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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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