Just Played Gone Home For The First Time
November 30, 2016

I remember being intensely annoyed by how highly the games press rated Gone Home when it first came out in 2013. I was twenty at the time, and I internalized the gameís widespread adulation as an attack on myself and what games meant to me. ďSo youíre telling me this game where you just walk around a house is a game of the year contender? Itís really capable of standing on equal footing with the likes of Grand Theft Auto 5, The Last of Us, Tearaway (shout-out to my Vita-heads out there) and Bioshock Infinite? Itís not even a Real Video Game! Thereís no way this is THAT good.Ē My discomfort with the game, and what it could mean for the direction of my favorite medium, made me reflexively lash out against the gameís success. The price point didnít help either. $20 for a game most enthusiasts talked about finishing in one sitting was not a reasonable concept in my admittedly immature brain. I deeply resented a game I hadnít played, and had no interest in ever playing, all because it had the gall to merely exist.

Cut to three years later, and my opinions have matured greatly. Firewatch and Oxenfree, both narrative-focused adventure games with no real combat, stand among my favorite games released this year. So when I saw that the Playstation 4 version of Gone Home was free to download with my Playstation Plus subscription in June, I made it a point to play the game for myself one day. The gameís format and focus on plot has clearly been an influence on modern game design. Does the game stand the test of time? Was the hype justified? How wrong was my twenty-year-old self?

The answer to all of these questions is ďkinda?Ē I didnít know most of Gone Homeís story beats, but I did recall that the gameís supernatural teases were just a grand misdirect. This knowledge took a lot of the energy out of my time with the game. The Fullbright Company seemed to build the entire game around this bait-and-switch. Between the dead silence of the Greenbriar house, the storm rumbling outside, and Samanthaís exploits with an ouija board, itís clear that the game is playing with horror tropes in order to provoke a certain level of anxiety about what really happened to Samantha. Itís priming you for a jump scare that never arrives. Iím sure if you went into the game unaware of any of Gone Homeís story, this would all be pretty effective. It tries really hard to make you feel uneasy. But knowing this crucial detail made the whole game feel I was rewatching an M. Night Shyamalan movie. Knowing the twist made the whole experience feel more laborious and vaguely pointless.

The story also suffered from the lack of active participants in the story. This is where Gone Home most glaringly shows its age. I felt like I was wandering through a museum dedicated to depicting what living in 1995 was like. The sheer amount of 90s ephemera is truly impressive. The amount of information you can glean about the lives of your parents and sister is emblematic of a rare attention to detail. But ultimately, Gone Home is a game that places all of its weight on the story, and the story left me pretty cold. Without any other characters to bounce off of, there was no propulsive sense of drama to anything I was doing. It was plainly obvious early on that Samantha (spoilers, I guess?) left home to be with her girlfriend, and the amount of fetch quest-y nonsense to find Samanthaís locker code felt like an artificial way to make the game longer.

What Gone Home did do was show me how far storytelling in games has moved forward in the last few years. Other games have built on the base that Gone Home created. Maybe I wouldíve liked it had I given it the chance when it was first released. Or I wouldíve called it pretentious trash and forgot it ever existed. I think itís better this way.

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jerec jerec - November 30, 2016 (10:37 PM)
"So youíre telling me this game where you just walk around a house is a game of the year contender? Itís really capable of standing on equal footing with the likes of Grand Theft Auto 5, The Last of Us, Tearaway (shout-out to my Vita-heads out there) and Bioshock Infinite? Itís not even a Real Video Game! Thereís no way this is THAT good."

I was 30 when I first played this and I had the same sentiments. It's not a bad experience... it's just not a particularly good game. The horror bait and switch thing annoyed me. They built up all this atmosphere and then did absolutely nothing with it. I got it for $5 and I wasn't sure if it was worth that. If I'd paid $20 on nothing but GotY hype, I'd be pretty annoyed.

I didn't have anywhere near the same backlash against other titles, such as Dear Esther, which also just have you walk around to an environment while you hear some story. Dear Esther did have more interesting visuals and the story was fairly cryptic, although I can't remember what the point of it was.

Really, the only "walk and listen to narration" game that I've played that felt worthwhile was The Stanley Parable. Funny, mind-bending and full of branching paths, even if the whole experience is quite short.
Nightfire Nightfire - December 01, 2016 (01:44 AM)
I never would have called Gone Home a game of the year contender, but I enjoyed it a great deal nonetheless. The reason for this - and I've said this before about myself - is that I'm a sucker for a good story, and Gone Home definitely has one.

