Watching and playing the purely adventure focused first-person games as they've been developed has been an exciting development for the genre. Games like Dear Esther, Proteus and the upcoming The Witness attempt to cut the sometimes unnecessary combat out of games like BioShock and The Elder Scrolls franchises and get straight to the most interesting part of both of those games: exploring their elaborately crafted worlds. For me, being a stranger in a strange land capitalizes on one of the most appealing and unique aspects of games, which is exploring and interacting with inspired and foreign lands.
The Fullbright Company, an independent studio formed from some of the key talent behind the critically-acclaimed BioShock 2 Minerva's Den add-on, seem to be attempting to make their mark in this genre with their debut title, Gone Home. Here The Fullbright Company craft an incredibly well-detailed world, inviting players into their digital home and uncovers its many secrets. If you feel compelled to, that is.
Your avatar of exploration in Gone Home is teenager Kaitlin Greenbriar, returning to her family after a long European trip. But the family has moved to a new place of residence during Katie's adventure, which puts you and the character in an uncomfortable situation as you both arrive at an unfamiliar location. To make the atmosphere creepier and tenser is that when you arrive back "home", no one is there to meet you apart from an unsettling note from your younger sister, Sam, taped to the door begging you not to snoop around the house and find out what has happened to everyone. Doesn't she realize that this is a videogame?
Gone Home's dedication to being an adventure game is immediately apparent as combat is nonexistent, with your controls being limited to movement and picking objects up and rotating them. But thankfully The Fullbright Company takes this to heart and it's quite the feat at how detailed the Greenbriar house is. The quality of the textures is charmingly in very high resolution, and the sheer number of things to interact with is staggering. Houses are overflowing with all sorts of stuff, important and otherwise, which is nailed here in Gone Home.
As the game takes place in 1995, there's a ton of references to the pop culture of that era, but having been born in 1992 myself, most of the early 90s nostgala flowed right over me, which is unfortunately an important factor of the atmosphere of Gone Home. But I did appreciate how well-realized it was, and I even smiled at the sight of VHS tapes with various movies including Ghostbusters labeled on them. And Sam's music genre of choice, Riot Grrrl, was something that I never experienced in the wild, but enjoyed how influential it was to the story as you come across cassette tapes with such music on them scattered around the house.
The game does indeed feel fairly BioShock-esque as you're primarily discovering the story through environmental context and absorbing written pages and audio logs. The problem I encountered which was ultimately the undoing of the game for me was that I found the story to be predictable and uninspired. Gone Home is a story of a family falling apart, and even more specifically Sam's journey to discover herself. Family dramas and coming-of-age stories are prefect set-ups for fiction, but in Gone Home the characters are so atypically drawn that I never found myself invested in them or their tale. The aspiring but failing writer, the responsible and strict provider, the angry teenager, we've seen these people many a time in other works of fiction and the lack of twists on these well-established archetypes is disappointing.
It should be commended that Gone Home even tackles such a tale, one rarely touched upon in gaming. But the plot and actions of such stories are so obvious and well-established elsewhere that in the end I wasn't invested in the story, thus I wasn't too interested in exploring the world. And really that's the whole point of the game. Without that anchor, I felt adrift while playing Gone Home.
Something that also bothered me throughout my time with Gone Home was the nature of the audio logs. Certain objects that you can examine will mysteriously trigger a reading of Sam's diary by her. It makes zero sense and is disingenuous to the narrative as it was constantly jarring. Gone Home is at its best when you examine the environment around you and have to decide for yourself what is going on, not when it's being spelled out for you by a disembodied voice, giving you information that might have been otherwise unobtainable. It also doesn't help the atmosphere as the sense of loneliness and isolation disappears during these narrated bits.
On a similar note, the early atmosphere of Gone Home as you first start exploring the house is quite creepy as light bulbs flash and strange noises can be heard throughout the household. Soon a ghostly side story is introduced, with seemingly its only purpose to serve is to justify the cheap scares that the game sometimes throws at you. It felt unnecessary, especially since an empty house is already creepy enough on its own, so I really didn't need anything else.
Gone Home has a mostly strong atmosphere, promising set-up, and great production values with a strong score and fun licensed songs all in service of telling Sam's story of self-discovery. And if the story clicks with you, then you're in for a treat. But if you're like me, and found the story it tries to tell uninteresting and uninspired, then there isn't much here for you in this short title. Not only are the characters fairly generic in a well-trodden plot, but the weird and disrupting nature of the audio logs and the ridiculous and cheap utilization of the ghost subplot makes it hard to care about what is inside this empty place.
Gone Home is still an important game, like Proteus before it, in furthering the goal of strengthening the importance of environmental storytelling and free exploration in videogame narratives, and indeed I generally enjoyed the sensation of wandering around the house. Indeed it's also clear that a lot of hard work and heart was put into the creation of Gone Home by The Fullbright Company. Unfortunately this house just didn't have that special something and unique spirit to make it the home that I was hoping for.
THREE OUT OF FIVE
(A balanced game that has a mixture of strengths and weaknesses, meaning that it alternates between being good and bad in mostly equal measure.)