Basically, spoilers ahead.
As you begin 'Gone Home', you are presented with only a few scraps of story information: it is June 1995, and you are Katie Greenbriar, a 20 year-old American who has just returned to Oregon after a year-long sojourn in Europe. A couple of hours past midnight, you arrive at the porch of your family's newly-inherited mansion, and find a alarming note from your sister, Sam, posted to the front door. After reading her oblique scrawls ("I don't want anyone to know. We'll see each other again some day… I love you"), you enter to find the cavernous house eerily devoid of life, but littered with artefacts left by your mysteriously absent family members.
Spooky, right? This set-up provokes the player to wonder "What has happened here?", and with 'Gone Home' being a first-person mystery game, we probably expect our ensuing investigation of the house to gradually unveil some horrific blood-drenched tragedy. Perhaps with the involvement of a few ghosts or monsters, and definitely with some flickering lights, creaking doors and cheap jump-scares along the way.
But this is not that kind of game. Lead designer Steve Gaynor and his four-person team at The Fullbright Company (some of whom worked on the critically-acclaimed 'Minerva's Den' DLC expansion to 'Bioshock 2') are fully aware of the kind of expectations that the audience will bring to the game, and the developers cleverly exploit and subvert these at every turn. There are flickering lights and creaking doors, there are diaries which refer to possible ghost-sightings, and there are even occasional references to your 'psycho Uncle', who lived alone in the house and left it to your father when he died in 1993.
Crucially, however, any notion of supernatural goings-on is clearly portrayed to exist solely in the realm of your younger sister's hyperactive imagination. Like many 90s kids, Sam is an avid fan of the 'The X-Files' (as the stacks of VHS recordings in her room suggest), and when you stumble across the ghost-sighting diary, sketches and ouija board that she and her girlfriend have made, these objects are positioned and designed in such a way that they tell us more about the emotional bond that the two girls are forming, rather than being 'evidence' of any paranormal activity (as they would be in a lesser game). The game is scary only to the extent that wandering around an empty, unfamiliar house on a stormy night in real life would be.
The real subject matter of 'Gone Home' is far more interesting and, for a game, unique. As you immerse yourself in its richly detailed domestic environment, and study the documents and objects scattered throughout, the game becomes a realistic family drama, albeit one in which you never actually encounter any of the characters directly. The standard of writing is excellent, as it manages to strike that delicate balance between overt exposition and subtle implication, as well as provoking a genuine emotional response in the player. I felt waves of sadness, anxiety, relief and sometimes elation as I pieced together details about the intermittent peaks and lengthy troughs of the Greenbriars' lives over the past year. Each member of the family has their own character arc, and though many aspects of these are familiar from innumerable films and television soaps - an unhappy teenager discovering her nascent lesbian identity; a struggling novelist; a middle-aged couple going through marital difficulties - it is hugely refreshing to see them as the primary focus of a videogame plot, and none of the central storylines progress in the quite the way you'd expect.
On a final note, I should add that the game makes excellent use of its 1990s setting. Not only did this make me nostalgic for my early childhood, with its array of authentic period details like the Greenbriars' collection of homemade VHS recordings or music tapes, it also provided a meaningful context to character development. Sam, for example, finds a liberating vehicle for her new gay identity in the contemporary 'Riot Grrrl' feminist punk rock movement.
In amongst her zines and 'Heavens to Betsy' tapes, Sam also keeps a treasured collection of Super Nintendo cartridges. This array of sci-fi shooters, fighters and fantasy adventures reminds us of what many games were like then, and of what many games are still like now. But 'Gone Home', with its convincing depiction of a set of troubled, emotionally complex characters, serves as important proof that the medium is capable of far more.
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