Review: Gone Home

The Fullbright Company, an American team of four that have experience as co-developers of titles such as Bioshock 2, present Gone Home, their first independent game. As an adventure based on the premise of exploring an environment, Gone Home falls a bit short; however, the game’s story is remarkably special and is one that people should experience.

Developer: The Fullbright Company
Publisher: The Fullbright Company
Reviewed on: PC
• Also available on: Mac, Linux
Release Date: Available now

BRB-Score-3

Before taking a closer look at the game, a small warning; people have experienced a ton of technical issues regardless of whether they bought the game both through Steam or elsewhere and, with a pricetag of £14.99, gamers are understandably frustrated. Like many others, I had issues with the game crashing on startup; in the end, I had to resort to installing the game on a completely different PC (not running Windows 8, I might add). After jumping through that particular set of hoops, it worked fine. This is understandably a worry for those aching to play the game (which is unsurprising, given its insanely good 90/100 Metacritic score), so I suggest exploring the Steam support forums if you run into any trouble.

So, for a game that (if you’re unlucky) is a bit of a challenge to dive into, it would be good news if all the hassle is worthwhile. My answer is: just about.

The only sign of family is through photographs

The only sign of family is through photographs.

Gone Home is a game set in 1990s, with you playing as Katie, a girl who’s returned home from an escapade around Europe. This itself is a sign you’re from a fairly well-to-do family background – well, that and the size of your new house which, were it not for the lack of your family, would make a wonderful, comfortable home. Whilst an abandoned house is not the most original of story ideas, it’s one that can still have an impact when put together with a a story that conjures up a mixture of emotions – isolation, melancholy, sympathy (to name a but few). The indie-horror of Gone Home is reminiscent of Amnesia: The Dark Descent; there’s a gradually escalating spookiness that’s enjoyably jumpy.

One memorable moment occurs when first discovering a hidden passageway that runs through the house, leading to a wall full of newspaper cuttings and an exploding lightbulb – definitely the makings of a serial-killing/vengeful-spirit type horror story. However, these small, suspenseful moments seem somewhat irrelevant in the context of the actual story and are, frankly, little more  red herrings to throw you off the narrative scent. In short, there’s no need to be scared as these intense, jumpy moments don’t really lead to anything of any importance. That being said, these moments are a clever distraction from and contrast well with the main plot, which coveys fear and unease in a less typical fashion. As the game progresses, it’s difficult to not become involved with the story of Sam, Katie’s teenage sister, who leads us through the dark via letters and journal entries, slowly revealing what happened in a way that makes the player truly concerned for her safety.

This sense of involvement comes quite late in the game. The majority of the time is spent exploring and searching each room in the house for any clues to your parents and your sister’s, whereabouts; and at first, the pace is quite painfully slow. The idea of being able to move and inspect almost every object appealed to me strongly, as there’s something very immersive and involving about this kind of attention to detail. However,  this seemingly intrinsic aspect of the game was very disappointing.

When you explore the first few rooms of the house, the act of looking through drawers and scanning bookshelves has a niggling dullness to it. You’ll find yourself wondering exactly what the point is in right-clicking and zooming in on objects when, time after time, there’s nothing more to see; a stick of lip balm is a stick of lip balm. But it wasn’t until later that I realised that, in fact, there is no point. There are a huge number of different objects to inspect, and you’ll come across many things that seem like they might be significant at some point further into the game, but this proves to be false. It gets to the point where you end up merely glancing in drawers and cupboards – which is undeniably a bit of a letdown if you were expecting Gone Home to be investigative game that requires attention to detail, as it quickly becomes evident that items which are key to the narrative are made glaringly obvious and nigh on impossible to miss.

Gone Home

Not too hard to spot.

About an hour into the game, the focus is largely on the relationship between the two girls, an attachment that does transfer to the player after a time. At certain points in the story, you’ll hear voice-overs from Sam, telling you how she feels about moving to a new home, a new school and having to deal with new people, acting as a kind of verbal diary. The voice-acting is commendable, as the short sound clips capture the attention and encourage the player to continue; you find yourself wanting to hear more from Sam, as she seems to hold the key to what happened, to be able to explain everyone’s disappearance. The true narrative of this game becomes clearer at this point, transcending the indie-horror trappings that you might expect from Gone Home; it presents a much more solemn story about the loneliness and withdrawn nature of one girl and the natural sense of protectiveness an elder sister would feel towards her younger sibling is, in some ways, transferred to the player. And this is where the game’s strength lies.

The involvement of the player in this sisterly relationship is developed in a very subtle and effective way. The scale of the house you are exploring is just right, lending a certain sense of familiarity in its layout, making the experience of exploring the environment believable for both Katie and the player. Movement from one area to another is smooth and the progression through the house feels natural, with no tiresome retracing of steps in order to retrieve necessary items such as keys and locker codes. This aids the feeling of coming full circle; by the time you come through that locked kitchen door back into the foyer, your understanding of the house, your parents and particularly your little sister has completely changed.

This is accompanied by a wide array of different personal letters, notes and newspaper cuttings dotted around waiting to be discovered. All the items that are vital to the narrative of the game are created and placed very well, enriching the story and offering a strong sense of reward. It further presents Sam, Katie’s sister, as a character who matures as a person the more you find out about her; you’re effectively following a trail she has left for you, and by the end of the game it is satisfying to at least know these scraps of the puzzle have been pieced together.

Sam’s character is well voiced-acted, likeable and easy to connect to
The game’s resolution is emotional yet satisfying
Gameplay can be dull and tiresome
Environment could have been richer and more involving
Despite the emotional intensity, there’s something missing

Gone Home will leave you feeling content that you followed Sam’s journey. The game cannot be praised highly enough for its emotional story and the level of sympathy and understanding that it engenders for a character you never actually meet. The experience of playing this game is memorable and unusual for this reason; upon completion, it feels like a game that absolutely has to be played, but it’s difficult to understand why.

Whilst some may be able to overlook the very simplistic gameplay and many of the jarringly unexplained hints that you discover, I couldn’t quite escape the feeling that Gone Home is missing something that would bring the rest of this game up to the level of the wonderfully crafted plot and main character.

The review copy of this title was purchased by the author.
Official Game Site

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