Many videogames that struggle to reconcile gameplay and storytelling fail valiantly. Bioshock Infinite and The Last of Us would have been so much better if the developers hadn’t jammed into their wonderful stories the rote gunplay, stealth, and scavenging you expect in your games. But then there are games that know enough to dispense with that stuff to concentrate on story. Some of these are called “adventure games”. There was a time in the olden days, before actual gameplay had been invented, that good writers were making adventure games. Gone Home is a rare instance of modern storytellers reverting to that format without feeling obligated to include gunplay, stealth, or scavenging. Gone Home doesn’t even have achievements.
After the jump, the best haunted house game since Fatal Frame 3
I’d rather you didn’t read anything about Gone Home and just played it, so I’m afraid this review isn’t going to be very helpful if you’re looking for specifics. The best way to get those specifics is to actually play the game as intended by the developers at The Fullbright Company. I can’t see that name without thinking they’re folks who sponsor PBS documentaries or NPR segments. But instead they’re indie developers in Portland making exactly the kind of game you’d expect from an indie developer in Portland: a period piece about being a teenager when Pulp Fiction came out, when Kurt Cobain shot himself, when people watched movies on VHS tapes, and when Street Fighter wasn’t the domain of a competitive e-sports scene of dumbass boys saying dumbass things.
The Fullbright Company’s game is a sad, eerie, poignant bit of storytelling, carefully laid out in a house where no one is home when someone should be home. As you walk around the house turning on lights, it’s quickly apparent this is a metaphor for the narrative. You’re illuminating a story, one room at a time, discovering characters, revealing mysteries. What happened? Where is everyone? More to the point, who is everyone? The answer to the last question, which includes the eyes you’re looking through as the player in this first-person explorer, is the heart of Gone Home’s gradually unfurling mystery.
The tone reminds me of Lake Mungo, an Australian horror movie you should see if you haven’t. The central mystery reminds me of an indie movie called Jack and Diane. In fact, the narration by a voice actress named Sarah Grayson is nearly as captivating as the performances in Jack and Diane by Riley Keough and the effervescent Juno Temple. One of the things that’s special about Gone Home is that it offers insight into the secret lives of girls, almost like Pan’s Labyrinth or Coraline or Welcome to the Dollhouse or Beautiful Creatures (ugh, why are these all by men?). How often do you see that attempted in a videogame that isn’t one of American McGee’s trying-too-hard Gothy power fantasies or another instance of a cool female character playing Troy Baker’s sidekick? Speaking of which, Gone Home’s main character easily rivals Ellie and Elizabeth in terms of how she’s developed and how you’ll remember her after the game is over.
Furthermore, Gone Home achieves an unexpected and effective range of emotions. Although it’s a mostly sad eerie poignant story, it has flashes of anger and frustration, and the way it manages to fold music into these emotions, as well as the choice of music, is every bit as good as what Bioshock Infinite did with its music. At one point, assuming you’ve followed the breadcrumbs in the right order and started a record player before reading a homework assignment someone left on a table, Gone Home is astonishingly cinematic. But instead of relying on visuals, it relies on good writing to teach us something about a character. That moment was one of my single favorite moments in a videogame in a long time. And the outro to Gone Home completely knocked the wind out of me. I don’t cry at the end of videogames, and if I did, I certainly wouldn’t admit it. So all I’m going to say is that I didn’t cry at the end of Gone Home.
But this isn’t just a grrl power story. It’s also about how disappointingly human parents are, about joy and loss and discovery and decisions and rejection. As short fiction, it knows how not to get bogged down in gameplay, how to show you pictures and incidentals and clues to set mood and reveal information and even leave you to fill in some blanks yourself. Did she, or did she not? The answer doesn’t matter. The wondering does. And rest assured, Gone Home is not going to make you put mayonnaise on a piece of bread and slide it under a door to catch a key. You will not have to make a fake mustache out of cat fur and maple syrup.
Gone Home is short, but so what? That’s one of the least interesting things to say about it. So were Portal, Little Inferno, The Path, and Flower. Long has never been a measure of a great story, much less a great videogame.