In The Fullbright Company’s Gone Home, you play as Katie Greenbriar after she arrives home from spending a year in Europe. The twist is that this home is a place that Katie has never stepped foot in, as her family moved in shortly after she left. It’s the summer of 1995, and there’s an ominous note left on the door from Katie’s 17 year-old sister, which informs you that no one is inside. Figuring out what’s going on is a matter of exploring the house for clues.
The house is enormous. There’s a wide staircase directly across from the front door that leads to a full upper level. A basement, which spans several corridors, lies just behind a locked door. Being the middle of the night, windows provide very little in the way of light. A constant barrage of rain is intermixed with thunderclaps. Sporadic electrical shortages give the impression that all is not right in the Greenbriar home. The game’s understated visual style appears to be reaching for some semblance of realism without pushing the game over the edge into the uncanny valley. The supposed common-place “normality” of this white, middle-class family home is reflected perfectly.
Katie’s sister, Sam, provides a voice-over throughout which helps tie the narrative together. Any music heard in-game is in the form of cassette tapes that Sam has left littered around the house. Each of the tapes contains a song from the 90s Riot Grrrl scene bands Bratmobile and Heavens to Betsy. These carefully chosen tracks breathe life into the empty house, giving it a pulse – if only for a couple of minutes at a time.
The mechanics are simple, you walk around interacting with various objects by clicking on them. Certain things are locked and require keys and locker combinations. Dresser drawers and cabinets need opening and scouring over. You read invoices, personal notes, the backs of books, and one wonderfully creative homework assignment. Before any of that, lights need to be turned on.
Perhaps due to the first-person perspective and the heightened level of mundane interactivity, Gone Home is strangely reminiscent of Bethesda’s Fallout and Elder Scrolls series. One of the more immediately enthralling aspects of these games was the ability to pick up so much of what you could see. Objects didn’t have to be important or even useful to be inventoried. There was something thrilling about the uselessness of seeing an extravagant meal laid out on some noble’s dining table in Oblivion and stripping it bare of everything; vegetables, bread, silverware, and wheels of cheese. The environmental storytelling carried more emotional weight because it was made up of items that could be directly manipulated through gameplay, as opposed to non-interactive background pieces.
In Gone Home, object interaction is a matter of investigation, rather than collection. There is an inventory, but very little exists in the house to actually possess. All of this stuff is your family’s. You’re granted a level of access to the most personal and private of objects, many of which reveal long-buried secrets. The interactive objects can be picked up and examined. They can be carried individually, and placed elsewhere. There’s also an option to return each artifact to the exact spot it was discovered. I found myself using that — a lot.
It was ultimately arbitrary. There was never any indication that anything would happen if I didn’t put Dad’s book back where he left it. No “gamey” reward or punishment — no real difference at all. Exceptional design and writing make it easy to become invested in the characters and their family dynamic. I’d put things back where they belonged because that’s what I felt they would want Katie to do.
Much of what makes the game a success stems from sifting through a room, discovering which members of the family used it most, and finding personal touches that make you think, “Of course this is here.” You get to know these people, who you have never seen, remarkably quickly.
Rarely have I felt more in line with a silent protagonist than Katie. Being a member of the family, she’s expected to have some level of understanding of her sister, mother, and father. She might cringe at the sight of her mother’s harlequin romance novels, swell with pride when she finds evidence of her sister’s burgeoning independence, or roll her eyes upon finding her father’s nudie magazines. The inseparable combination of writing and gameplay puts the player right there with her, reacting to personal details as if they know the Greenbriars intimately.
By the end of the game, I did know them intimately. After (roughly) three hours, I knew the house, the family, and many of their secrets. I shared in their struggles, their embarrassment, their triumph, and their laughter. Gone Home is lovely, and I encourage everyone to try it.
This review is based on the PC version of the game, which is available through Steam.