I love video games, but it’s rare for me to play them right when they are first released. Normally it takes me a somewhere from a few months to a few years to get around to playing to a game. I’ve got a considerable backlog of games that I’ve been meaning to play and it hasn’t been until recently that I’ve been able to start chipping away at the list. With that in mind, I’ve created a new series of posts called Late to the Party, wherein I discuss the games that came out in the preceding years that I’m finally getting around to experiencing. Today’s entry in the series is Gone Home, which first came out on PC back in 2013, and got its console release on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One in January of this year. In June it was one of the free games available via PlayStation Plus, so I downloaded it, and last week I sat down and played through it. I will be giving full spoilers of the game, so if you haven’t played Gone Home, consider yourself warned.
The year is 1995, and your character, Kaitlin Greenbriar, has been gone for a year overseas and arrives back at her family’s house in Oregon late at night. Instead of finding her parents and younger sister waiting for her, however, the house is deserted. An ominous note on the front door from Kaitlin’s sister, Samantha, immediately lets you know that something isn’t right. Gone Home tasks you with exploring the house and piecing together exactly what has happened. The story that unfolds as you play gone home is primarily about what Samantha has been going through while Kaitlin has been abroad, though you also get some insight into what her parents have been up to. Samantha was having trouble fitting in at her high school, but her life changed when she met Lonnie, a senior who she felt inexplicably drawn towards. The two of them become close friends, with Samantha becoming utterly devoted to Lonnie. Samantha loved everything Lonnie loved, and after one night when they snuck out to a concert they began to develop a romantic relationship. Samantha’s parents did not approve of her rebellious behavior and were in denial about her relationship with Lonnie, but they themselves were going through a rough time in their marriage and professional lives. Her father’s career as a novelist had faltered and he had been reduced to writing reviews of consumer products. Her mother was largely wed to her work in the forestry service, and from the clues in the house it appears she was in the early stages of an extramarital affair. The two of them are currently on a marriage-counseling trip, hence why they are not at the house when Kaitlin arrives home. Despite her parent’s objections, Samantha continued to deepen her relationship with Lonnie, though both Samantha and Lonnie knew it would all come to an end when Lonnie graduated high school and shipped out to the military. After spending one last evening together, Lonnie called Samantha from a payphone in Salem and told her that she didn’t want to leave her. Samantha’s final journal entry tells Kaitlin what you’ve probably suspected from much earlier in the game – Samantha and Lonnie have run away together.
Stories of teenage angst, awkwardness, and sexual discovery have never resonated with me, even when I was myself a teenager (and I was just as awkward as anyone else in high school). I didn’t find the story of Gone Home to be particularly compelling, but I also can’t say that it’s bad either. Gone Home is well written and acted, and as such I’m not willing to just write it off as another tale of teenagers making bad decisions because their mental faculties are clouded by a sea of unstable emotions. Gone Home is one of those stories that clicks with some people, but not with others. For me, it doesn’t click. Maybe I’m just not intellectually refined enough to appreciate it. While the story of Gone Home didn’t work for me, what did work was the way it was told. The Greenbriar house is expansive, and as you slowly explore it, room by room, and object by object, the pieces of the puzzle start coming together. Everyday things, such as pieces of paper, books, and photos trigger new audio journal entries from Samantha. Even the ones that don’t trigger journal entries, such as correspondences between Samantha’s father and his publisher, give more insight into the family dynamics and further construct the picture of the Greenbriar household. Though the house is also full of items like pencils, cans, clothes, pillows, and groceries that at first glance seem to have no purpose other than to fill space, these also add to the game by giving the house the look of an actual home that people live in, which is not an easy thing to do because of the sheer attention to detail required.
My playthrough of Gone Home lasted just over two hours, making it one of the shorter games I’ve played lately. Gone Home is one of those titles that is arguably more of an experience than a game, as all you are doing is walking around the house and looking for clues to progress the narrative of Samantha’s life. All the game mechanics work fine, though I would have liked it if Kaitlin moved just a little faster. The entirety of Gone Home is played in first-person, and since there are no mirrors in the entire Greenbriar house, you never see Kaitlin, except for in a few photos. Normally it would be weird that Kaitlin is stumbling her way through her own family’s house, but Gone Home gets around this by explaining that the parents bought it while Kaitlin was gone overseas, so she’s never been in it before. As a small game built primarily on its narrative, the visuals and audio of Gone Home are nothing remarkable, though at times the empty house with its dark rooms and the sounds of the rainstorm going on outside give the game something of a horror vibe. I kept waiting for a ghost or demon to show up each time I opened a door or turned on the lights, but there are no scares to be found in Gone Home. It’s also nearly impossible to fail the game, unless you somehow miss the items needed to unlock regions of the house that you need to access in order to get to the end.
When Gone Home came out back in 2013, it won a number of awards and was very well reviewed by most of the gaming media. Having now played the game myself, I can say that Gone Home is a good game, but I don’t find it to be as outstanding as some other people do. The story did little for me and the ending did not hit me particularly hard, partly because you can see it coming from a mile away. But, as I said earlier, the story itself is not bad, and the way it is told is in fact quite novel. Because the appeal of Gone Home’s story is so subjective, I would encourage other people to give the game a try, despite my personal opinions. Perhaps wait for it to go on sale, or be available for free, and then knock it out in a single sitting.