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Gone Home | Review

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I am in love.

I’ve finally played Gone Home, and I am in love. We’ve always known Fullbright’s first offering would be special – with the team’s pedigree how could it not be? The promise of environmental narrative – stories told through places – being delivered by the minds behind BioShock 2: Minerva’s Den had us salivating. Talking with Steve Gaynor only reinforced our faith in the team’s ability to deliver on their promise. And, with Gone Home, the Fullbright team have certainly delivered.

Gone Home is a story about love.

People grow attached to things. Objects, places. Things. We’re fundamentally creatures of habit, and those habits extend to the spaces we occupy. There is no better example of this than a small child and their favourite teddy bear. Tattered, dirty, smelly, yet never far from clutching hands, the token of comfort and familiarity exemplifies people’s attachments to things. And we affect those things to suit our preferences.

Gone Home tells its story through things.

Kaitlin Greenbriar is returning from a year travelling the world. In the meantime, her parents and sister have moved into their deceased uncle’s old mansion, located on Arbor Hill. Instead of the welcoming arms of a loving family, Kaitlin is greeted by empty darkness. You explore the empty unfamiliar house. In first person, you interact with the world, picking up common household objects, reading notes, rediscovering the lives of your family, and learning why Kaitlin is alone.

Welcome home.

Welcome home.

But the story, at its heart, is not about Kaitlin. It’s about Kaitlin’s sister Sam. And it’s about love.

Sisterly love, familial love, sexual love, and the desperate, frantic, yearning need for love

Sam’s love for Kaitlin in her absence is a driving force in Gone Home. It’s an unconditional bond between the two, and the player is co-opted into that relationship. The desire to uncover Sam’s fate pulls the player in to the house, compels them forward, and ultimately tears their heart wide open into messy emotional bits.

Sam is a beautiful, tragic figure. Teenage struggles, insecurities, discoveries, joys – Sam writes her life into the woodwork of the house. The pizza box with oil stains, the pillow fort in the lounge room, the treasured mix tape, the torn up classroom note tossed angrily in the bin – each is a clue that hints at Sam’s personality. Exploring her space tells the story of a normal teenage girl, experiencing her highs and lows vicariously through the treatment of household ephemera.

Sam is never seen, and I think that’s why Sam’s presence is so strong. Her absence is the first thing to greet Kaitlin, with the hastily scrawled note pinned to the locked front door hinting at the emptiness inside. It’s like a dark hole, a torn out face in the family portrait that you’ve never even seen, and it defines the house at 1 Arbor Hill.

Supplementing the implicit narrative absorbed from the environment are the various audio diaries triggered by reading documents. And they are, quite literally, audio diaries. Instead of the typically contrived feeling from in-game audio diaries, Gone Home’s audio diaries feel authentic and natural. They take the form of diary entries written by Sam, in lieu of Kaitlin’s confiding ear, and read out for the player. Instead of finding the individual diary entries, entries trigger on specific notes found around the house. For example, finding the letter from Sam’s new school outlining what she’ll need for a new year in a new school will trigger a diary entry on Sam’s anxieties about fitting in. They are heartfelt and revealing, touching, and believably written.

Reading the assorted notes - both forgotten and prominent - are a joy.

Reading the assorted notes – both forgotten and prominent – are a joy.

But Sam is not the only inhabitant of the house on Arbor Hill. A gentle thread of parental struggle wends its way through Gone Home’s digital hallways. Kaitlin’s mother and father have their own presence in the house, and their own issues. You feel despair for Mr Greenbriar’s writing career, finding his old rejection letters. You’re happy for Mrs Greenbriar, keeping in contact with her old college friend, and taking on new roles at the forestry service where she works. And you follow the ups and downs of their marriage. There’s also the presence of the dead relative – present in a number of ways.

And, of course, the story is about the player. Gone Home’s greatest narrative success – above creating vivid and realistic characters that you never even meet, above constructing a structured narrative in such an open format, above building an entire believable world – is how it makes you feel. You will feel confused – where is everyone? You will feel fear – is Sam in danger? And you will feel draining, sobbing, wrenching catharsis. Gone Home’s manipulation of player emotion through completely unobtrusive means is as triumphant as it is elegant. Every emotion comes from the player themselves – it is completely genuine.

My only two nitpicks with the story are that the supernatural subplot is comparatively unresolved, and the ending is slightly anticlimactic. But so is life – full of unresolved threads and ongoing stories. I may not know the turns Sam’s life will take for certain, but I can imagine it, and that is enough. Sam’s story will stay with me, and I will carry her burdens and enjoy her triumphs in years to come.

It has to be said that Gone Home tackles a very specific issue, and the way it does so is tender and empathetic. I’m being deliberately vague here, and you’ll know what I’m talking about when you play it, because I don’t want to spoil anything, but I have to address this point. It’s the only games I can think of that tackles the issues experienced by these characters – no, people – and the delicate and respectful way it does this is significant. Gone Home works hard to normalise something that is falsely considered abnormal by a large chunk of society, and will hopefully educate and inform without judging.

Sam's bedroom - her sanctuary.

