Gone Home (2013/2016)

Coming home after some period away there’s always adjustment. I lived in the UK for a couple of years, and I remember Sydney feeling very strange when I returned: the main roads seemed stupidly wide, and the town felt underpopulated. It was different – or, rather, my expectations were different. I wasn’t calibrated for the place any more, and it took time for me to gather my old despair at crowds on a local scale.

This feeling of not really belonging, of seeing things that are familiar as if they’re slightly off, is important in Fullbright’s Gone Home. As every, I’m behind the times – I’ve had this game for years, but didn’t get around to playing it until yesterday. I know that it received a lot of positive press when it came out (as well as a smattering of bro-led whuh?) but thankfully that’s dissipated now, so I was able to get through the thing without preconception.

(If you haven’t played it, it’s probably worth noting that there will likely be spoilers at some points in this review, so you might want to skip it if you haven’t played and would like to, as the plot is the game, pretty much.)

So, the setup is quite simple. It’s 1995. You play Katie Greenbriar, a 21-year-old who’s been overseas. You’ve just come home to your parents’ place in Oregon – a rambling joint that’s been inherited from a relative – and it’s past one in the morning. It’s raining, and there’s no phone signal because of the storm. You’ve arrived home with little notice, and have told your parents you’ll get to the homestead under your own steam – and have now found that nobody is there to meet you. And there’s a note on the door from your younger sister, Sam, apologising for everything.

Hm.

So immediately, the mind kicks into survival horror mode. Abandoned, creepy house? Check. Rain? Check. Missing people? Check. It’s all there. We’re on a landlocked Marie Celeste – the house feels very lived-in, despite the fact that your family is still moving stuff out of boxes – and you’re trying to figure out what the fuck is going on.

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Dorks. Dorks everywhere.

The house is of an age where electrical circuits begin to fail, and features long hallways where lightning flashes and flickering lights can trick the eye. Out of the corner of your eye, it seems you could see things just slipping from view. Between the sounds of the house shifting in the storm and the sounds of a stray television, there’s a lot to keep you on your toes as you try to figure what’s been going on.

What’s going on is revealed through diary entries. The player hears Sam’s voice, discussing fractures with parents, school drama, and a burgeoning friendship with Lonnie. Depending on the order you find these entries – and by the end of my playthrough I hadn’t found them all – the idea that Something Terrible Has Happened can stick with you for lot of your playtime. Eventually, though, the horror transitions into love; we realise that Sam is becoming aware of her sexuality, and of her love for Lonnie. The absence that seems so foreboding becomes understandable, and one of passion and youth. As in Life is Strange, the writing and acting for the diary notes is topnotch, with the anguish of queer awakening conveyed beautifully.

Gone Home is very good at creating backstories for the Greenbriar family. Obviously, most weight is put on Sam’s coming to grips with love and sexuality, but elsewhere there’s weighty experience, too: marital discord, failed (and resurrected!) writing careers and elements of illness and abuse all feature. These are things you could miss if you were not particularly keen on rooting through people’s furniture and belongings, but I imagine this game attracts a thoughtful, observant kind of player. There’s a lot to discover, and a lot of gaps to fill in. Not everything is spoon-fed to the player, so it feels actively involving to discover snippets of lives hidden in ticket stubs or invoices.

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The soundtrack of the game is great. Chris Remo, whose soundtrack for Firewatch I really dug – has created something which sounds suitably eerie while containing some nucleus of family sitcom theme-tune schmaltz. It’s a deep sound, definitely in tune with what we’re seeing as we examine the surrounds. There’s an almost Boards of Canada feel to the music at times, which seems appropriate for something so drenched in memory and melancholy.

(Aside from Remo’s soundtrack, there’s some excellent riot grrrl tracks in the game – fuck yeah Bratmobile! – found on tapes lying around. It’s a great portal back to 1995.)

I played the console version of the game, which looked and sounded great. There’s some repeating-object niggles – how many pairs of those fucking jeans does this family need? – but these aren’t deal-breakers. It’s in the newer version of the Unity engine than the PC edition, and works very well with a controller. The game’s cheap to buy, and different to a lot of what you’d generally choose to play on a PS4, and I hope it’s been taken up by people who wouldn’t normally give this kind of thing a go.

One of the problems people have with the game, it seems, is that it doesn’t qualify by some standard – whose? – as a game. Whenever a game comes out that doesn’t do the standard things – 4X strategy, AAA shooter, retro pixel thing, whatever it is Suda51 calls his releases – it gets pissed on from a great height by people who (I assume) don’t like their labels challenged. People want to call it an interactive movie, which I guess I can understand, but a baffling gripe is that the game lacks replayability.

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Yeah, not creepy at all.

I don’t think Gone Home‘s one-and-done nature – once you know how the story ends, there’s little reason to replay the game, unless you’re purposely seeking to max out the achievements that are inevitably part of the gaming experience these days – renders the experience as “not a game”. I know how the story goes in lots of narrative games, but it doesn’t preclude me from playing them again, should it come to that. Nor do I necessarily think replayability is a must-have for a game: To The Moon was short and sweet, and I feel I received as much emotional experience from the game as was necessary. Sometimes things are fine just on their own: I don’t need to revisit them all the time. I get that people want that sort of repetition from something that might retail for the thick end of $100, but at the price this game is? It’s fine as it is.

This sort of griping come whenever people mention the “walking simulator” genre. Personally, I reckon they’re missing out: Firewatch is a walking simulator. Dear Esther and Leviathan: The Old City are walking simulators. The Witness kinda is. Anna is. And though they all had problems, I liked them all, too. There’s room in gaming – fuck, there’s room in my backlog – for more genres and more takes on how experiences are presented than in three or four old-faithful game design standards.

(But hey, I like to reread Ulysses regularly so I’m probably more obnoxious than most people.)

I really enjoyed Gone Home. I don’t know that it deserved the 10/10 Polygon gave it – it could be that this is the equivalent of Oscar wins for subject, not execution – but I felt touched by its story, and enjoyed the way it transitioned from potential horror to love. It’s a good one to file alongside Life is Strange: a look at what it is to be a teenager becoming an adult; a representation of the difficulty of finding out who you are. I’ve got to applaud any game company that aims for such universal yet personal goals: even when it fails, it’s still more interesting than most franchise retreads.

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