Gone Home Review: Where The Heart Is
Along with the tone that Katie’s commentary sets, the illusion of suburbia is driven home through The Fullbright Company’s tremendous attention to detail. It is quite amazing how much you can learn about a person by the furnishings they keep. Set in 1995, I couldn’t help but investigate the hand-written labels on stacks of VHS tapes. I crossed my eyes to see the hidden picture in the magic eye posters hanging in Samantha’s room. I found the crumpled manuscript drafts of deteriorating quality in the father’s study, and the whiskey bottle hidden atop a bookshelf that inspired them. Everything in the house is so perfectly placed, not in a contrived way, but in a way that feels perfectly natural for a home.
Well, there are a few contrived pieces of the puzzle. Some of the notes scattered around the house that help to tell Samantha’s story don’t quite fit the game’s chronology, like a note lying next to a trash can as if it were being freshly thrown away, yet seems to have been written eight months earlier. There are several subplots to uncover while exploring the mansion, from the father’s struggle to be a published author and the strain it puts on his marriage, to the mysterious death of an uncle that awards the Greenbriar family their new home.
But it is impossible to discuss Gone Home without addressing Samantha, Katie’s little sister. Starting with a note from Sam on the front door telling Katie not to dig around or try to find out where she has gone, Uncovering Sam’s past became my driving force to explore the house.
Sam’s literal story is told through a series of audio diaries recounting how she met Lonnie, a high school senior who helps Sam make sense of feelings she has always had. Actor Sarah Robertson’s performance of Sam is utterly fantastic, giving an emotional yet believably restrained teenager performance devoid of the Hollywood artifice typically slathered on such a role.
But the audio diaries only tell half the story, as you learn just as much about Sam from the house’s contents, playable cassette tapes revealing her musical preferences, and her astutely metaphorical attempts at fiction writing–with the adventurous Captain Allegra and her first mate.
Katie reads and listens to her sister’s accounts without comment, but it was impossible to hear Sam’s story without eliciting some reaction of my own. In the role of her older sibling, I wanted to help Sam celebrate her fist kiss, her first love, and at the same time protect her from the hardships that followed because that love was for another woman. The pangs of emotion only grew stronger knowing that it was too late; that I was only hearing the echo through Sam’s journal, and that her big sister wasn’t there when she needed that crucial confidant in her life. I wanted to be that pillar of support for Sam, but even more so I needed to believe that Katie would want to be that pillar of support.
In a very real way, Sam and Katie’s struggles hit almost too close to home for me. As an actual younger sibling, I never really came out to my older brother. He knows of course, and has never been anything but supportive, but we never sat and truly talked about it. Perhaps I was too afraid he might say something wrong, or not have anything to say at all, but I never had the courage to tell him the kinds of things that Sam confides in her older sister. Things she could tell Katie while knowing the world wouldn’t end. Things she could tell Katie knowing their sibling bond wouldn’t end. If anything the bond grew stronger, as I guided Katie to frantically search the house for any clue of where Sam had gone and why she wasn’t there to tell me her story in person.
That is why it is so important that Gone Home succeeds in its domestic atmosphere and immersing you in Katie’s lens. Gone Home makes you, and everyone who plays it, into Samantha’s big sister. It challenges players to look at themselves and answer, how important is the happiness of the people I love?
It isn’t just significant that Gone Home addresses themes that seldom appear in video games, but that it addresses them in a way that could not be replicated in literature or film. With so much of the story implied through contextual scenery, most of the plot only ever plays out in your own head based on the clues you piece together. And since you are free to explore the mansion at your own pace, there is little directorial or authorial presence dictating how much weight each detail holds for the story and its characters.
There are still a few directorial nudges to guide you through the audio diaries in chronological order, but almost all can be circumvented with a careful eye for hidden passages. The Greenbriar mansion and the stories it hides are there for you to discover, and for you to make of them what you will.
The self-guided pacing as you discover the Greenbriar mansion’s secrets instills an ownership to the experience, but there is a unique empathy there as well since the ownership is shared with Katie every step of the way. That blending of consciousness between player and protagonist is a delicate balance, and represents a rhetorical device unique to games. It isn’t a new rhetorical device by any stretch, but Gone Home wields it far more confidently and with more skill than most.
Right up until I opened the final locked door I still was not sure what I would find, whether Sam’s story would end in triumph or tragedy. And as the credits rolled Gone Home’s greatest challenge came from simply trying to hold back the tears.
Play Gone Home because you want an engrossing and detailed environment to explore. Play it because you want something new and introspective from your games. Play it because you want to reconnect with a sibling or family member who has grown distant. Play it because ten years from now there will still be people playing and discussing its intricacies.
Whatever the reason, set two hours and $20 aside from your day and play Gone Home.
- Emotional story that is equal parts heart-wrenching and heartwarming
- A prime example of storytelling unique to video games
- Sense of atmosphere that makes the Greenbriar mansion feel like a real place and begs to be explored
- Some of the best voice acting video games have ever seen
- Self-directed exploration means some players could miss out on the plot
- The placement of some plot clues feels contrived given the story’s chronology
Final Score: 90/100
Game Front employs a 100-point scale when reviewing games to be as accurate about the experience as possible. Read the full rundown of what our review scores mean.