Things change when you’re away from home. Siblings grow up, relationships grow, and lives move on. In Gone Home, the change is a drastic one. You arrive back at your family’s abode after a prolonged trip in Europe to find the house dark and abandoned. On the door, you find a note from your sister asking you not to worry, but not to look for her either. Packing boxes sit in the hall. These are the first strands of a mystery, one that will take you deep into the mind of a teenage girl.
You may see Gone Home through the eyes of returnee Katie, but the real star of the game is her sister, Sam. Told by way of photographs, scraps of paper and diary entries, hers is a coming-of-age tale more dramatic and captivating than most. It’s a story that follows this bright but lonely teen as she starts to become aware of new music, subculture and the wider world. Some of it is narrated directly to you by Sam in a manner that’s reminiscent of BioShock’s audio diaries, drawing on the experience of The Fullbright Company founding members, many of whom were involved in making the well-received Minerva’s Den DLC for BioShock 2.
While the deserted house may put you in mind of Resident Evil’s Spencer Mansion, there’s no combat or danger – Gone Home is purely about exploration. The Fullbright Company has stripped down its game to the point where all you can do is walk around the house, albeit freely, picking up objects and turning them around in your hands. Some are relevant to Sam’s tale, but others focus on her parents, or reveal nothing of value at all. It’s up to you to piece together as much or as little of the incidental details as you please.
There are small puzzles, but they’re rarely more mind bending than locating a key or discovering a combination for a lock. Gone Home is restrained enough to let you simply explore the empty house, slowly revealing Sam’s story at your own pace. The contained setting – although generously proportioned – gives it an intimate feel that’s conducive to the mystery driving you onwards.
That feeling of intimacy, and the inherent familiarity of its family home setting, could be what ultimately sets Gone Home apart from contemporary exploration games such as Dear Esther. And because it is attempting to tell a story about familial rifts, such a connection is exactly what it needs to foster if it is to deliver its tale successfully.