Sam’s bedroom – her sanctuary.

Gone Home may not be the most realistic-looking game ever on a technological level, but the sheer amount of detail that has gone into this environment is overwhelming. Special mention has to go to the texture work, which is beautifully detailed, conveying marks and scratches from use, or watermarks on cardboard boxes. This extends to notes and documents, which are detailed enough to read in the environment. But Gone Home’s look far exceeds the sum of its technical parts. The atmosphere created by the little details is unsurpassed. Half-unpacked boxes, the birthday card lost down the back of the cabinet, the one forgotten sock in a hidden corner – it builds a world so tactile. It’s easy to get lost in Gone Home.

The immersion is helped by the solid audio design. Non-diegetic music is used sparingly, reserved for underscoring voice logs. It’s understated, but it completely fits the game’s pace. Most of the soundtrack is in the game, reacting to your input. From the quiet jazzy folk on the bar’s record player, to the abrasive and raw Riot Grrrl songs hastily transferred onto cassette favoured by Sam, you control when you play the music. It’s a special moment when you curl up in front of the telly in Sam’s pillow fort, just listening to the Bratmobile song Sam obviously adores so much. The house has its own soundtrack of creaky floorboards and groaning pipes. It’s unnerving when you hear some thumps in the distance – was it the wind? Or the reason Sam has disappeared? It’s the feeling of sleeping under a strange roof with unfamiliar sounds. Your reaction to the noises changes, too, from initial caution and disquiet to a familiarity and warmth. The tinny, constant rain is perhaps a little repetitive after a while, but I really couldn’t care less – everything else is just so wonderful.

Voice acting is a real high point. Sam has the most dialogue, and each line is delivered wholeheartedly. The tone is conversational, conspiratorial, contemporary – exactly the way a teenager’s diary would sound like if rendered into vibrating waves of air. Sadness, disappointment, excitement, joy – every single line is hammered home with the emotional honesty only a teenager can have.

Beautiful music.

Beautiful music.

Gone Home will take you two hours to “complete”, if you explore everything, but Sam Greenbriar’s story will stay with you. With Gone Home, Fullbright has crafted a complete family’s life story, embedded it into a digital universe, and then trusted that the player would want to explore it. And you will. Gone Home – its mechanics, design philosophy, and narrative – is an indescribably important game. It is significant. It is a landmark. Gone Home is a masterclass in implicit narrative and world building; a tour de force of emotional expression. In a word, Gone Home is perfect. Buy it. Play it. Feel at home.

Gone Home is available for $20 for PC, Mac, and Linux through Steam, or DRM free direct from their website.

Oh, and you can watch me play the first 20 minutes of Gone Home on our YouTube channel.

(Reviewed on PC. Review code supplied by the Fullbright Company. Thank you.)

ONLY SINGLE PLAYER SCORE

Story – 10/10

Gameplay/Design – 10/10

Visuals – 9/10

Sound – 9.5/10

Lasting Appeal – 10/10

_______________________

Overall – 10/10

(Not an average)

Platforms: PC, Mac, Linux

Developer: The Fullbright Company

Publisher: The Fullbright Company

Ratings: not rated

Former Editor in Chief of OnlySP. A guy who writes things about stuff, apparently. Recovering linguist, blue pencil surgeon, and professional bishie sparkler. In between finding the latest news, reviewing PC games, and generally being a grumpy bossyboots, he likes to watch way too much Judge Judy. He perhaps has too much spare time on his hands. Based in Sydney, Australia. Follow him on twitter @lawksland.

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Epic Expectations and Epic Games Store: Storm in a Teacup on Creating Close to the Sun — Exclusive Interview

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Close to the Sun

Storm in a Teacup’s Close to the Sun released a month ago, but much remains for fans to learn about the project. Though the inspired game has plenty of clear influences, its differences from what came before are what make Close to the Sun a standout title in its genre.

In OnlySP’s interview with Storm in a Teacup’s creative director and CEO Carlo Ivo Alimo Bianchi below, Bianchi talks about his influences, the studio’s future, Bioshock, and Epic Games’s contribution to the project.

OnlySP’s Amy Campbell gave Close to the Sun an impressive High Distinction, thus adding the horror title to a list filled with some of the best games available.

OnlySP: We see this happen all the time where indie games will get a lot of attention simply for the premise alone. Some are watching Close to the Sun for this very reason. What is that sudden pressure like and what is Storm in a Teacup doing to make sure expectations are met?

Bianchi: We’re incredibly humbled by all of the hype we’ve seen around Close to the Sun, we’ve been working hard with a small team to make sure we met the bar for a title like this, and the last six months have been spent polishing the title to make the experience what it is today.

OnlySP: Obviously, a lot of people are comparing BioShock and System Shock to Close to the Sun. What makes Close to the Sun similar but different when compared to those games?

Bianchi: It’s a flattering comparison which we feel comes mostly from the design language within the game—when you see Art Deco in a video game BioShock is by far the biggest point of reference for gamers, for us though, it’s more about what was visually right to bring to the game. In our version of history science has accelerated the progression of society—bringing 1930s styling to the end of the 19th century, it’s also a suitably opulent aesthetic for our Tesla who sees himself as a modern-day Prometheus.

