Gone Home is a game unlike any other ever created. It takes a new look at games, throws out everything you thought you knew about them, and creates something wonderful. Many classify it as a First-Person Adventure Game, which is as close as you can get to classifying it at all. Some people even go as far as to argue that Gone Home isn’t a game at all. There is no “win condition” in Gone Home, you do not fight bad guys, slay dragons, save humanity, or survive a zombie apocalypse. The game is over when the story finishes, and you’ve uncovered the truth.
It’s an understatement to say that Gone Home is a story-driven game, because it’s all story. You play a first-person perspective of Katie Greenbriar, the eldest daughter of the Greenbriar Family. You have just arrived home from a European adventure trip, and a lot has happened while you were gone. When you arrive, you are surprised to find the door locked and no one home to greet you. With only curiosity to compel you, your task is to find out where everyone is, and what’s happened while you’ve been away.
Your only controls are to walk around and interact with objects throughout the house. By picking up and looking at certain objects, you unlock a short except from your younger sister’s journal. Sam, your sister, has decided, as you learn, that she will write in her journal as if she was talking to you since you’re away. The journal entries are not read by the player as text however, they are read to the player through the voice of Sam. As the excerpt plays, you are free to move about the house and continue to interact with objects.
Okay, so now that we’re all on the same page and you can understand the basic idea of the game, let me explain all of the important nuances of the design that make the game so powerful. I decided to give an analysis of this game because of how impactful it is. I can honestly say that I have never felt as much emotion from a game before as I have from Gone Home. I care an absurd amount about Sam Greenbriar, a completely fictional character, and I’m not afraid to admit that this game has brought me on an emotional roller coaster and to the brink of tears. How then, is it possible that a game could carry such emotional weight?
The most obvious thing to recognize is the unique playstyle of the game that makes it feel in a way like watching a movie. You can probably say that by just looking at the game or having read what I’ve written about it. You can’t really experience it without playing it however, and I can say that it is a decent comparison, but still not quite right. Videogames put you right into the action, and require a Direct Input from the user to continue. A game will always be more immersive than a movie due to this simple fact. In a game, you are not just watching the action, you are a part of the action, and there isn’t a 3D movie out there that can come close to this kind of feeling.
Gone Home takes things a step further than most games though, and creates a very authentic-looking house filled with everything you’d expect an actual house like this to have. It really makes you feel like you’ve entered into someone else’s home. The player can interact with most objects, picking them up, closely examining them by zooming or rotating them, and by doing so, you begin to learn more and more about the Greenbriars. This design is very unique and interesting, as the developers use the objects inside the house to characterize each member of the family. No one ever tells you about themselves besides the excerpts you hear from Sam’s journal, you only have what you observe in front of you to make your own conclusions about each family member.
At the very beginning of the game, you know absolutely nothing about anyone in the family, yourself included. The house gives you subtle hints at what each person is like, what they like, what they do, even their relationships to each other and their friends. The masterpiece of this game is made of several parts, including the story, the environment, and the mood. I would be doing you all a great disservice by talking too much about the story and spoiling it for any of you who may play the game, so I won’t go into detail about the story. What I can say however, is that this game has such a strong narrative that it solely drives you to continue to investigate the house and learn more about the Greenbriars.
The environment, of course, is also very important, because it’s what drives along the plot. More than that though, are the extra objects to pick up and examine, that shape the family. Obviously the majority of the objects in the house are not needed to simply finish the game, but they are vital to your overall understanding of the situation. The game doesn’t tell you which objects further the plot, so it forces you to look through them all. If that sounds like a hassle to you, I can say that the story meshes well with the environment enough where I would pick up and examine every little object in the game even if the important ones were glowing. The attention to detail on every item makes them all worth checking out. The game is set in the 90s, and having grown up during this time, I had several little nostalgia moments simply looking at all the little details of things. The game is very true to the set time period, with references to 90s pop culture such as a newspaper TV guide that lists shows like “Family Matters,” and “The X Files.” These subtleties really add to the immersive feeling of the house, and create an important believability to the story.
Finally, the mood of this game is also very important to the story. The overall mood of the game I’d classify as eerie. You arrive at the house during a terrible thunderstorm, which you can see through windows and hear from inside. The house you are investigating is actually a large, old mansion that creaks and groans from time to time throughout your investigation. The game feels almost like a horror game at times, though it has no jump-scares, or any other elements of a horror game in it. It makes you feel very unsettled, and really adds to the overall experience of the game.
A lot separates Gone Home from other games, and it really defies what most people believe a game actually is. Rather than involving any luck or skill to the design, your only obstacles are the locked things in the house: the doors, safes, drawers, and lockers that require a key somewhere in the house or a combination that’s written down somewhere. This is a game that has more of an emphasis on story than on any element of gameplay, making it very unlike the other games around. It is a testament to how much players actually care about plot, how far they’d go for the characters they’ve become attached to, and what actually makes a game a game. It shows that you don’t need to throw a million zombies at a player or have stunning graphics to hold a players attention. I’d even say that games like Gone Home, the ones that evoke emotions and leave a mark on the player, are the games that we will remember years from now. They are perhaps the ones most worth our time.