Thanks to Steam’s Midweek Madness sale last week, and a few not-so-subtle hints by a friend (y’know, of the good old ‘Go and get this game and play it! Have you gotten the game yet and played it? Go do it now!’ kind), I found another gem that I would probably not have gotten into otherwise, so welcome to some quick thoughts on:
Gone Home is a first-person interactive story (adventure) spanning about two hours of play time. Kaitlin Greenbriar returns home after a year of travelling Europe – but she arrives late at night, to a completely dark and empty house without an obvious sign of where her family has gone. Looking through Kaitlin’s eyes, you get to explore her family’s mansion step by step, room by room, floor by floor, slowly bringing some clarity into the situation – and some more confusion as well…
The game realises the exploration part extremely well; you can do just about anything in this house. You can pick up almost every object and investigate it, although many may not be relevant to the story – but who knows where clues to the family’s whereabouts may be hidden? Each room you enter is lulled in darkness, which increases the tension and the unknown even further: what might be hidden in the bathroom? What about the library? What is that weird shape you can barely make out in the darkness? It is an eerie feeling, the unknown – and it was even more intense for me because, according to Steam, it started out as an Amnesia: The Dark Descent mod. And we all have at least heard about that one, so whoever knows what their engine might have created there? Just the context of that other game made me extremely cautious and scared throughout the whole game. No lights in a room? That must mean there is a dark monster lurking behind the door! Creaky sounds in the house? Probably zombies, or an axe murderer! (I don’t do well with horror games. I’ve never played Amnesia because I am certain I would never be able to sleep again, ever. So I just wanted to be on the safe side…) And the game gives you reason to think so too, so you’ll just have to find out for yourself what happens and what does not…
The exploration part is magnificent. Especially for the kind of gamer who likes to touch everything – well, this is the game for you. And the best part for the OCD-ish gamers among us? You can continue exploring once you’ve reached the end of the game, too! Since I was so scared that I dropped a lot of objects just randomly where I was standing, I feel I definitely want to do that and put everything in order because, man, this house is messy. And the good thing is, you can do that! You can spend as much time as you want in the house and arrange and rearrange stuff however you want. I like these kind of things, they can be quite relaxing. And then there are nice little things in the settings as well – if you are really, really scared of the dark, for instance, you can enable a lights-on mode at the beginning of the game. You can also disable the voiceover if you’re not much for them. And so on.
The really beautiful part though is the storytelling aspect. From a narrative point of view, this game is hauntingly perfect. Yes, indeed, you get to be told a story, though something quite different than you might have been expecting at the outset. Teenage problems such as loneliness, love, growing up, rebellion against the parents’ restricting lifestyle are addressed in the many letters that Kaitlin’s sister Samantha has hidden in various rooms. You can keep exploring as you hear her touching voiceovers, her sharing of her most private secrets, and see the progression of the naive teenager into – someone quite different with a complex, intriguing personality. While Samantha’s story is the main narrative here, you also get to know a lot about other family members in, for instance, letters or photos.
A truly immersive experience
The amazing thing about this game is the atmosphere it creates. We seldom realise how much our homes can express about ourselves, our personalities and histories, all the little things in life – and this game manages to show it extremely well. Seemingly irrelevant objects can tell a whole story if you are ready to look for it. You do not only get their stories, but also the feeling that they emit. Indeed, even with relatively limited information, you feel like you actually get to know the family well, and identification with Kaitlin increases as you feel closer to them. And not only identification with Kaitlin, but also identification, sympathy and understanding with Samantha. After all, doesn’t she have problems that everyone can relate to on some level? Isn’t Samantha’s struggle in the world a mirror of us, too? I certainly had the feeling, which is why I was so incredibly immersed in her story. I really felt for her, even though I hadn’t met her as a character as such.
Gone Home shows that you don’t need action or a lot of acting characters to tell an engaging story. You don’t need to have a player solve difficult puzzles to keep them interested (though some clues are a little tricky to get right away). It is storytelling in a very pure form; through verbal communication. By the end of the game, I was completely in love with the character of Samantha (and not only because she’s my namesake). She was very… real to me. And how many games can do that, really, in such a minimalist way?
So if you’re looking for action, this is definitely not the game for you. If you’re looking for an amazing, realistic story and a gripping atmosphere, this is it. You don’t need days and days of gaming to come to a conclusion; instead, the developers show how two hours are just enough time to make you care. In fact, I’ve come to like these formats a lot over the past year, starting with Telltale’s The Walking Dead in its episodic structure; I find those extremely effective – but more on that some other time…
Gone Home is currently on Steam for €18.99.
Sorry you missed the sale.