The Ole Switcheroo: Thoughts on Gone Home

Last year, art gamers and story gamers alike were treated to the narrative-heavy gameplay of The Fullbright Company’s interactive mystery Gone Home.  While player reviews seemed heavily mixed at the time of release, critic reviews were largely positive across the board, and after finally getting a chance to sit and play through it myself, I’m able to appreciate what they saw.

Gone Home follows Kaitlin Greenbriar, a young student who has just come back from a year abroad.  She returns to a home she doesn’t really know–a mansion willed to her father by an eccentric uncle.  Her return is celebrated by no one.  But only because, as you quickly find out, the house seems to be abandoned.  Only by making your way through a foreign home and scouring various objects and diary entries can you begin to understand what happened to your family.

The game is fairly short–around two hours–but that doesn’t stop it from being heavily engaging.  The majority of the plot is fed to you through a voice over of Kaitlin’s sister’s diary, which offers small explanations as you search, piece by slowly fed piece.  But perhaps the best moments come from the pieces of the storyline that you figure out for yourself, without narration.  Stacks of unread books and a handful of rejection letters addressed to your father.  Hints at your mother’s dissatisfaction.  It all fits together beautifully, if you take the thought needed to embrace it.  Gone Home truly delights in taking its time, doling out nuggets of information only when it feels the time is right.  It’s for this reason that I was truly surprised at what ended up being the overarching theme of the game: love.

Spooky, cabin-fever love.

Spooky, cabin-fever love.

Don’t misunderstand–it’s not that I don’t like love.  On the contrary: I’m a big fan.  But every impression that I’d gotten from screenshots, descriptions–hell, even the game itself–suggested to me that what I was in for was a spooky, atmospheric, possibly supernatural scare story.  I knew that the game was entirely non-violent, but that didn’t stop me from recognizing the amazing amount of tension and fright that a setting such as this could inspire.

And the game knew.

Spatters of what appear at first to be blood turn out to be red hair dye.  There the constant thrumming of rain and thunder outside this entirely deserted house.  Hell, even a spare Oujia board is thrown in.  And all the while, Kaitlin’s frightened, confused sister narrates a time in her life filled with loneliness and pain.

I mean, come on!

I mean, come on!

But in the end, the story is about love.  About finding someone in the darkest moments of our lives.  About that person healing us, shaping who we are.  About how, in doing so, we shape them, as well.  And how such a human being can make our lives shining and glittering and new, when before there was only dry sand, echoing in the lonely breeze.

God dammit, Gone Home: you pulled the ole switcheroo on me.  And I never saw it coming.

So engaged, so invested was I, that when the truth about Gone Home‘s climax came about, I was incredibly confused.  But not in a negative way.  To be completely honest, this may be the first time a video game has ever tricked me like this.  Although, perhaps “tricked” is too harsh a word.  It feels more like I was jostled.  I was misled about where this story was going, but I don’t feel betrayed or otherwise angered by it.  If anything, I’m impressed at the ability to tell a story with this much heart so covertly.  If there’s one thing I can concede to some of the disappointed gamers who have torn this one through the mud, it’s that perhaps a $20 price tag for this one is a little steep.  I’ll be playing this one again eventually, but probably not any time soon, despite how much I enjoy it.  But as a friend of mine once said: “If you’re buying full price games on Steam, you’re doing something wrong.”

You’ve likely heard me say it before, but I think it bears repeating: we need more games out there with heart.  Games that are looking to embrace us with a passionate story–games that have something to say, and want to further the medium as an art form.  And this is an amazing example.  Gone Home isn’t about fighting ninjas or nuking aliens.  Gone Home reminds us of all the other things in a game that we could realize the full importance of.  Things like love, overcoming loneliness, and the importance of family.

Also, 90's grrl rock.

Also, 90’s grrrl rock.

Gone Home is available on Steam.

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