and Kurk Cobain references. Though these casual easter eggs may prove half successful on players too young to remember such things (such as this writer), their value to the character at hand never cease to reiterate the reflective nature of the game’s narrative impact.
Exploring the Greenbriar home is made quite simple, yet its functionality generally trumps its lack of complexity. Players will assume the role of Kaitlin in complete first-person perspective as they scour the house for clues and trinkets and though her gameplay may be limited to grabbing and turning around objects, this minimal interaction feels natural to the simple narrative at hand. Despite the occasional frame rate dip, the game allows a very undisturbed 360 degree look at your surroundings and a quiet freedom to wander at your own leisure. I found it a shame that Kaitlin remains silent for the entirety of your time with her and I still wish I could've done more than merely imagine her reactions.
There are also what can be said to be simple puzzles in locating the key to unlock an impending door or figuring out the location to a secret passage. Their backtracking will only extend the game's already short length so much, yet they provide a nice cool-down in between the impending plot points that are bound to follow your success.
What’s more remarkable is the story carried by the Greenbriar family themselves. Gone Home’s household trinkets tell the story of a troubling and touching dilemma among those closest to Kaitlin. It’s difficult to say anything more at the cost of ruining players’ chances at being surprised at what they’ll find, but it’s easy to say it’s worth discovering. The elder Greenbriars' story can be described as disappointing, but they're not without their role in the context of the game's plot. The real star of the hour, meanwhile, is Sam. Her poignant voice-over narration carries much of the game’s heart in describing the events leading up to her disappearance and the emotion it lends to the narrative humanizes Gone Home with a rare and respectful social commentary. It’s all the more unfortunate that intuitive players will most likely realize her story’s secret long before the game presents it, but nonetheless what surprises are spoiled are made up for with the suspense of seeing the how of the mystery is revealed rather than just the what.
Gone Home is truly what it sets out to be: the best package of surreal emotional depth and the best sense of that games are capable of being. For what it may lack in a more equal sense of characterization and complex aesthetics, it more than makes up for with a moving story and pushing the artistic gap of video-gaming’s thematic focus. I didn’t regret my time in the Greenbriar home and any player with the patience and passion for self-discovery should feel more than welcome in experiencing the marvelous story of the Greenbriar home. You’ll be glad you visited.
© 2013 by N00b Magazine.