I just finished ”Gone Home”, a new, indie, PC game developed by the Fullbright Company. At $19.99 (through Steam) it’s the most expensive PC game I have bought in a long time, and clocking in at just about 3 hours, the shortest.
In “Gone Home” you play a young adult returning home after a year abroad. During that year, your parents and sister have moved houses and moved on with their lives. The character you play, just like you, is not familiar with any of the surroundings in the game. When you start it appears that no one is home and you have no idea what happened to them. The main focus of the ensuing 3 hours (or so) of game play is a mature, emotionally intense story that unfolds as you search this new space, looking for your family.
As a player, you traverse the house, examining everything you find. Much of the game involves reading the text on ephemera left around the house, and listening to audio clips. There are a few “locked gates” that help funnel the narrative, but no traditional puzzles. The focus of this game is for the player to piece together the story by observing found objects in 3D space. Nearly every object in the house can be picked up and examined. Sinks, and toilets work, drawers, doors and cabinets open, TVs and cassette players operate as in the real world.
The realistic nature of everything inside the house is necessary because the house itself is an enigma. It’s a winding, cavernous space that feels more like an RPG dungeon than a dwelling. Areas in the house remain off limits until the time it is necessary to continue the narrative, but don’t make sense if this was indeed, a real-world space where people lived. Far from detracting from the game however, this simply adds to overall curiously foreboding atmosphere of the game. Instead of being wholly realistic, Gone Home works on transcendental level. The various rooms and passages represent the ways families relate, separate, come together, and hide from each other. Exploring those connections and disconnections is the heart of the game.
“Gone Home” feels like an Infocom game from the 80’s. Infocom made the best interactive fiction of that period, but by the end of the decade they were out of business. They could not find a way to tell their mature, text-based stories in world of SVGA graphics and first-person shooters It has taken almost 25 years, but the Fullbright Company may have found the solution with Gone Home. The way Gone Home weaves a compelling story into an interactive world is nothing short of artistic achievement. I have not felt this close to a virtual house and its’ inhabitants since fumbling my way through Infocom’s The Witness in 1984.
The best part of Gone Home is how you feel when it is over. Like the best books or movies, the game is hard to shake after the credits roll. The characters feel like real people, and you want to know how the story turns out for all of them, how all the loose ends fit together. However, you also get the feelings that not all the answers are in the game. Just like real life, sometimes things don’t make sense. Sometimes things are just the way they are. In the era of Free-To-Play games, $19.99 for a 3 hour experience might seem like a questionable value. However, after finishing Gone Home, I certainly don’t feel like I paid too much for too little. I may have only played Gone Home for a few hours, but I have a feeling it will play within me for many years to come.