I know, I know. Gone Home isn’t a new game. But Gone Home: Console Edition is now available for free download to Playstation Plus subscribers, so I finally checked it out.
This game sparked a huge debate when it first came out. Fans hailed it as a brilliant example of artistic expression in video gaming, while critics derided it as short with an overly-inflated price.
I’ll be honest. The concept of Gone Home always appealed to me, and I am a fan of lead designer Steve Gaynor’s work on the Idle Thumbs podcast. But…I was never so curious that I wanted to pay the 20 bucks for the game. I’m sorry if that offends you, but it’s my personal truth.
Now that it’s “free,” I played through it. Turns out it’s okay. But oh man, it tried really hard to make me loathe it. It didn’t succeed. But it was close.
Gone Home is a first-person adventure game, that takes a couple hours to get through. I am not going to call it a Walking Simulator because I think that term is stupid. This game is not simulating walking, it’s telling a story to the player and occasionally you pick up a thing or unlock a door. So, adventure game then!
You are cast as Katie Greenbrier, a girl who is returning home from a trip all around Europe. It’s actually the first time she’s been in her family’s new home, which her father inherited from a creepy uncle. Your sister, Sam, has left some notes around the house and a journal for you to read. You walk around the house and you poke around in drawers and things, and occasionally hear Sam voicing her journal entries.
This is a little problematic logically because Katie finds Sam’s journal at the very end of the game but hears the entries throughout, but hey it’s fiction, so narrative conceits!
Sam’s story is the emotional core of the whole game. She’s a 17 year old working on finding herself, and she explores and elucidates her romantic relationship with another girl named Lonnie. Though occasionally uneven, it’s the best part of the game. In fact, I probably would have rather watched this story as a movie or experienced it directly from Sam’s point of view. It makes the actual video game parts/house stuff feel totally unnecessary.
Further complicating this dichotomy of good and bad is the overt horror tone of the game. Katie arrives at the house on a dark and stormy night. The whole county has been shut down with storm warnings. Ominous thunder and rain noises are constantly happening outside, and the house groans and creaks spookily under the influence of strong winds. Katie walks at an absurdly glacial pace through the home, like she’s sneaking around waiting for a ghost to jump out and kill her. Many of the rooms start out in total darkness, with you fumbling for a light switch. There’s actually an option in the menu to start the game with all the lights on, added as a concession for those that want it to be less disturbing.
The surface presentation of this game is super tense, scary, and creepy, and totally without the release that comes in horror movies when the jump scare finally happens. The whole thing has a foreboding air covering it, and it never goes away. It cheapens the story of Sam, and it made me feel constantly uneasy. I knew about this complaint going in from reading other criticism of the game, but it still impacted me.
Also, all of the other characters who aren’t Sam, Lonnie, or Katie are either horrible or have had horrible things happen to them. The implications of abuse between Katie’s uncle and father are particularly disturbing. I get that these real-life horrors are probably there to show that people are imperfect, that bad things can happen to anyone, and to further heighten the emotional impact of Sam’s story. It still feels a touch contrived and dramatic in TV movie style, and makes the game almost too dour.
The game’s presentation does have a non-horror component to it. The game is set in the mid-90’s, and as such is steeped in various icons of the time. VHS tapes, wonderful fake SNES cartridges, old TV’s, and Zines all make appearances. This stuff might be cool if you lived some of the culture associated with them, but at times it almost feels too much…like the game is desperately screaming the 90’s at you. There’s so much 90’s stuff in the house that it feels a little artificial, and lessens the reality of the environment. I lived through the 90’s. It wasn’t nearly as 90’s as this house is.
Many licensed songs from indie bands appear in the game on cassette tapes you can play. The various tape players around the house produce much better audio than they would in real life, and some of them appear to not even have built-in speakers. I know that seems like a nitpick, but this game is selling itself as being “realistic house exploration,” so these little details matter. I don’t like any of the licensed music in this game. That probably makes me uncool. Music is very subjective, and I understand that the songs here are very evocative of a certain time, place, and culture. But man. Most of it is just people screaming and loud, out-of-tune guitars. Never have I felt more like music wasn’t for me. Which is okay, and probably part of the point…but I didn’t enjoy listening to the songs. I felt bad about it. I kept trying. I wanted to hear them. But I couldn’t.
Chris Remo’s original music for the game sets a good tone during the voiced journal entries, though the ambient music in the house just adds to the horror vibe. I think if the music weren’t constantly punctuated by thunder and creepy house sounds it would be more effective.
Towards the end of the game, some goofy things happen to further cheapen the “real-ness” of the house, making it feel more like a video game dungeon and less like a real space. I got stuck once and had to look for help, because the signposting doesn’t always work right to lead you to the next part of the story. Important revelations are totally missable if you don’t comb through every nook and cranny of the house, which seems bad for a story-based game. I did like opening drawers and watching pens roll around in them, but when so many areas don’t contain anything important, it’s harder to look for the ones that do. Even though it would have been more contrived to have something interesting in every single interactive object, there are already enough contrivances elsewhere that I wouldn’t have minded. The game has just enough empty drawers and spaces to make me feel like it didn’t totally respect my time as an audience member.
And yet, even with all these tonal and pacing issues, I still really liked the core story of the game. It treads into cliche a little bit, but the ending rang true with me and left me fulfilled…even though I was also still waiting for a ghost to jump out at me, or a dead body behind a door, or something. Much has been made of the progressive leanings of the story’s political viewpoint, and yes it does have those! Which is good! But this is not a significant, groundbreaking, formative work of game fiction in spite of its political leanings. It’s not so good that it will change people’s minds. But it will satisfy you if you’ve yearned for more non-traditional love stories in games.
Gone Home was made by a very small team, and it contains things that the team clearly loves and is very passionate about. But it never quite comes together into a coherent whole. At least not for me. It feels more like a bunch of random elements thrown together on top of a nice story. It’s evocative of culture without feeling true to that culture. I still enjoyed it, but I had to work very hard to sort through the detritus and get to the good stuff. At several points it’s very much a game made for the people who made it, and the included commentary mode reflects that fact. The commentary may help you to better connect with the game…but it also exposes a self-seriousness that I think is detrimental to the overall tone. I’m not going to call the game pretentious, because it’s core emotional story is far from that. But some elements of the game do feel a little pretentious and self-satisfying for the creators. It’s okay to make a thing for yourself, but when you’re asking me to enjoy it I might have a hard time now and then since I’m not in your head.
I like the general concept of exploring a realistic space to find a story, but when there’s a foreboding horror tone the whole time (Without any actual payoff) and when so many things are there just for the sake of being there, it starts to feel tedious and artificial. Gone Home is still worth playing to experience the core story. Just know that it’s got a lot of other stuff on top of it that isn’t as successful. It might ring more or less true for you personally. The parts that hit with me really hit, and the parts that didn’t really didn’t.