That aside, however, the reason that Gone Home was considered so groundbreaking was simply because of its method of presentation. This is a game that doesn't talk at you like other games do; in fact, it has virtually no dialogue at all because it doesn't need it. The story is all around you, and is revealed through the objects, prose, poetry and photographs that you find around the house. Granted, it's a passive method of telling a story, but an effective one nonetheless. The term for this is, I believe, is "world building". This is why all of the faithfully-created 1990s memorabilia is there. It's scene-setting, and this can be very evocative, even if it doesn't directly have an impact on the plot.

Case in point: One of my favourite scenes from Deus Ex: Human Revolution was when you take Adam back to his apartment for the first time. You see some cheesy get-well cards from his co-workers displayed on a table, you see the shattered mirror in his bathroom, and numerous small details that passively illustrate the suffering that he endured after his accident and his frustration with being augmented against his will. You get a complete picture of what's going on inside his head, and not a single word needs to be spoken.

It's interesting that you were bothered by the fact that there were no other characters to interact with. One thing that I was keenly aware of while playing Gone Home was the fact that Kaitlin was the flattest character in the entire game, and since she is "your" character and you experience the game from her eyes, shouldn't the opposite be true? Well, no. Gone Home does things a little backwards, and I understand why. This is because the story is not about Kaitlin, it's squarely about Sam the entire time, and Sam's story turns out to be quite complex with many different characters involved and lots of growth to be had by all of them. The rub is that all of this stuff happens off-screen, and Kaitlin is simply the neutral observer who is piecing it together, and thus you can sort of impress whatever personality onto her that you like.

Is this format less interesting than other games? I didn't think so. Is reading someone's diary uninteresting? Cuz that's kinda what the game felt like, to me. Diaries can certainly be boring if the people writing them are uninteresting, but thankfully Sam is an interesting character with a lot of depth.

I agree with you on some points, though. As a "game" there's not a lot to Gone Home, and for that reason I can completely understand why some people didn't enjoy it. It doesn't even really have any puzzle elements aside from those few codes that you need to track down to open lockers, etc. I also got a little irked at Kaitlin's slow walking pace at times, particularly if I missed something and had to backtrack.

I also agree with you about the paranormal aspect, which was a total red herring only served to build tension that ultimately wasn't necessary. The only time I jumped was when that damn lightbulb blew out. So I guess there's one jump scare, eh?
honestgamer honestgamer - December 01, 2016 (10:34 AM)
Before Gone Home, how many competent games were there that featured sympathetic, nuanced LGBT characters as a focal point? The number was very low, and honestly, I can't think of any off the top of my head.

Gone Home changed that, and for that reason alone, I'm confident that it would have placed very high or even at the top of many game critics' lists of Game of the Year. It could have been a considerably less interesting or competent game and still would have been in the running. Life Is Strange, from what I gather, explores similar territory and (wouldn't you know it?) is also regarded highly by a number of critics. But Gone Home went there first.

Fortunately, Gone Home was also a good game for other reasons, including its experiments with narrative. Most of those worked out very well, I thought, even though a number of them likely amounted to the team making design decisions based on limited resources. I'm not a huge proponent of strong narratives in games, because to me the medium is about gameplay first and stories second (or third, or fourth, or tenth, or twentieth), but I did feel that Gone Home was a success and a terrific way to liven up a couple of lazy hours. Certainly, it wouldn't have been my game of the year, but if I were one of the many critics who believes that a game's message is more important than the execution, it probably would have been right at the top of the list.

The real question now, I think, is how The Fullbright Company will follow Gone Home. I believe its next game takes place on a space station, with other characters with whom you interact. Can that development team capture lightning in a bottle a second time and win over critics the way it did with its first effort? I rather doubt it, but time will tell!
Nightfire Nightfire - December 01, 2016 (12:00 PM)
Aside from The Sims, the first title I can think of that had a strong LGBT presence was Mass Effect, which made a big splash when it was released. BioWare has also had a habit of including LGBT options into many of its titles, such as the Dragon Age series, henceforth. But there were plenty of other titles that did this before that.

Thus, Gone Home was certainly not the first title to tackle LGBT themes and characters, though perhaps it was simply one of the first to explore the topic so fully and intimately. Usually gay/lesbian options exist in games simply to give you options of who you can date/marry and it's just a side point to the main story and not explored very deeply. So, kudos to them.
honestgamer honestgamer - December 01, 2016 (12:54 PM)
Right, that's why I said "as a focal point." LGBT characters and themes were primarily used for color up to the point when Gone Home was released, and especially within games designed for release in North America. The option to marry people of the same gender in The Sims and Mass Effect and such, while noteworthy because of the controversy that accompanied it, was not really the same as (essentially) making an LGBT character both sympathetic and the focus of the game's story. Including characters such as Birdo and Poison in older games wasn't the same as making them central to those experiences. A lot of gamers had no idea what they were even seeing, or didn't play in a way that made that stuff relevant. In Gone Home, it was all kinds of relevant. ;-)

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