The Fullbright Company’s Gone Home, which was originally released two and a half years ago on PC, has had a great influence on storytelling in video games.
Despite being a very brief experience in 2 hours or less, Gone Home is a wholly satisfying cohesive start-to-finish story with multiple layers. While it was met with stellar initial praise upon its PC debut, Gone Home is still very relevant in today’s increasingly progressive market for narrative-based games. Coined as one of the early “first person exploration games” (FPEG), its importance is only reinforced by how well it continues to stand as a masterpiece of modern indie gaming. Its port to console is an important step in its further exposure to the video game masses, and should certainly not be overlooked by those console gamers who missed it on PC.
In Gone Home, you assume the role of 20-something year old Katie Greenbriar, who has just returned home after a year of touring Europe. A note is taped to the front door, telling Katie to mind her own business and stay out of the attic. Cardboard boxes scattered in various rooms tell us that Katie’s family only recently moved into this house, as many things are in varying states of unpacking. Starting next to your luggage in the front hall of her family’s Portland, Oregon house, you are free to open cabinets, pick up and examine any item you see and wander freely through various rooms.
Rarely are houses and buildings given such delicate consideration in games as in Gone Home. When picking up a vase or a coffee mug, you can rotate it in any way that you like, but you can also put it back exactly where you found it. This sets a subtle tone that your home should be respected and is best left largely undisturbed. It reminds you that this house is Katie’s house and not just a backdrop to experience gameplay in. No other video game house feels quite like it. Interacting with the home is the gameplay and does not fall short of a fulfilling experience.
Set in 1995, many themes from that era are explored. The Fullbright company have a clear appreciation for punk counter-culture as well as old school SNES game nostalgia. There are nods to gaming’s history and various movies and television shows in the form of a home-recorded VHS collection. Cassette tapes from “Riot grrrl” and bands like Bratmobile and Heavens to Betsy can be listened to by picking it up and inserting them into a nearby boombox. Plundering through closets and searching under couch cushions may yield postcards, secret notes, concert tickets, and report cards. Details of the story are revealed as much through these hidden objects as they are through the narrative journal entries.
Other than family photographs inside the house, there are no physical representations of characters. The narrative is achieved strictly through audio and visual means, as Katie looks through old letters and listens to audio journal entries from her younger sister, Sam. A lot can be learned about Katie’s family members despite no real interaction with them and a short playthrough time overall. That being said, each of them really do feel like significant characters. Katie’s father is an aspiring writer who previously released two James Bond-esque science fictions novels. You’ll get a glance into his career as a freelance home stereo reviewer and learn that he is largely dissatisfied with his life’s work. A certain charm presents itself when Katie uncovers an adult magazine underneath a stack of his old books. There are also other similar instances throughout the story.
Katie’s mother is a park ranger who may or may not have a romantic curiosity towards one of her new coworkers. A newspaper clipping shows some insight into her moment of fame as head of a controlled forest burn operation. The main focus of the story, however, is the rebellious Sam who has an intriguing outlook on life that you can’t help but sympathise with.
Gone Home is largely a coming-of-age story, representing the many changes that people go through as they plunge into adulthood. Its themes will seem familiar, comforting, and nostalgic. Change is represented strongly in this story and each character seems to grow in the short amount of time that the game lasts. Hearing Sam talk about her friend, Lonnie, will move even the most restricted players. Gone Home will continuously tug at your heartstrings and everything will feel bittersweet, but that is its charm. It is hard to imagine this game played in anything but a single sitting, as the experience is akin to a page-turner novel. You won’t want to put it down until its story has been told.
As an emotional storyteller, this game’s scope is huge.
The narrative technique in Gone Home is only further elevated by an atmosphere that is downright creepy. A fierce storm is present throughout the entire game, which you are continuously reminded of due to television storm warnings and crashes of thunder outside. Each room that you enter is dark and turning on a lamp or light switch only illuminates certain portions of the room. Having to manually turn lights on is a constant reminder that you are alone in this house and everything is foreign.
Exploring areas like the study and basement will feel unsettling, which is only further illustrated by subtle hints of the house being haunted. It is revealed that it once belonged to an uncle, who took quite an interest in ghost-hunting. His notes and journal entries can be found in neglected rooms; which Sam seems to have taken an interest in. The house turns out to be quite large with a few secret passages that are fun and bone-chilling to uncover. At times you as the player may have to build up courage in order to enter a certain area of the house, adding tension to the experience. Exploring the house will make you feel like there is a ghost lurking somewhere, but you will always be comforted by the fact that you know Gone Home isn’t “that type of game”. If The Fullbright Company were to make a first-person horror experience in a similar vein, it would certainly be successful.
Though the supernatural and occult aspects of Gone Home are not overtly explicit, one can’t help but wonder about the decision to include them. I did not find these ideas to be poorly executed or even off-putting, but there is a part of me that feels like they should not be there. This is not a direct criticism, but rather a lingering grey area that I can’t help but wonder about. It does not exactly aid the story, but it also doesn’t hurt it.
Gone Home is a wonderfully atmospheric gameplay experience that should not be overlooked, especially with its widely available console release. With its meticulous attention to detail and smart and innovative storytelling, it remains a breathtaking video game experience even two and a half years later. The Fullbright Company understand the importance of subtle yet meaningful detail, the impact of characters’ absence and the value of time as a storytelling device. This is a must-play game for anyone interested in an enriching narrative experience or the evolution of video games.
• Excellent, smart narrative
• Very detailed environment to explore
• Engaging characters
• Successful emotional storytelling
• Great atmosphere
• Short length
• Supernatural themes can be out of place