Imagine coming home from a long trip overseas to find nobody home and a vague note letting you know that it could be a while before you can expect someone to return. Oh, and this is your family’s new home — they moved during your trip — so you don’t have a key to the front door, and you don’t even know where your bedroom is. Such are the circumstances Katie Greenbriar finds herself in at the start of Gone Home, The Fullbright Company’s first game, on an extremely rainy June day in 1995. She doesn’t even have a giant grey cell phone to call her family and check on them. So much for her surprise return and politely getting her own ride from the airport.
After conveniently finding a key to the front door, Katie and the player, from a first-person perspective, explore the Greenbriar home to find out where everybody is or might be. Gone Home resembles old first-person perspective adventure games like Myst and The 7th Guest, games from the 90s, in this regard. With no people around to fill you in, you are forced to piece the story together by finding clues left in notes, recordings, letters, and journal pages. However, unlike the old genre, there are no puzzles, no antagonists, and no conflict present for the player to engage in. This is pure exploration, and your only abilities include picking things up, examining them, throwing them aside, and crouching to gain better perspective.
Although this bare-bones approach to gameplay sounds like it’d be a turn-off to some, the mystery at hand is engaging enough to make the three or so hours it takes to finish extremely worthwhile. The Fullbright Company found a reasonable excuse to rummage through a person’s home like we’ve done on so many occasions (in video games), and it becomes almost liberating to throw objects left and right in hopes of finding a scrap — some kind of clue as to what happened. It may seem silly to trash your own home, but eventually you become one with the defiance Katie might feel about coming home without anyone to explain her abandonment. The player and Katie become one in their rebellion towards the situation and, barring hunger or exhaustion, feed on each piece of information like it is life-restoring bread.
Where Gone Home succeeds is in the realism of its story and setting. The home is just a really large house, and the fates of Sam, Jan, and Terry Greenbriar are all revealed to be perfectly normal. However, the house is not without its tricks, and the story, as it is expertly unfolded for the player, is not without its twists and intrigue. I found myself feeling betrayal, disappointment, fear, and worry more times in the course of a few hours than I have over some larger budget games with bombastic twists. Although there are no cutscenes, CG or otherwise, upon finding key items, the player is treated to ruminations from the journal of the younger sister, Sam, read out loud. These entries are smartly written and revealed so as not to create a situation where the player knows more about what did or did not happen any better than Katie; they just elaborate a little bit on your findings, and their source is revealed eventually.
The immersive and realistic setting does give way to my few complaints about the game. You’d imagine that throwing a glass down on a hardwood floor would break the glass and emit a sound for both textures, but not here. You can throw anything you pick up, and all objects hit the ground and walls with soft thuds and fully intact. Materials appear to be for show only, which is unfortunate because that kind of feedback would go a long way towards further immersion. If a player knew that throwing whiskey bottles at the TV would break both in a loud calamity, it would dictate the player’s treatment of the house from then on. Either you’d go about breaking everything with abandon anyway, or you’d find yourself respecting the house even though it’s not real. Also, though I can make this complaint about many games, indie or not, every room appears too sterile regardless of the messes the developers tried to create.
These criticisms aside, I thoroughly enjoyed exploring the Greenbriar home on a dark and stormy night with Katie. Gone Home is still incredibly immersive and engaging with a well-told story to top it off. If you ever wanted an experience where you just explore without any of the other expectations games typically bring, I highly recommend it. What I don’t recommend is satisfying your temptation to rummage through other people’s real homes as a result.