Reviews: Gone Home

The Worst Part of Hating This Game Is the Other People Hating It.

Let's get this out of the way right now: Gone Home is not a bad game because whir's da guns? Whir's da fightan?! Every game doesn't have to be an action game.

It is not a bad game because of its relative brevity. Plenty of shorter games can be good and memorable enough to justify their existence.

It isn't a bad game because it tries to be story-driven and tell a story about young queer love. I personally have no real interest in young queer love, but they don't have to make a game for me, personally, and story's as good a way to drive a game as any.

And, of course, it is a video game. Trying to pretend it isn't just shows how little you care about your argument, and your willingness to use "not really a game!" as shorthand for "game I don't like!"

Gone Home is a bad game because it relies on three things, and two of them don't work: characterization, romantic storytelling, and nostalgia bombing.

I was a kindergartner in 1995. I am firmly a child of the late 90's-early 00's, and I didn't grow up when this game takes place. All the cute little nods, the lovingly-crafted snapshots of a world so like our own and yet so different... it was doubtless mind-blowing for people who grew up then. But, even forewarned and forearmed, it just doesn't work for me. Even if the joke has been explained to you, you just won't find it funny.

Second, the romance. What can I say about it that hasn't already been said? The YMMV page has got plenty of examples. I just don't buy it. Maybe it'd be different if I were gay or heavily-invested in homosexual acceptance, but I'm not. To me, it's just a generic teenage love story about how parents just don't understand, and even there the game undermines itself by making the party we're supposed to root for into a couple of impulsive thieves.

I can't deny that the characterization is the best part of the game, and the well-drawn inhabitants of the house really do hit you pretty hard. But the rest of the game just doesn't work for me.

If you want to try it, you probably already have. Maybe you liked it more than I do. I just hope that you remember that everyone who hates this game isn't a pack of rageaholic shitheads whose opinions you can dismiss out of hand.

Loved it to pieces (but not for everyone)

I have no idea how to classify this growing genre. I’ve started just labeling them “Interactive Narratives”, which gets the point across while sounding nice and pseudo-intellectual.

So, Gone Home is an “Interactive Narrative” game, which consists of you, as 20-year-old Katie, meandering through your not!childhood home after a year abroad. But as it’s 1995, none of your family had a Facebook page to let you know what the bloody hell went on during your European adventures. Spoilers: Family Drama! Weeeeeee!

To say more would spoil it. Gone Home is entirely reliant on its plot and how invested you become in uncovering all the mundane (ie. in comparison of what games are usually about) snippets of your family’s life.

It’s unavoidably going to be compared to Dear Esther, due to the lack of any real gameplay (other than choosing which direction to go) and the portioned out story. Gone Home has more control and interactivity, sure, but it’s not an unreasonable comparison. To whit – I really liked Dear Esther, and I really liked Gone Home.

And like Dear Esther, I can see players splitting themselves down the middle - CoD players” vs “Pretentious twats”, which is a shame but hey, Internet. Still, as a pretentious Co D-playing twat, I find myself thoroughly confused. Some of my best friends whose opinion I greatly respect would sooner drive a steak-knife into their goolies than sit through Gone Home, while I’m looking forward to a replay. Odd to get yourself wound-up over it.

There are a few other items I have seen some take issue with – the price, for starters. $20.00 for, at most, 3 hours of gameplay (1.5 seems to be the average. I’m a dawdler) might be too much for some. There’s the aforementioned straddling the line between “game” and “movie with arrow buttons”. Also – there’s no twist, otherwordly or otherwise. Sorry. Apparently some were expecting to find Jacob Marley in the attic.

So in summary: I liked it a heck of a lot. You may not though. It’s that kind of game. I could go on, but I’ve just learnt how short 400 words really is.

NB. I should also mention I've no real personal experience with the elements of Sam’s story, Gone Home’s main hook, so I’m in no position to really judge it critically. I, for one, just found it to be a good, sweet story told exceptionally well.

"Story-driven" done right

Many games that are praised for their story are ultimately just regular games that happen to tell a story inbetween levels, or are totally linear scriptfests that force story upon you. What they have in common, though, is oftentimes a lack of real interactivity, as you merely move along and experience scripted moments, dialog and cinematics. Here, though, things are done differently.

Picture a First Person Shooter. Now remove the shooting and make it less linear, focusing entirely on story, exploration, and interacting with the environment. That's basically what you get here. The controls are First Person Shooter controls whether you use keyboard/mouse or a controller, but there is no shooting. You walk around an abandoned house and examine the place, reading anything that catches your interest. And there is a lot.

While many games use the "oops I lost my journal" style of storytelling, Gone Home makes more logical sense - the things left around the house include newspaper clippings about events important to the family, crumpled-up unfinished story drafts by the budding novelist father, a rejection letter from a book company, bills, sticky notes, letters and journal entries written by the main character's sister Sam, and more. Some of these writings are genuinely funny, such as a homework assignment Sam chose to goof around in while still technically following its instructions to the letter, turning a health class assignment into an epic war story. You can also interact mildly with the environment, most notably putting a cassette tape into a tape player to listen to it. All these details flesh out the lives of the family in this house and paint a complete picture of what happened to everyone and why.

While there's no combat or action, some basic gaming skills are necessary to navigate the house at some points. For example, a secret passageway requires you to crouch and remove a panel from the wall - second nature to a gamer, but not something a non-gamer would pick up on. Also, many light switches are in the dark, and may be hard to find at first.

Gone Home is very short, but as an experiment of how to make an interactive story, I hope it succeeds. It has the potential to grow the appeal of gaming as a medium, and hopefully will lead to bigger and better ideas.