As someone who lives cities away from their family, I know all too well the feelings associated with returning home after a long period of time. The excitement, the happiness, and the comfort of knowing that the people who love you will be there waiting for you. So, to arrive to no warm welcome and an empty house would leave me, like the character of Gone Home‘s Katie, full of questions.
In this emotionally moving debut from The Fullbright Company, you play as the character of Katie Greenbriar, a young woman who, after a year of travelling abroad, returns home to nothing but a note on the front door of her family’s home — a mansion containing a family’s story, their memories, and their secrets.
In the game, you explore room by room as a perfectly calculated story moves at a respectfully slow pace. While the mansion’s many closets and drawers are full of innocent items to pick up and observe, like tissue boxes and candles, even the most ordinary items such as water-stained vintage boardgames, or old Christmas decorations, reveal a past life through their details. The clues are not found with a magnifying glass, but rather notes, photographs, books, and magazines scattered throughout the house revealing what family members turned to for their own personal self-help and inspiration.
The greatest source of clues is Sam, Katie’s little sister, who writes to Katie via a journal she has kept as a placeholder while her big sister is away. With every personal and intimate journal entry, you hear Sam’s voiceover, youthful and honest. It’s clear that Sam and Katie have a strong bond, and that Katie’s absence has left a hole in her life. Through Sam’s journal and notes, we learn what her recent life has been like as she goes through the challenges that come with high school — thoughts about her future career in writing, love, and the magical new experiences that come with meeting new people. In Sam’s case, her new interest in the riot grrrl and punk rock scene (the game is set in 1995), beautifully and articulately laid out in her room through posters, gig flyers, playable mix tapes, and wild nail polish bottles. It’s the classic books that remain on her shelf and her stuffed animal on her bed that show that pieces of Sam’s past remain a part of her.
The secrets brought to light in Gone Home are ones that anyone can relate to: fears about being accepted, self-discovery, self-denial, bad decisions at a trying time and hope lost. What becomes clear is what every family member secretly needs: love and support.
While the story drives an emotional game, atmosphere and environment play a big role in the experience. On a personal note, one of my biggest fears is being in a dim, large home alone, which is the setting for the entire game. While arriving to an empty home is eerie as is, I couldn’t help but be terrified with every dark room, as I frantically searched for a light switch or pull string, just as thunder cracked and a floor creaked nearby. At times, distant noises could mean a TV that was left on or, perhaps, that someone else was in the house. I half expected to make a turn and find someone standing there which, fear aside, I’m glad there never was. The lack of other live characters in the game, or even a mirror to see your (or rather, Katie’s) reflection in, truly maintained the intimate feel of the game.
Also lending to the emotion of the game was the soundtrack by Chris Remo, that comes in as you hear each journal entry from Sam. Its ambience and guitar strums play so appropriately with Sam’s words like the coming-of-age melody at the end of a John Hughes film.
The game is too compact, the story far too important, to even remotely spoil any part of this fascinating tale. It touches on subject matter so relevant and so untouched in video games that it almost takes you by surprise. And then, suddenly, you are so very grateful for what you just experienced, and that a game like this finally exists.
I wouldn’t describe Gone Home as a “fun” game, but rather as a rewarding experience. There is no loot or levelling up to keep you playing, just the raw curiosity to piece together the mystery that surrounds the family, for Katie, and for yourself.
Gone Home is available on PC, Mac, and Linux from both Steam and its official website.