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Gone Home (PC) artwork

Gone Home (PC) review

"Gone Home chooses to let the player participate in the telling of a story populated by people you never actually get to meet, and the results are commendable."

Gone Home is a game about a young lady named Sam. She is of high school age--a junior and soon to be a senior, now that itís early June of 1995 and class sessions have just recently ended--and she has been trying without much success to fit in with her peers despite being the relatively new girl in town. Her family has spent the last year or so in a house on the forested outskirts of town, a building in desperate need of renovation that once was known for being the dwelling place of some crazy guy.

In Gone Home, you do not play as Sam. You instead assume the role of Katie, the older sister who has been traveling in Europe. As the game begins, you have just caught a cab ride home from the airport. The house that is sort of your home but not really is eerie indeed. It also seems quite empty, furnishings aside. A storm rages. Wind rattles the windows, accompanied by thunderous bellows from the cloud-covered night sky. Itís all very moody and ominous.

Over the course of how ever long you play Gone Home from there--which probably wonít be more than 2 or 3 hours, even if you poke and prod everything--youíll conduct an investigation with the aim of determining the reasons behind your unexpected solitude. Youíll discover things about your own family that come as a surprise. A year abroad has turned you into an outsider, and youíve returned for a crash course on the new normal for your loved ones. How much you choose to learn is up to you.

The beauty of Gone Home is that it takes a very classic style of play and makes it feelÖ well, not quite contemporaryÖ but modern and still very relevant. Text and graphic adventures have used similar design for years to confound us with puzzles, but here the emphasis has been placed on exploration. You are piecing together a story, one populated by a handful of interesting and credible characters. Your pack has sufficient space for junk, but most items you find canít even be stored and arenít needed. You simply pick them up, look them over, process them, and then move on without a bunch of useless trinkets. That approach works very well.

Each new room you access is filled with points of interaction. There are an awful lot of three-ring binders that contain nothing of interest, admittedly, but thereís also a treasure trove of newspaper clippings, letters between friends, shot glasses and so forth. As you look around, a family portrait slowly emerges. It consists of the has-been writer who is the family patriarch, the ambitious mother who is looking to improve her lot in lifeÖ and Sam. The most interesting of all three of them is definitely Sam, keeper of a secret she has hidden from her parents for years.

As a story, Gone Home works beautifully. By the time I came to the end of the adventure, I could likely have put together a pretty decent timeline of events that transpired from the moment Katie left on her European tour, right up to the moment of her return. I felt sympathy and a bit of disdain for each of the principle players, because they all felt incredibly human even though I never actually saw them except in a few family portraits. Typically, a writer would resort to info dumps when trying to relay the sort of detailed information I gleaned, but here each new tidbit was a discovery. Occasionally, investigating something unlocks a new spoken journal entry (taken from Samís diary), but otherwise all of the information was presented organically and I felt like I was in control.

The setting is well realized, loaded with numerous pop culture references that lend the story its satisfying verisimilitude. Youíll spot the names of familiar bands from the era, including Lisa Loeb and Kurt Cobain, plus youíll hear tapes from less familiar bands that fit the period beautifully. Thereís also a lot of packaging that is modeled after staples of that era, riffs on Tuna Helper and even--in my favorite Easter egg--a spoof on Newmanís Own salad dressing. If you lived through the 90s as a functioning and aware teenager, Gone Home is a suitably awkward trip down memory lane that effectively evokes that age.

As a game, though, Gone Home works just a little less beautifully than it does as an overall experience. The art style is not quite as detailed as you might expect from something released in 2013, even given the relatively limited amount of real estate covered. In particular, the doors look absurdly fat when they are open and you are looking at the profile of the knobs. It all works, but it feels dated (a result, Iím sure, of a ludicrously small development team that ought to be commended for doing as well as it did with what must have been limited resources). For me, the bigger problem is the realization that if I were to go through the game a second time, without stopping to look at all of the optional stuff that Iíve already enjoyed, my run would probably take all of about 5 minutes. Digging through the scraps of paper and such is rewarding when youíre working toward an end and dying to see how it all comes together. Once you already know the secret, thereís not much reason to make that effort again.

A final problem is that itís too easy to miss a single trigger that moves things along. Iím choosing words here carefully to avoid spoilers, but what I can safely say is that there are only five or six objects in the house that really matter, and at first you can be lost for a long while if you miss as few as one of them. Myself, I managed to tear the available house apart top to bottom but missed interacting with one trigger. Then when I finally found it, I reached the closing credits a couple of minutes later. I didnít mind wandering around the house so much because I was having fun immersing myself in the tiny little world the developers constructed, but I was starting to feel a bit frustrated as I resorted to going back through everything to figure out what I had missed.

Itís definitely best not to come at Gone Home while expecting a typical adventure game experience. This project is clearly designed to tell a story, with you serving as the curious narrator. Your job is to keep making the pages turn, to read between the lines and mine everything for additional significance. If youíre ready to spend two or three hours in that effort and you donít mind overlooking a few rough edges, definitely take a crack at telling Samís story. Youíll almost certainly be surprised by just how much you enjoy yourself. Otherwise, maybe just see if thereís a mix tape you havenít worn out quite yet...


honestgamer's avatar
Staff review by Jason Venter (December 26, 2013)

Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.

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