Take a look around the room you’re in right now. Have a wander around your house or apartment or whatever you’ve got. Try to look at it through the eyes of a stranger. The expired milk left out in the kitchen, the stack of old bills on the windowsill. What sort of story does your home tell? Is it one you’d want other people to hear?
This is more or less the position that both the player and Kaitlin Greenbriar find themselves in at the beginning of Gone Home, the debut title from the exquisitely named Fullbright Company. Kaitlin has arrived back in America after a year traipsing around Europe, to the palatial new house her parents and younger sister Sam moved into while she was away. Upon arriving she discovers that all is apparently not well- the house is empty and there’s a note from Sam taped to the front door begging Kaitlin not to find her or tell their parents where she’s gone. It’s up to you to explore the Greenbriar home, unearthing clues to solve the mystery of both your sister’s whereabouts and the events over the previous year that have led to this situation.
Ever since I started playing games the promise of the medium has been, not in transporting me to worlds that could never exist, but in recreating the mundane. I immediately gravitated to games that let me explore the real world in a virtual framework, whether that meant The Sims or survival horror games that allowed me to poke around in shops and big houses without getting arrested. Several years ago I played the under-appreciated Wii gem Silent Hill: Shattered Memories and experienced something close to the divine- a game that spent 80% of its run time meticulously crafting an empty town for me to wander around. No enemies, no real puzzles to speak of, just me and my flash light. Unfortunately developer Climax couldn’t go that extra 20% and so you occasionally have to run away from stupid looking pink monsters.
Gone Home goes the full mile. There is only a house, a wonderful, extraordinary, magnificently detailed house. You go from room to room reading letters, picking over objects and assembling the story of the Greenbriars. Examining certain things will trigger a vocal diary entry from Sam, filling in a piece of the back story. This is not in any way a puzzle game- areas of the house are locked off at the beginning but the way forward is found by simple exploration. It’s also not a horror game, even though the Greenbriar mansion can be extremely unsettling until you get used to it. What it is is more akin to a point and click adventure that uses full 3D environments to tell several inter-locking stories.
With the advent of a new generation of console hardware triple-A developers will no doubt throw more and more money at the creation of sprawling virtual worlds and rain-soaked battlefields. Which is good for them, but as far as I’m concerned they’re just banging brightly coloured, heavily post-processed rocks together. Give me a house any day, one where every detail of the environment has been hand-crafted toward the singular goal of bringing the location to life . We’re used to thinking of gameplay mechanics as icing on the cake, an ephemeral layer of abstraction that we derive enjoyment from rather than simply being in the game itself. In Gone Home the mere act of moving through a virtual space is an utter joy.
Where the value of this lies depends largely on the individual player. I started the game in full virtual detective mode, scanning every room for clues as to the whereabouts of the Greenbriars. I quickly stopped this for two reasons- firstly, it’s relatively easy to work out the solution to most of the game’s mysteries early on and secondly, it turns out that Gone Home is far more concerned with the events of the past than the present. Sam’s story dominates the narrative, but as you explore the house multiple side-threads begin to appear. The game won’t hand you these stories on a platter. You must pay attention and connect the dots yourself, and that too is an utter joy, a collection of eureka moments in which these people who we never see or hear come to vivid life.
But mostly it’s about Sam. There’s been a lot of talk- some of it on This Very Blog- about the seeming resurgence of not-shit women and girls and in video games, what with our Clementines and our Ellies and our (to a certain extent) rebooted Lara Crofts. Sam is not a “strong female character”. She’s not a step forward for women in the medium. What she is is one of the best written video game protagonists ever, funny, warm, angry and real in a way that no snarling shaven-headed anti-hero could ever compare to. And make no mistake, Sam is the main character of Gone Home even though you play as her older sister. As you move through the Greenbriar home you also explore the deepest, most secret parts of her life, the joys and aches that she has kept buried inside. There’s darkness there, decrepit spaces and shadows and rain and thunder beating against the walls, but there’s so much light alongside it that you can’t help but be moved by it. I was left genuinely unsure of where Sam’s story would end and the moment before I was forced to confront that realization was more heart-poundingly tense than any raging gun battle.
You might be wondering why I haven’t said anything about what that the narrative of Gone Home actually involves. I can’t tell you. Not because there are any huge twists or surprises in the story (there aren’t) but because it’s better to go into it blind. What I can tell you is that Gone Home quietly, bravely pushes the realm of commercial games forward by tackling themes that video games, alone among all creative mediums, have been noticeably reluctant to approach. It does so without feeling the need to pigeon hole itself into the realm of specialty product or warn gamers up-front about the presence of content they may not expect to find in a video game. To be clear, I’m not claiming that Gone Home is ploughing the wild thematic wheat or that it deserves accolades as the first game to ever address this particular subject matter. There’s been a (very welcome) slew of indie games covering similar ground for years. But in the realm of professionally created games some topics are sadly still taboo. Gone Home doesn’t break that taboo, it acts as though it never even existed and tells its story plainly and without hesitation. There’s something touchingly appropriate about that.
Gone Home feels like a landmark for a medium still very unsure of its purpose or its place among its more established cousins. This isn’t a story that could only have been told in a video game, but it is an experience that couldn’t have been delivered by any other medium. It doesn’t take away interactivity in the name of art or give the player familiar gameplay tropes and then try to make them feel bad for enjoying it. There are no tricks up its sleeve, there’s no Peter Molyneux smirking behind the curtain. It is simply a game, no different to the thousands upon thousands that have come before, crafted with sublime skill and displaying a rare ability to trust both the inherent worth of its own gameplay mechanics and the intelligence and maturity of its players.
This is broadly speaking a story about adolescence, taking place in 1995, a time period that probably holds a lot of memories for the age group likely to be checking this game out on Steam. Few people’s teenage years will resemble Sam’s, and at no point while playing did I ever find myself transported back to my late secondary school experience, but when I finished the game some of that enthusiasm of youth, that feeling that everything is new and exciting, had rubbed off on me and for a short while I found myself looking at my own circumstances and my own life with fresh eyes and a desire to look behind desks for scraps of paper.
In a sense, the game had brought me home as well. It was a journey worth taking.