When you look at the gameplay itself, it’s really very different—Close to the Sun is more like SOMA or Outlast. To be honest we tried to stay away a little from the BioShock comparison not because it isn’t an incredible game, (it is a masterpiece) but because we wanted to align the expectations of consumers for Close to the Sun—it’s not an FPS.

soma

OnlySP: What are some of the game’s that got you, not only into gaming, but into making games? What games are you looking toward for inspiration when developing Close to the Sun?

Bianchi: The first games I ever played were on Commodore 64 and, as every guy coming from that era knows, just launching games at the time took some experience. It was fascinating for me at the point that I started writing my first code in Basic for fun. After that consoles came out and things got much easier, just buy a NES game, blow inside the cartridge like there is no tomorrow. Games became just something to play with, not something to think over. Even by my 18th birthday games were just something fun to play—I could never imagine I would end up developing games.

The first game that made me think was Resident Evil, it was an action game with interesting puzzles, a good story and a horror mark that executed splendidly (for the times) all of its aspects. It taught me that games could be more than just a shooter OR a puzzle solver, they could be both if executed well. The second game that comes to my mind is for sure Final Fantasy VII, still today my favourite game of all time. That game taught me that story telling could be way deeper than what I was used to. I loved the combat system and still think it’s the best turn-based system ever, but the lore in that game together with characters’ depth was something else. Another game I want to mention is Tomb Raider, that has been the first 3D game where I really felt depth! I felt so immersed in its environments that sometimes I dived from higher grounds to certain death just to enjoy the amazing vertical depth of the game. Tomb Raider was the first game that made me think: what if I could create something like this? There are many more games I could mention but these three are for sure the most important for my life as a developer.

When we started our design work on Close to the Sun we had three key pillars we wanted to use to create the game, these were: we wanted to create a suspense filled horror game, we wanted it to be on a boat (it’s the perfect setting to convey vulnerability and isolation to the player) and we wanted to include Tesla as a historical figure (and personal hero of mine). When it comes to the titles that inspired the team for Close to the Sun, we loved SOMA, Layers of Fear, Firewatch—these are all incredible titles.

Epic Games Store

OnlySP: So, the Epic Games Store controversy has gotten the entire PC gaming market riled up. A recent press release not only doubled down on the fact that Close to the Sun will launch first on the Epic Games Store, but that the partnership with Epic actually “accelerated development.” Could you elaborate on some of the ways the partnership sped things up?

Bianchi: Epic have been pivotal in the creation of Close to the Sun—they’ve been behind the project from an early stage and even provided a development grant for the game early on with no obligation. With the support they had given us and the project it felt completely natural and right to bring the game to the Epic Games Store.

On a technical development level I think it’s really easy to underestimate the value of the tools they provide—creating a horror game requires a lot of testing to see the reaction you want from the player, our team spent a lot of time using Unreal to create rapid prototypes for the final version of the game, something stuck, some things didn’t, but what was left perfectly fulfilled what we wanted to achieve and with the visual fidelity the Unreal Engine provides.

OnlySP: What do you have to say to those who are bad-mouthing the game simply because of the exclusivity period?

Bianchi: We understand fully why players feel so passionately about their launchers, but we felt the Epic Games Store was the right fit for the game, for the reasons already outlined already but also for visibility. The game will come to other storefronts in time, but right now we’re working on the console release so we can make the game available to even more players.

OnlySP: How much time can players expect to sink into the game’s story mode on the first go around? Does the game’s story offer anything for players who dive back in for a second playthrough?

Bianchi: Your first play through on Close to the Sun will take between 4 and 7 hours depending on the type of player you are. The game is rich in environmental storytelling and collectables and if you want to find and understand all these it may even take you longer. As for replay value there are some environmental elements that you’ll only truly understand once you finish the game, these are great to look out for the second time around.

close to the sun

OnlySP: Where does Storm in a Teacup go from here?

Bianchi: We have some ideas; we’d love to go on to create another game in this same universe but for now our focus is on the console versions of the game that will launch later in 2019.

OnlySP: Forgive me, but I’ve got to ask: Do you have any updates for Switch owners who want to play Close to the Sun on that platform? The ‘accelerated development’ comment discussed earlier definitely had me wondering.

Bianchi: We’re always open to looking at new platforms but we don’t have any news to share on this at the moment.

OnlySP: Why should people who may not already be interested in your game look into Close to the Sun?

Bianchi: Close to the Sun offers a unique experience—looking at the ideas and inventions of Tesla and what he might have gone on to achieve if he hadn’t been outmaneuvered during his years in industry. Tesla died near penniless in a hotel in New York but the world could have been so different—in 2019 we’re still barely scratching the surface of his ideas.

OnlySP: Is there anything else you’d like to say to our readers?

Bianchi: Thank you for reading and a special thanks to anyone who goes out to buy the game.


For all the latest on Storm in a Teacup, be sure to follow OnlySP on FacebookTwitter, and YouTube. You can also join the discussion in our community Discord server.

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