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Review: Gone Home (PC, Xbox One, PS4)

Gone Home is not a new game. Having initially released on PC back in 2013, it was part of the second major wave of “walking simulator” games, following in the footsteps of the brilliant Stanley Parable and the rather dull Dear Esther. I don’t use the term “walking simulator” pejoratively – much with any genre, walking simulator games have their own ups and downs, high points and low points, successes and failures. Unlike games heavy with gameplay mechanics, walking simulators have to stand on a tightly woven, intriguing, and well-told narrative. Unlike Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, they can’t survive purely on how great it feels to shoot this guy or sneak into that enemy base.

The challenge for Fullbright’s first foray into games development, then, would be to create a story compelling and confident enough get players to forget the fact that they’re just moving from point A to point B and interacting with object X and object Y. Because when you boil the game down to those simplest of terms, that’s what Gone Home is. After playing the three hour experience in a single, entranced sitting, I can say that Fullbright did overcome their challenge.gone_home

I finally got around to playing Gone Home this past weekend, after leaving it sat in my to-buy and then to-play list for well over two years. I got the game on PC, but with its newly minted console release, I figured it was as good a time as any to delve into it.

In Gone Home, you play the role of Kaitlin Greenbriar. Kaitlin is a 21-year-old who has just returned from a year-long trip across Europe. She finds herself arriving at an eerily empty and disheveled home in the midst of an ominous thunderstorm. For the most part, Kaitlin is a silent protagonist, save for a few opening lines in a voicemail prior to the start of the game. The rest of the narrative is told primarily via journal entries from Kaitlin’s sister, Sam, and notes and imagery strewn throughout the house.

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Graphically, Gone Home is relatively simple, yet it does a good job of creating and depicting a grandiose old home. Small details like pieces of paper strewn all over the place, newspapers and drink coasters, clothes, drawers both empty and full, and mountains of boxes go a long way towards making the large manor feel both very empty and very full in different places. Considering that the game takes place in a single environment, I found myself refreshingly surprised by how diverse each room was.

Use of lighting and darkness is an important tool that Fullbright attempts to implement, but abundant lamps and light switches make the eeriness of the empty home quickly melt away. Halfway in, I found myself wondering where that initial creepy empty home feeling went and realized I had left all the lights on. Of course, the game goes as far as to mock the player through a well-placed tongue in cheek note that references the two sisters always leaving the lights on. The game could have done more with lighting by taking advantage of the thunderstorm to knock out power or burst a few more light bulbs than just a single one.

As you walk through the empty home, you start to piece together the solution to the mystery at hand: where did everyone go? Walking from room to room, you begin to notice the mess left all over the place, as though the family was only just moving in. You notice certain items missing, which make you question whether something truly bad had happened. And you start finding notes and bits of memorabilia from the life of your sister, Sam, and the lives of your parents.

And this is where the narrative really begins to kick in. Gone Home begins to tell the tale of a 1990s white, middle-class family that is rife with personal conflicts. In fact, it seems that the only person who is well-adjusted and happy is Kaitlin, and that’s likely because she’s been away for a year. But over that year of absence, a lot has gone wrong. Through journals, news clippings, invoices, wills, notes, pictures, and letters, you begin to slowly unravel what happened during the last year and why everyone is MIA.

Saying any more than that would do a disservice to Fullbright’s storytelling prowess, which should be experienced in its own medium, so I won’t give up many more details. What I will say is that the story both succeeds in ways that make Gone Home an incredible experience, and fails in others that leave me longing for an alternate ending.

The stories of each member of the family are fascinating. They’re a human look at the struggles of a family to cope with both their own and each other’s struggles. Even though they’re absent in both form and voice, you learn a lot about Kaitlin’s mother and father – enough to leave you emotionally invested. The house itself, with its creaking joints and its prior owner’s story, is also interesting to learn about. And the emotional investment goes even deeper with the main subject of the story – Kaitlin’s sister, Sam. Sam’s story of growing up as a misfit teenager only to find a place for herself strikes both sad and happy tones enhanced by a brilliant performance by voice actor Sarah Grayson. You actually care for a girl whose face you’ve only seen in a few pictures around the house, and Grayson’s acting combined with Fullbright’s writing are responsible for bringing the character to life.

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But the same successes that make Gone Home’s narrative so engrossing also end in a spot of disappointment as you collect the final pieces of the puzzle. In the end, you realize you haven’t been working on a single puzzle, but on four separate ones. You end up piecing together the puzzles of the house, the mother, the father, and Sam, and you realize that none of these puzzles actually come together to form a whole. It’s as though you’ve been told four parallel stories that hold minor intersections, when you were expecting an intricate weaving tale.

It would be harsh and disingenous to call that disappointment a failure. While playing, I was expecting a big reveal about why the house was empty, why everyone was gone, and why Kaitlin had arrived home to find that her voicemail from the night of her flight went unheard. Instead, all those answers were given to me in separate bits and pieces. Gone Home’s true misstep was to not make all of the stories it told flow into each other in a single major revelation.

Yet that misstep isn’t in and of itself a reason to write off Gone Home as a game you should avoid. Not even close. Because despite the lack of a fully satisfying conclusion, Gone Home is an achievement of storytelling, atmosphere, and immersion that you won’t find in many games. Fullbright’s walking simulator is not a game you should play in more than one sitting. But it’s also not a game you can play in more than one sitting. The story will grip you from start to finish and will only let you go once it’s had its say. And that’s an accomplishment that should define the genre of walking simulators – an experience that leaves you wondering how quickly time flew by. A walking simulator should be more akin to a book or a movie than any other game, and Fullbright has created an experience that you can’t take your eyes off of.

Disclaimer: This review was conducted using a digital copy of the PC version of the game, bought at the expense of the reviewer.

Gone Home
Worldwide PC Release: August 15, 2013;
US Console Release: January 12th, 2016;
PAL Console Release: TBD
Developer: Fullbright, Midnight City (Console Port)
Publisher: Fullbright, Majesco (Console Release)
Platform: PS4, Xbox One, PC
Price: $19.99