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.
Ambivalent; the story\'s conclusion undermines the story\'s own themes
Gone Home is really a story that happens to be presented in a video game format. The game consists of you (a early 20s woman who lives as an independent adult – you were in the military) coming home after a vacation in Europe to an empty house; your parents and your sister are all absent, and as you explore the house, it becomes increasingly clear that it is a bit disheveled. You find some notes from your sister scattered around, as well as various notes and scraps of life left by your sister and parents. Some of these trigger audio logs from your sister, which are really journal entries that you are listening to. These tell the story about what your sister has been going through over the last year, and the story of her relationship with Lonnie, a girl she knows. There are other stories interwoven into that one – your father, who is a failed writer who is trying to climb back on the horse while working a real job, and your mother, who is struggling with her relationship with your father and who might or might not be having an affair, or at least contemplating one, as well as the story of the former owner of the house that your family moved into while you were in the military. These stories all come together to create a picture of a family that is troubled, but not broken, and of people who are people. Your sister is an immature high school student, but she is mostly immature like rebels without a cause are. Lonnie seems to be simultaneously more and less mature; she’s a bad influence on your sister in some ways, but also seems to have a more realistic and grounded view of the world in other ways. I liked the story of the lives presented here; it is sort of everyday drama, with people struggling with real problems rather than contrived situations (much as the game likes to pretend at one point that there might be supernatural elements involved). What I didn’t like, however, was the ending; when you get to the end, it seems to sort of throw away Lonnie’s character to force a “happy ending” which, if you think about it, isn’t actually really a happy ending at all. And this sort of ruins the story to an extent, because the whole story had been about growing up and trying to accept reality and find happiness through it, and then the end has Lonnie and your sister throw all that away while making a very stupid decision which flies in the face of Lonnie’s prior characterization, as well as the general theme of the piece. I’ll also note that it is possible to sequence skip in this game; as I assumed it was more gamey than it really was, I managed to find some secret passages, including the one that lead to the very final area of the game, far before I was supposed to. This partially spoiled a major aspect of the story to me from quite early on. The worst of it is, finding these secret passages isn’t even very hard if you are familiar with floor plans and realize that there are empty spaces which, in a real house, would have rooms in them.
This isn\'t a story-driven game. It\'s just a story.
And as for the story, it's okay at best. It does have a fairly decent mystery/atmosphere at the beginning. But the actual exploration and gameplay really doesn't factor into the story. That is, the "story" is mostly told by journal messages from your sister. You don't find these journals in your exploration; they just auto-play when you pick up a note or a photo or whatever. I guess they had to sprinkle it in throughout the game to keep you interested, because if you actually just found it all at once (as your character does at the very end) it would be quick, somewhat boring, and disappointing. So essentially you just have a story being played to you in pieces while you walk around. The story has almost nothing to do with your exploration, other than the fact that the developers laid it out that way. There are plenty of red herrings to keep up the suspense so the exploration is fun for the first hour, maybe. Then the exploration/mystery basically resolves itself, almost independent of the main story. You might call it a game just because you control a character and interact with virtual objects. But it's about as much of a game as putting a person in a room and saying, "you're allowed to touch things." That is... there's no actual game to be found. It's still entirely linear, and the only difference between this and watching a movie is how long your character stands around poking at cups and binders before you decide to walk to the next plot point. Now, in terms of replayability: there is none. Even if it were a movie, it wouldn't be rewatchable. It's the kind of story that, once you know the ending... all the atmosphere and suspense and mystery at the beginning of the game vanishes. It becomes completely pointless. There are no choices. No antagonists. No real conflict. Nothing to resolve. Really only one mystery to solve, but once you have the answer there's no point in trying to re-solve the mystery or look for clues and hints you missed (like a good mystery novel would have). As a story, it's mediocre, and as a game, it's very poorly done.
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.