Gone Home adjusts the expectations of what a story-led game can look and play like, and in some ways that can be a blessing and a curse. GH initially leans into genre conventions that throw some gamers off as to what it actually is. Slowly creeping through an empty home with flickering lights and burried tales of familial mis-deeds and pentagrams,it lends itself partially to a horror game that doesn’t actually exist.
Set on June 7th 1995, you play a young adult fresh off an overseas tour. Rain quietly patters outside as you arrive at what looks like a newly moved in home, passed on from an Uncle. Over time you find out that they might have been living there for longer than originally estimated, but the still un-emptied boxes abandoned suggests that family members still might not have settled down. No one is there to meet you, and you have to find the spare key to get inside – the only presence of other characters are through the voicemail messages, scraps of paper stuffed in drawers and in contextual left-overs strewn in every nook and cranny. You are on your own. For roughly four hours – it can be shorter if you decide to rush through – you pick apart the dysfunction left behind to understand where everyone has gone, slowly dissecting every room, trying to unfurl the stories.
Gone Home is special in that it doesn’t treat the gamer like an idiot, everything is left for you to discover and it never pushes you to move faster than needed, nor does it help you connect the dots. You feel like an obtrusive intruder, chewing on tasty narrative morsels tucked inside like you would with a book. Gameplay is slow but deliberate; a slower pace forces you to study every inch with CSI-esque precision. A pile of books in your Father’s office suggests that he’s an author but fails to tell you if he was a success. In another room you might find a wet bar stocked to the back with enough booze to make some alcoholics buckle and an empty bottle nearby, but it’s up to you to figure out the facts.
Some narrative points only reveal themselves when you find certain items, forcing you to look at every book and under every pillow. This approach eventually becomes more intimiate as you learn more about your younger sister, Sam, who yearns for your return and someone to confess her struggles with. At times the story feels bleak, but by the end, hope and potential happiness shines through for those willing to search for it.
One of the joys of this game is how steeped in 90s culture it is. Depending on the age of the gamer, it can be a nostalgic deep dive into childhood or some elements can be lost. On shelves you find an entry dedicated to X-files fandom and a videotape backlog to match. Riot Grrl newletters adorn bedroom walls and in occassional rooms, you can find many playable garage punk-rock casette tapes to listen to at your heart’s desire.
The main issue at hand though, is that this drip-drip approach to storytelling may not be everyone’s cup of tea and even if you stretch things out by going through things with a fine-tooth comb, this game can be completed in a handful of hours with only time trials and commentary included as a bonus for those that want to delve more.
For some, the ending might not be as much of a gut punch as it originally leads you to believe and the full asking price might not be warranted taking into account game-time. But Gone Home is a rare animal in that there are far too few developers that are willing to stick their necks out and create stories in this fashion. My time with gone Home was fleeting but teased out enough to give me satisfaction; I felt like an investigator, and this story structure treated me as such.
You can find it released for PC, Xbox One and PS4.