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Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Video Game Review: Gone Home

Gone Home (2013): Designed by Steve Gaynor.  Developed by the Fullbright Company.  Original music composed by Chris Remo.  Also featuring music by Heavens to Betsy and Bratmobile. 

           A thought occurred to me during the two days I spent feverishly tearing through Gone Home, something that added a level of sad nostalgia to the experience of playing it; this is the sort of adventure that could never happen today.  In our 21st-century world of instant and unending communication, where calls are cheap, e-mail is free, and there are almost no areas on the planet where both are impossible, our main character could never arrive home after any length of absence with no knowledge whatsoever as to the whereabouts of her family.  I can’t say if this was intentional on the part of the makers of the game or not, but there’s a quiet irony to the fact that this game is very distinctly set in the mid-90’s, right before the internet and modern communication exploded onto the global scene.  It’s a story that depends on the game’s protagonist (and by extension us) coming from a place of near-total disconnect, and within the last 15 years, such a thing has, for better or for worse, become very nearly impossible.  

            Said protagonist is Kaitlin Greenbriar, a college girl who has just completed a year abroad in Europe.  The game begins around midnight, in the middle of a terrible thunderstorm, right after Kaitlin arrives in a taxi from the airport.  Before entering her family’s mansion of a house, Kaitlin finds a strange note from her sister (named Sam) apologizing that she can’t be there to greet her, and asking that she a) not look for clues as to where she’s gone, and b) not breathe a word to Mom and Dad about anything she does find.  She opens the door slowly, and the lights turn on to reveal the grand front hall of an utterly deserted house.  Not only is the house abandoned, but several of the rooms are in disarray, as if someone (or several persons) were in a hurry to leave. 

            Gone Home is a wonderful example of perfectly meshed story and gameplay, centered on very basic point-and-click exploration.  The setup perfectly fuses together player and character in shared ignorance.  Neither we nor Kaitlin have any idea where her family might be, and why her sister would leave such a cryptic note, so the only logical way for us to find out why is to systematically search the house for clues.  In another brilliant twist, we soon learn that the Greenbriars moved into this house after Kaitlin left for Europe; this is attested to by the mounds of still-unopened boxes that fill the closets and basement.  This means that Kaitlin is just as ignorant of the size and layout of the house as we are (and it’s a big, big house), so the only way to find the clues we need is to check each and every room to learn where everything is.  It’s also a convenient explanation for why Kaitlin doesn’t already have keys to the house’s several locked doors. 

            There is no clear linear progression the player is required to follow, although the locked doors occasionally prod the player in a particular direction, so most of games’ progress and speed comes down to whichever area the player feels like exploring in a given moment, and how obsessively they want to pick through each room (although even the slowest of players, like me, probably won’t need more than 3-4 hours to complete it).  We learn a few things about Kaitlin and her family that she would obviously know already, but those details are incidental and unimportant- the real question driving the game is what we don’t know, and it is through the exploration gameplay that he answers are slowly revealed to us. 

            These revelations come in the form of a collection of brief audio logs left behind by Sam, each of which are “discovered” when Kaitlin enters various parts of the house.  It is possible to find the logs non-chronologically, and thus jump around in the narration a bit, but most of them are placed fairly strategically throughout the house so that the player is most likely to find them in “proper” narrative order.  While this does seem to contradict Sam’s desire that no one find out what happened to her, it’s a minor complaint, a slight violation of the laws of realism necessitated by this being, after all, a game.  Of course, it’s also possible that Sam placed the logs there on purpose, knowing full well that telling her sister to not look for her would work about as well as commanding her to prance naked through the rain (and the conclusion of the game (no spoilers) does seem to confirm this interpretation, albeit indirectly). 

            This audio-only story revealed through the logs is what really makes Gone Home shine, and what elevates it to the level of true storytelling art.  I would love to delve into the specifics of the family life that Sam’s narration (excellently performed by Sarah Robertson) illuminates piecemeal, but to do so would utterly spoil the entire affair, along with some of the intriguing surprises it contains.  What unfolds as we explore the house is a story primarily about youth, rebellion, love, and friendship, but which also touches on marital fidelity, family dynamics, and the stress of failing to meet others’ expectations.  I have never felt so invested and interested in the story of a character you never even see, be it in a video game, movie, or play.  On top of its fantastic story and writing, however, the game creates an incredibly effective and unnervingly scary atmosphere without even having to try very hard-  exploring a massive, strange, dark, and empty house while thunder crashes outside every 5 minutes is just plain creepy, even if you know there’s no boogey man waiting around each hallway corner. 

            Gone Home was one of the most fascinating, engrossing, and engaging gaming experiences I have ever had, on par with Portal and the Civilization series, although I can’t yet say if it will have the same level of replay value for me as both of those titans do.  That’s beside the point, however.  Even if you only play this gem once, I am confident you won’t forget it for a long, long time.  I cannot recommend this game enough.  To anyone reading this who still doubts that video games are the next form of storytelling art, or that voice acting isn’t “real” acting, I would like to kindly direct your attention to Gone Home

-Noah Franc 

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