June 7th, 1995. 1:15 AM. The player’s character, Kate Greenbriar, has just arrived home from a year abroad. Wind and rain beat at the single-pane windows, as thunder grumbles in the distance. A mysterious letter from Sam, Kate’s younger sister, taped to the door, urges her not to look into her absence.
Gone Home is a game about developing emotional attachments to people you never meet, through the humanity inherent in material possessions. The Fullbright Company’s voyage into environment-based storytelling appealed to the same inquisitiveness I feel when I’m visiting someone’s home for the first time. Who’s in all the pictures? What are their hobbies? What is hidden in that locked desk drawer?
As I moved through the house, I could see the “Greenbriar family” mind map forming in my head. A crumpled up manuscript, a “first day of high school” checklist, a newspaper clipping, a Riot Grrrl cassette tape. Inspecting these mundane objects to find shreds of evidence that shed light on new aspects of each character was exhilarating. The story of Kate’s sister, Sam, is the main attraction, with certain artifacts triggering journal entry monologues, brilliantly voice acted by Portland-based Sarah Robertson. But players who take the time to thoroughly investigate each room, or revisit the house multiple times, will uncover more layers of drama and intrigue, and more voiceless stories.
That Sam’s story rises above that of everyone else can be a bit troubling. Sam’s story is arresting in its honest portrayal of adolescent woes and self-discovery, with an achingly bittersweet conclusion that won’t soon leave you. But it may distract players from the other great things lying around in every room. Also troubling is Gone Home‘s relatively linear progression. Locked doors make sure that the player experiences artifacts in a certain order. The Greenbriar home is one of the most authentic, “lived-in” virtual environments I have ever had the pleasure of exploring, yet it can still feel odd to have objects from certain phases of a person’s life gated off in different parts of the house, ensuring preservation of a proper character arc. These quibbles do not tarnish the emotional wallop that Gone Home is capable of delivering, however, and did not detract from my experience while playing. It is also worth noting that the “modifiers” menu allows players to turn off locked doors and voiceovers for Sam’s story, which may even out these parts of the game but also might leave the player with an experience different from what the Fullbright company intends.
Gone Home‘s biggest strength lies in its subversion of our expectations. Even as a game player who wants to see stories go in new directions, every new hallway in the Greenbriar home confounded my expectations. And trust me, as a serial “plot twist guesser,” I am never more happy with a story than when it beats my expectations and goes another way. What is even more to Gone Home‘s credit, though, is that it confounded my expectations by always going in a more believable, human direction. Games these days tend to amplify their emotional payload with terrorist threats, alien invasions, zombie apocalypses and the like. Gone Home‘s story and setting are firmly grounded in reality. As a result, I latched onto the Greenbriar’s familial conflicts in a way that I haven’t with any other virtual character, especially ones I’ve never seen. Sam’s honest search for acceptance in high school spoke directly to my experiences, something I can’t say about any other video game character. Gone Home‘s embrace of human drama without supernatural gusto may disappoint some players but that, to me, validates its status as one of the most important works of the year.
Unlike most other story-driven games these days, Gone Home never tells you how to feel. Except for the letter from Kate’s sister Sam inviting her to explore the house, Gone Home never tells you what to do, either. What starts with a mysterious note ends with exquisite level design that beckons you to examine every room. Since every plot development takes place through objects and interaction with the environment, any emotional reaction the player derives from Gone Home is a result of the experiences they bring in to it.
Gone Home tells a story unlike any other game in recent memory, and yet it does so in a way that only a video game can. The masterfully executed environmental storytelling guarantees that each player will walk away from Gone Home with a different experience. The tale of the Greenbriar family, as woven by their material possessions, is one that players won’t soon forget. Gone Home is not the panacea for all the creative drought in games today, but it is an unforgettable stepping stone on the way to games connecting with people and inspiring a love of humanity.