— In Defense of the Acclaim and Recognition
By David Isler
I know the excellent and much-lauded Gone Home has already been talked about at length on a multitude of sites, blogs, and game shows. I don’t care, I want to discuss it more anyway. It’s hard to talk about this game without spoiling any of it in the slightest. It’s the kind of game you want people to just play without in-depth description or prior knowledge of the plot. Playing and completing Gone Home is akin to that favorite album you listened to for the first time at 16 and then proceeded to gush about to anyone who would listen, promising them that it just had to be experienced. The game is great, we all know this. It’s received a handful of Game of the Year awards. So with that in mind, I am here to discuss what made it such a widely praised game and why, even if you can’t appreciate the game or find it the slightest bit interesting, you should understand what it does for the medium of games. With that said, I will try my best to talk about this game without spoiling it or sounding like a broken record.
If you don’t know the basic premise of Gone Home, here it is:
It’s late one stormy night in 1995 when you, Katie Greenbriar, return home from a year abroad in Europe. You find a cryptic note left by your younger sister Sam on the front door, and most of the lights in the house are off. After entering the foyer you play back several eerie messages from a young woman crying and calling out for your sister on the answering machine. The initial note left behind by your sister draws you into the Greenbriar house, but it’s these voicemails that really hook you into Gone Home.
Curiosity is ultimately what drives you to keep playing Gone Home. Each piece of evidence in the form of a scrawled note, diary entry or photograph compels you to finish the game and solve the mystery of what has happened to your family (and why is this house so damn creepy?). That curiosity is egged on by cleverly spaced out “bread crumbs” of notes and diaries and awesome cassette tapes. It’s not just that these well-written notes are just spaced out nicely or look realistic, but they lend to the overall aesthetic of the game which oozes atmosphere. Posters on the wall of your sister’s room, marble composition notebooks, and the style of clothing in family photos all make exploring the Greenbriar home feel more authentic. Look at me, I’m rambling on and on about the game, which I said I wouldn’t. Bottom line, the atmosphere of the game is incredible and a major reason why the game is so awesome.
So I’ve described Gone Home for you, and why it’s so amazing and why you should just be happy with this by now and stop reading and just go play it already. You still want more? Okay, well then let’s discuss what’s not so great about the game. I guess. If you really want to.
Many would say that the game is too short. You could beat it in one sitting, well within 2-3 hours. Gone Home isn’t a 30-hour RPG however, and delivers a rare experience. I don’t know what else to tell you. Now onto this game’s biggest “problem” as seen by its detractors: it’s boring. To that end I don’t have much of an argument. Not everyone is going to “get” this game, or even like it. It’s heavily narrative driven. There’s a lot of picking up paper and reading to slowly cobble together the profile of each family member and the over-arching story of what happened while you were away. I don’t mind reading and exploring every nook and cranny of a game’s universe however, and lapped up each nuanced detail greedily. The gameplay isn’t much to speak of, simply put. Many players have described it as simply walking around a house and looking at stuff. They’re not wrong, yet couldn’t be putting it more simply either. This isn’t a game relying heavily on gameplay by any means whatsoever. Gone Home relies on you the player, and its ability to tell a story. The story unfolds without the need for cut scenes and instead through your interaction with the personal objects belonging to your family members while traversing the haunting, creaking rooms of your home. There are those out there who find this kind of gameplay absolutely dreadful, and can’t stand it, and can’t at all see the merits of a deep, emotionally engaging narrative. That’s fine, that’s what Call of Duty and Battelfield are for. However, I would implore the would-be haters of narrative driven gameplay in Gone Home (and the oft-compared-to Esther) that if you allow yourself to be enveloped in the story that is the Greenbriars’ on a dark and stormy night in 1995, you might find yourself feeling something that you wouldn’t normally find in the medium of video games. With that said…
The reason the Fullbright Company’s game has been praised so heavily and garnered so many Game of the Year Awards isn’t due to stellar gameplay or graphics. The reason Gone Home has received numerous awards and recognition is because of what it achieves for the unique entertainment medium we all enjoy so much. Gone Home is a game which elevates video games to the status and recognition they deserve by delivering not an action-packed-guns-and-glory tale so typical of summer blockbusters or what the media and those unfamiliar with the industry understand games to be. What it delivers is a deeply engaging and well-woven tale of young adulthood, romance, and family. It delivers an experience. It is games like Gone Home which show the world that games are a mature art form ready to offer much more than a distraction from the real world. Games can act as a reflection of the world we perceive or a version of the world we wish existed, while giving us the ability to have some agency within an experience we wouldn’t normally have in the real world.