Despite its mid-’90s setting of riot grrrl, VHS tapes and zines, there’s a powerful gothic sense in Gone Home. A cloying pall of threat, romance, and of powerful, deep emotions in the mystery of the recent history of the big old Oregon house to which our protagonist, Kaitlin Greenbrier, has come home. Except it isn’t quite her home. She’s been travelling in Europe for months and her mother and father and teenage sister have moved into it while she’s been away. Now she’s standing in its enclosed front porch in the middle of a stormy night, her parents away, the front door locked and her sister curiously absent.
Gone Home’s gothic is powerfully encoded in the house’s large entrance hall, a dimly lit hub of dark wooden doors and a grand staircase. The only things missing are the thick chords of Resident Evil’s soundtrack to complete the allusion: for all its thoughtful shucking away of layers of videogame convention and its firstperson perspective, Gone Home is seated in the survival horror established by Alone In The Dark and Mikami’s classic – slow uncoverings of what lies beneath the foundations of civilised domesticity.
So as you explore the house, which is gated by locked doors, you’ll discover its story through its artefacts, found in cabinets and drawers, crumpled in wastepaper baskets and forgotten under pillows. Letters to your mother from a friend sketch out her frustrations and desires. You witness your father’s career as a writer building and then deflating. You learn a little about your family’s past and that of the house, too. But most of all you discover your sister, Sam, a teenage girl steeped in imagination and deposited in a new school.
We find her experiencing the tentative flowering of a new friendship, and the uneasy decay of an older one. There’s love and rebellion, hope and yearning for the future. We read her stories, first written as a child and later as the teenager she’s grown into. We find notes she exchanges with her new friend and feel her shyness and longing to become close. And we hear Sam’s voice through readings of her journal that play when you find certain objects.
Gone Home is a sensitive portrayal of teenage life, sketched loosely enough that Sam lives in your imagination but clearly enough that she seems pin-sharp: her creativity and sense of fun, her anger and intelligence. Occasionally we get to see contrasts between her and the more stolid Kaitlin in the ways they’ve approached certain school assignments. Crucially, however, none of this ever feels like emotional voyeurism, because the narrative treasure hunt that provides Gone Home’s backbone is not the arbitrary scattering of tape recordings that most games employ. Their intricate trail is actually Sam’s work, through which she wants her sister to understand her life and what’s happened to her.
Little of this would have worked were it not for how well these clues are presented. The writing is fantastic, encompassing multiple styles, from formal business letters to intimate notes. They’re presented with incredible attention to detail, too, from the looping handwriting of middle-aged American women to a child’s scrawl. Invoices come with dully functional letterheads, their paper now folded and stained. Magazines capture the game’s setting: Kurt Cobain recently dead, riot grrrl ascendent.
There is so much to find over Gone Home’s 100-minute runtime, each object – many of which you can examine from every angle – adding another layer or facet to the quiet drama of this household while trading on your personal delight in discovering it. Cupboards full of home videos and bookcases feature the spines of just enough unique titles that they’re worth looking over just to revel in the attention The Fullbright Company has lavished on every room. And then there are the lights – on entering every new space you’ll turn on every lamp and fixture to chase away the shadows and reveal its secrets.
Gone Home is fashioned with the utmost care, its stylised details simple enough that a small team could make them but rich enough that they generate a textured, full-feeling household frozen at a particular time. Sure, it doesn’t quite feel natural – its spaces are just that bit too videogame-wide, and in the effort of filling them there are too many drawers containing a random scattering of paper and closets piled with nameless cardboard boxes. Similarly, by its conclusion some elements of the story seem underdeveloped, or left by the wayside.
But you’ll likely be more gripped by Sam. Perhaps Gone Home’s greatest surprise lies in the apparent ease with which The Fullbright Company has joined the game’s subject and its medium: it’s a domestic tale of girl-to-womanhood told with the tools of an action game. As a statement that games can express emotionally resonant stories, Gone Home is a triumph. But that’s not why you should play it. Engrossing, touching and rewarding, it’s well worth the experience on its own terms, too.