If you play games, you have probably already made up your mind about Gone Home. You either played it on recommendation from just about everyone’s top 10 lists from 2013 or you decided it wasn’t for you and moved on. Whichever camp you fall into, I’m not going to be the deciding vote. I’m not going to be the reason you play Gone Home if you already play games.
That’s because I don’t think it’s necessarily best suited for that crowd. Gone Home is entirely story-driven. You play a girl who comes home from a vacation abroad to find that no one is at home in her family’s house. You wander the creaky halls and get occasionally freaked out by the storm outside. From the moment you launch the game on the patio outside and start looking for clues, you are drawn into a world that doesn’t seem to have a lot of answers.
It raises plenty of questions. You find out about your own life from postcards that are collected on end tables. You uncover your mother’s struggles at work and your father’s minor downfall as a fringe author through the minutia of their lives in notes and letters. The more you pay attention to letters behind false backings in desks and the little details of the house itself the more you are likely to uncover the full story.
It’s tough to ignore the parallels with mystery. The meat of the story is your younger sister Sam, and the main storytelling device is her narration. As you find the different “big” parts of the story Sam speaks to you right out of her notebook. There’s no good way to talk about this and still have this serve as a call to action to play the game, so let it be enough to say that Sam has the conflict. The key to a good story is to make the character want something, and Sam definitely wants something.
On Metacritic, Gone Home has an 86 from critics and a 5.4/10 from users. That kind of disparity between critical success and the average person’s feelings on the Internet isn’t shocking. It’s easy to oversimplify and say that gamers don’t “get it,” but I don’t think that’s it. Gone Home probably isn’t what people expect to play when they hear that it is a “game of the year” candidate.
Gone Home is played from the same perspective and with the same ambiance as a million other games. The great majority of games that happen in worlds like this have zombies or ghosts or madmen or something else, waiting to stab you the shadows. Those games aren’t more or less than Gone Home, and I made it the entire way through the game still expecting something to jump out and ruin my world. I firmly believed this, all the way through the “last level” which is especially spooky. A run through the basement that I played with my lights in my apartment turned off got to me as much as any Resident Evil game ever did.
Gone Home is clearly happy to live in this expectation. They want the average gamer to expect to deal with the undead, but they probably also want to freak you out if this is the only game you play all year. The controls are as simple as any browser game and it’s impossible to not understand what’s being asked of you. It is a game that lives on expectations, tone, and mood.
So that’s probably why the response differs so much. It won’t challenge you in the way you might expect to be challenged by a video game. The “puzzles” boil down to things like finding a safe’s code in a book or figuring out how to knock something off a shelf by throwing a can at it. None of that matters to me.
What matters is that the critical praise for Gone Home says a little bit about the insecurity of people who play games. Gone Home is one of the greatest stories I’ve seen in a game, but it’s simple. Bioshock Infinite told a much more complex, winding story in 2013 and did so with a lot more of what I’d consider “gameplay.” But I walked away from Gone Home with a better experience.
A lot of people’s first criticism of video games is that they are violent, but Bioshock Infinite even got criticized by the best gaming journalists as too violent. People labelled the carnage distracting, and I certainly found myself frustrated sometimes that it wasn’t spending more time on the story I loved so much. We’re going in the right direction when that’s a criticism: more story, less traditional “game.”
People might argue, “why don’t you just watch a movie?” Gone Home is the best argument 2013 has, and it is definitely time for you to consider playing a game.
Gone Home is available on Steam for $19.99, and it does go on sale from time to time.
Image source: The Fullbright Company