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.

Pros:

  • 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

Cons:

  • 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.

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6 Comments on Gone Home Review: Where The Heart Is

Mccrackelz

On August 20, 2013 at 8:09 pm

Yes, it was a brilliant experiment that succeeded far beyond my lofty expectations… but GREAT voice acting?

Isn’t that pushing it a little bit? I mean, they were ok…

Ian Miles Cheong

On August 21, 2013 at 11:51 am

I’d call your review an important one, if anyone’s ever to curate a critical compilation about the game.

Key

On August 21, 2013 at 1:06 pm

Seriously overrating this. I realise you have an emotional attachment due to your own sexuality but there was nothing in the review that suggested that there was an objective level of immersion or atmosphere that justified such a large score. Plus the voice acting really wasn’t as good as you’re making out, although videogames are still sadly seen as having poor acting overall so I guess “some of the best” doesn’t necessarily means it’s comparatively that impressive. Really, the only innovative things I gleaned from this is that there’s no violence and that you can put items back after you’ve looked at them. It’s great they did something different, yes, but come on.

GazH

On August 25, 2013 at 10:25 am

Why is this game getting so many rave reviews? I finished playing it a few minutes ago, it took a little over two hours to complete. Now while it was quite interesting, I liked the searching around and learning bits and pieces about Sam and her girlfriend, as a game it was seriously lacking. No puzzles, no surprises, no shock twists, just wandering around clicking things and listening to voice overs.

Don’t get me wrong, I quite liked it for what it was, but 90/100? Seriously? It was a two hour story about a sisters love for another girl, nothing more, nothing less. Sure, there were other parts about the parents, but nothing of consequence.

I think this is getting such big reviews because it’s ‘arty’ so the reviewers are trying to look smart by making it sound like more than it is. I can see them in their jackets, smoking their pipes, talking in high class accents, “Oh yes, quite the masterpiece, what! Jolly good show, such a perfect piece of story telling. Must tell the wife! Tally ho!”.

This is not a ‘game’, it’s an interactive story, a short one at that.

steve

On September 2, 2013 at 1:18 pm

“An emotional story that’s equal parts heart-wrenching and heartwarming. ”
I have read eroge with more emotion than this trash.

rayyy123

On September 2, 2013 at 1:19 pm

hipster crap