Gone Home Review: A House is Not a Home
This year’s surprise hit game was a little indie game called Gone Home. The debut effort of a small indie dev made up of BioShock 2: Minerva’s Den devs is in a way inspired by BioShock but much simpler and focused. For many critics, the straight-forward focus on story made it near-perfect and the game of the year. Many gamers, though, didn’t find it as good as it was hyped up to be. So where does it fall on the spectrum?
In Gone Home, you take on the role of Kaity, the eldest child of the Greenbriar family. You arrive at the new family home after a year abroad to find no one home. On the front door is a note from your younger sister, Sam, who seems to have taken off and doesn’t want you parents to know.
The premise of the game is to look through the lives of the Greenbriar and find out why Sam has run off and where everyone is. You do this by exploring the Greenbriar abode, examining the items around the house to learn what is happening and listen to letters to Kaity from Sam.
The story unfolds over the course of the game mostly through Sam’s letters. Some other items around the house tell your parents’ story. However, for a game that tasks you to find out what’s happened to your family, there aren’t any real twists. I had two hypotheses as to what everyone was up to and I don’t think I was even halfway into the game when I deduced the correct hypothesis.
The game doesn’t end when you figure out where everyone is and why they’re gone. You’re required to play through the end of the story. Gone Home is not so much a game in the traditional sense but an interactive way of telling a story.
It’s a nice story but I never found it compelling. You just kind of go along the narrative rather than feeling driven to continue. There aren’t any twists. There are no choices. The story unfolds before you and you’re along for the ride.
Gone Home does attempt some gameplay elements, though. There’s the exploration and investigation that reveals the story. The game attempts some puzzles but rather than use evidence to solve puzzles, the answers are given if you look a little more.
While you start the game with some free-form house exploration, once you find the first clue that drives you straight to the next, Gone Home becomes very linear. There’s not much room or need for deviation from the path set forth for you.
And it’s the linearity that I feel hurts the game the most. It’s like someone is telling a story rather than you learning a story. There’s somewhat of a reality show feel as you snoop in and intrude on the lives of almost total strangers. If you’re a fan of reality TV or digging into every detail of other’s lives, I think you’ll find the story more compelling than I did. The coming of age and self-discovery themes are interesting but I didn’t the story as a whole was all that special and story is the entirety of this game.
At the very least, it’s worth noting that the voice acting in this game is pretty good. You only ever really hear Sam’s voice (there’s an announcer on the TV and a phone message that Kaity leaves but no other voice work apart from that) and it’s fairly well done. There’s some quiet backing music played under Sam’s letters to Kaity. Apart from that, all you’re left with for audio is the sounds of a thunderstorm, and various creaking and stepping through the house. It does add some nice atmosphere to the game though I thought that the actual footstep sounds weren’t quite as good as the rest of the sound effects in the game.
The graphics are okay. While the visuals aren’t completely photo realistic, they do their job. You can read all that you need to read on various household objects. I just wish that they had a The Last of Us-like option to turn the written notes into printed text so it was easier to read. It would have been helpful a couple of times during the game. Apart from that, the game has nice shadow effects, you don’t need to load after initially loading into the game (which takes a fair length of time) and all of the interactive elements don’t look particularly different from everything else which takes a bit of the gaminess out of Gone Home which I think is to its benefit.
One big problem with the game is the value. It’s a $20 game that will likely take you less than two hours to complete. How much exploring you do before you start down the path the game sets before you will determine how long it is. It wouldn’t shock me if a first playthrough could be done in about 90 minutes. For the amount of gameplay, $20 feels a bit overpriced. Around $10 would be fine.
If there is one thing that I am certain of when it comes to Gone Home, it’s that this is certainly not a game for everyone. Even as someone who loves strong narratives in games, I didn’t find anything really compelling about the game. Maybe it was a good thing that it was a short game if I think that.
I can’t help but feel that I would have enjoyed Gone Home more as a movie or even a let’s play. While the story is fine, this never feels like a game. It never feels like you’re an active participant in anything that’s happening, even having the story told to you. I never felt like I drove the narrative forward by finding the next clue since it was so blindingly obvious where the next clue was. I know this is stumbling back into the debate over what is a game and when is a video game art. At $20 for two hours, though, it’s the same price as a ticket and a popcorn. I’d almost think that Gone Home was better value as a movie and popcorn than as a game. And the value proposition has to be a part of how a game has to be evaluated and it doesn’t turn out favourably for Gone Home.
As a game, Gone Home just doesn’t seem to know what it wants to do. It wants to tell a story but that’s all it really does. Whether you’re interested or not, it’s going to just tell that story. Any time it threatens to do something gamey, it leaves it half done. It seems like a game of missed opportunities.
Gone Home was reviewed on Windows PC but is also available for Mac OS X and Linux. Your impressions of the game may differ depending on PC specs, personal interest in voyeurism and life experiences.