EXCLUSIVE: Gone Home reviewDec 16, 2014
Review by Felix Kluge
Gone Home is a game about looking around your house. It opens like a horror. Shut in from the fearsome conditions outside, back to a front door that will be always closed, big stairs in front of me and unknown corridors off to each side, my first thought is Resident Evil. This house is almost as big. It is tense, too. I played it in the dark with headphones, and there are plenty of horror tropes. There's a storm outside, all the lights are off, doors at the ends of corridors are half-open and there are creakings and rattlings just out of sight. At the start when I listened to audiologs I had my back to the wall so I could see everything that could come at me. When I went in to a new room I'd have to close the door behind me to feel secure enough to start reading the back covers of leaflets and opening sideboards.
Gone Home made me play differently in general. The first thing I pick up, I just hold it in my hand, turn it over. I don't get a 400lb backpack to carry everything in. And the game gives you the option to put things back. In Fallout or Skyrim if you pick a thing up off a desk, everything else on the desk jiggles around and tips over and falls off the edge. Here, if you pick something up, you can just put it back again in the right place. So I do.
This is how I deal with objects in real life. I don't have pockets full of cigarette butts just because I can pick them up off the floor. So I'm not treating it like a game. But I also am. If I came home and couldn't see my sister waiting for me, I'd just walk through the house until I found her. But here I won't go in to the next room until I've looked at the bottom of every single thing in this room, and then been in to the closet and looked at the bottom of everything in there too. But there's a shift in how you see it. Everything has a proper place. There aren't bullets or medpacks hidden in drawers for me to take. Except for the ones that trigger audio logs, there's no distinction between items that are important for the story and items that are just a cup, or whatever. It's a location to be seen and explored on its terms, rather than in terms of how it can benefit me as a player. It bothers me when I lift a lid and see something I want to look at underneath, and just let the lid drop (awfully) on the ground.
The house is full of these really nicely pitched bits of stuff, ephemera that are evocative in just the right way: chipped nail varnish in a photo, the way a cassette case falls open when you turn it over in your hand, the black and white actual-film photos. Having the game in the 90s is a nice move. It's before everything would just be online and we'd all have mobiles and the whole game wouldn't even happen. It's just long enough ago that seeing a handmade gig poster or a game cartridge lying in bland domesticity triggers half-gone memories of my own childhood.
The house is really big. The horror vibes and tension, the immersive relatable realness of the house fades away as you enter the fourth dark reception room with a three-ring binder in it or the third weird basement zone your sister used to write stories in and listen to cassettes and left a journal entry in the bin for you. By the end it just feels like a chore, marking off the rooms and hoping you clear them off before it reveals more hidden paths.
I finished the game in less than 2 hours and I really like this sort of length for story games. Most story games you get the plot of a film, a miniseries at best, stretched out over 30, 50 hours. The single-sitting, one-shot story is a really welcome tonic to the norm. That said, I wanted more story here.
I don't really like audiobooks, or picking up the story on tapes or whatever you call it. When did this stuff start, Half Life? Where you're just standing there, listening to story. You can still control, but you can't. I don't want to wander off in case the audio cuts out. I don't wanna rummage through more stuff in case I trigger another audio and it overrides the first or even plays at the same time. I don't like the shuffling around. I get that it gels with the 'interaction' part of games but it doesn't fit with the anal retentive, look at everything in this room before you go on to the next side of gaming. I have to stop on my journey to important meetings in Mass Effect because I don't want to miss some of the meaningless drivel the pedestrians bark out in the wards. There's some great fear about denying the player this sort of stuff, but players make miserable editors. I'd like to see more stuff like Thirty Flights of Loving that will mess around with this stuff and take it out of the player's hands once in a while.
The characters are okay. The parents remind of the parents in teen-focused films: Donnie Darko, Submarine, even things like Ferris Bueller. They're not badly written by any stretch, but they're sort of weirdly distant and othered. They have flawed lives and you get a peek in to them, but your view is so emotionally detached. We pat ourselves on the back for seeing through the assumed 'happy existence' front adults apparently project to us teenagers, but then just leave them as unknowable monoliths.
The player character is really nicely, if sparsely, done. You get a better sense of her from three postcards and a biology report than you'll get out of much more for most videogame characters, even the others in this one. I was impressed by her and the dichotomy between normie 'you' and your weirdo sister. The relationship between you and her is neat also.
As for Sam herself, she's good. The voice actress is good. The dialogue and the story is a little melodramatic, but that's what teenagers are like? It's hard to see what's going on there, sometimes. Like, stories about teenagers are always for teenagers. Is the melodrama for me or them? Am I supposed to buy in to it or cringe?
Overall, I guess I bought in to it. The story is engaging and emotional and nicely plotted. I think the pacing's off. Right when the story is getting dramatic and building, the tension and immersion in exploring the house is tailing off. I also found the ending a little bit of an anticlimax, but I'm also sort of annoyed at myself for that?
Ultimately I think this game is always going to be remembered and notable and worthwhile for what it is and what it isn't, rather than if it is a good is or not. It's a not bad one.