A compelling, but ultimately disappointing, game of discovery.
Sometimes I worry when my opinion on an especially beloved piece of work differs from that of the overwhelming majority of game reviewers. I wonder if perhaps I’ve missed something along the way. I think to myself “Did I play this the wrong way?” or “Was I not paying close enough attention?” BioShock Infinite, with its near universally high review scores and fleeting comparisons to Citizen Kane, was a recent example of the difference in opinion I felt with professional game critics. I found Infinite to be uneven, with the emphasis on narrative being overshadowed by the disconnect between it and the gameplay.
And so I find myself again in a situation where I have to wonder if I’ve done something wrong. Due largely to the many positive comments I have heard regarding the importance of Fullbright Studios’ “Gone Home,” I felt that I needed to play it now rather than later. The buzz on this plucky indie title is that it should be experienced by all. In some ways, I can’t disagree with that. It should be experienced, but the urgency to do so is misguided.
The game opens with Katie, the player-controlled character, returning home after a year abroad. While gone, her family moved into a new house, a sprawling manor with dark wood paneling that drapes every room in an appropriate sense of Hollywood mystery. The front door is locked, and taped to it is a note from Katie’s sister, Sam, urging her not to try and find her, nor to snoop through her things.
Playing the game is a matter of moving through the house, examining objects and unraveling the mysteries within. There are several stories to discover, from the relationship between Katie’s parents, the changing courses of their careers, and a story about the original owner of the home. But the main focus of the story is on Sam, and where she has gone.
Clues to what has been happening for the last year come in the way of written correspondence. Notes, some formal, some on post-its, some on desks, others torn and crumpled, move the narrative along. It doesn’t hit you over the head, which is refreshing, save for Sam’s story. Other than one notable surprise moment in a bathroom, I felt early on that I knew just where the story would resolve. While it didn’t necessarily roll itself out as I expected, the outcome was where I knew it would end up.
When I finished the game, I didn’t know how to feel about the experience I had just had. The story was satisfying, if not a little predictable, and I appreciated what the game did in regards to a novel approach to storytelling. But I still felt conflicted before I could fully render my final assessment.
The title builds a spooky ambiance through the ever-present rain and the sprawling, empty house. Such a decision on the part of the designers is not without merit: coming to a house you have never seen before, on a rain-soaked Portland night, would probably give anyone a feeling of uneasiness. But the game seems to rely on the haunted-house tropes to convey a level of mystery, and it doesn’t really work once the game is said and done. As I mentioned earlier, I didn’t immediately know how to feel when I finished the game. Part of it was realizing that the elevation of the house’s atmosphere to a “spooky” level was not a needed inclusion. It never played out, and leads to a false feeling that something is there when it in no way is. It was a cheap way to build tension in a game whose setting exists in the same universe as you and I.
Another problem I have is that I found the secondary stories to be more interesting than the story of finding Sam. Katie and Sam’s parents, their strained relationships, her father’s decline and seeming rebirth as a writer, these things piqued my attention more so than the story of Sam. To the game’s credit, it allows you to make your own assumptions about how these side-stories resolve, and I find that approach to be more engaging than the straight-forward reveal of Sam’s fate.
Notes such as this one help move along the narrative and help nail a sense of place and time.
My biggest problem with this game is that it cost me $20, was over in 3 hours, and has no replay value. I didn’t get all the details of the stories, but I also don’t care enough about them to go back and play the game anymore. All the mystery has evaporated from it now that the narrative has concluded. I largely followed leads for the other stories to see how they intertwined themselves with Sam’s fate, and knowing Sam’s fate has made me lose interest in the other stories.
This is my inner struggle with this game: I know it’s a good game. I know that it takes an interesting approach to storytelling, and for that it should be lauded. I have long felt that stories in games are largely superfluous (BioShock Infinite being a prime example of a critically successful game where the story and gameplay exist on two independent planes). Where Gone Home succeeds is in making the story the game itself. There’s nothing magical about the exploration-based gameplay here, but it’s the execution that makes it work. Without the gameplay elements, the story would not be as compelling, and vice versa.
Gone Home is an important, if flawed, foray into the world of interactive storytelling. Its implementation of certain game elements feel forced, like shoehorning door unlocking “puzzles” in, and while the story itself is interesting, it concludes too quickly and predictably. It lacks sufficient variety to warrant a second-playthrough, and from a strictly value-based perspective, its twenty dollar price tag is more than most gamers would be comfortable spending. I recommend this game, but wait for a Steam sale.