Expect to pay: £15 / $20
Release: Out now
Developer: The Fullbright Company
Link: Official site
Every connection we feel with another human being begins with a gradual descent through layers of familiarity until we touch something unique or resonant, when we go from the general idea of a person to the specific. Gone Home makes that process visible, and through the first-person exploration of one family's home, turns it into a surprising and moving game.
It's 1995, and Kaitlin Greenbriar has come home eager to reunite with her family after a year-long adventure in Europe. Instead she finds a deserted house and an apologetic note from her sister Sam begging her not to dig around “trying to find out where I am.”
By the end of your three-to-four-hour exploration of the house, you'll find out where Sam and your parents have gone. What happened to them, though, isn't as important as why – and you uncover that why by rummaging through a warren of rooms in an enormous house that includes hidden panels, secret passages, and a basement larger than my entire apartment. You'll open every door, turn over and examine every tissue box, and find embarrassing stuff in closets.
Gone Home requires you to use your own empathy to solve the puzzle of each family member's internal struggle. Sam's story takes precedence, the examination of some items triggering readings from her journal (performed with impeccable, vivid immediacy). We sense her frustration when abysmal teachers try to squash her creativity. We've got her back when she sneaks out to a live show. And we experience her dizzying plunge into first love with Lonnie, a young woman whose feelings are slowly revealed to her (“I don't think Lonnie even gets Lonnie sometimes”) much as Sam's are to us.
She's likeable, creative, headstrong and about to crash-land into adulthood. Who wouldn't see a bit of themselves in her and root for this passionate teenager? This sentimentality can be moving at times, but the way her story feels unambiguously administered rather than intuited weakens the premise and challenge of the game. She gradually becomes less an individual and more an avatar immersed in evocative symbols of a time and place: a poster with the names of Black Francis and Lisa Loeb; cassette tapes with handwritten inset cards; console cartridges, and cheat codes scrawled on pieces of paper.
Gone Home is a game that seems to emerge from a deep, creative restlessness with the testosterone-and-adrenaline fuelled conventions of videogames. But it doesn't respond by merely dressing up literary devices with indie whimsy and calling it interactive storytelling: the characters and their stories don't exist without your insight and emotional intelligence. We've all understood in a general sense that videogames can tell stories in a way no other medium can. Gone Home is the definitive proof.