Gone Home

No, not to my actual apartment.  Burned structure next door that could collapse; no gas or power; basement flooded.  But I was able to go back to rescue the PC, so I can write a review of the last game I played, Gone Home.

Maybe the next drawer will have a wicked laser rifle
Maybe the next drawer will have a wicked laser rifle

Let’s get this bit over with quickly: Gone Home is not a shooter. It’s also not a platformer, not a MOBA, not a puzzle game, not a simulator, not an RPG. It can loosely be called a point-and-click adventure game. It’s mostly an unusual vehicle for telling a story, a story about a single family.

The setup is that you are Katie, a college-age woman returning to her family home in Oregon after a year’s trip to Europe. Only it’s a new home (the family moved while you were away), and nobody’s home. There are no overt quests, but figuring out why no one’s home is part of the game.

The game mechanic is that you move around the house, finding documents and objects that tell the story of the family and the house. You can pick up many things and examine them; other things are short documents to read; a few trigger voiced memories (though, thankfully, you are not prevented from doing other things while these play). The main story has to do with your younger sister Sam. I think the story is best experienced in-game, so I won’t describe it further, except to mention that part of the theme is that being a teenager sucks. It has awesome parts but the sucky bits seem to be in a conspiracy to prevent them.

Does it work? I think so, though I like attempts to do new things in games. The main story is interesting, though not earth-shattering. In some ways the half-stories you get about other characters are more intriguing. Dad and Mom have their own stories and problems, plus there may be a ghost.

The setup of exploring your own family’s home is clever. As Katie, you’ll see references to yourself, or have reactions to certain items; and then there’s your own room– completely packed up in boxes. They didn’t even make the bed for you.

The mechanic is nicely done. You can move, crouch to get a better look at things lower down, and interact with a wide variety of things. You can decide which rooms to check first and what to look at, though obviously you’ll only experience the story if you pretty much look at everything. (It’s surprising the family keeps as many secrets from each other as it does, given everyone’s propensity for dropping revealing documents all over the house.) There are some minor puzzles to solve that unlock parts of the house; on the meta level these are really there to enforce some order to the story.

Overall it’s much like Sunset, though I think many things are better handled here. More things are interactive; you aren’t locked in place while you read Sam’s journal; they just don’t have you do things they don’t have the animation budget for. Plus it’s far shorter, so the wander-and-touch-things mechanic doesn’t wear out its welcome. Also, I think the limited venue is more of a virtue in Gone Home. On the other hand, Sunset at least made a model of the player character, so you don’t entirely feel like a disembodied being, and it offered alternative actions.

It has a neat mechanic that I’d like to see in other games, such as Bethesda’s: when you’re holding an object there’s a “Put back” action so you can place it where it came from rather than dropping it on the floor.

Just a few things to criticize. One, I think the story cried out for a “Two years later…” endcard. I guess I’d say that the story provides an emotional closure, but not a practical one. The final events would have produced more repercussions that we don’t get to see.

Second, we learn a bit about Katie, but not enough, I think. I’m not sure we even learn her major. Maybe this is a vestige of the notion that PCs ought to be underdetermined, so we can identify with them. But very precise PCs work great; we’re not bothered if we can’t mold our own Lara Croft. They’ve already provided Katie with a face, a voice, a close relationship with her sister; it would have been nice to get to know her at least as well as we know the parents.

Finally, and related to the last two points: Katie can’t influence the story in any way. Which isn’t essential for a game, but for a very intimate story like this, it feels like a lack. (If they didn’t want to get into Katie getting involved in the denouement, there’s at least one relevant action she could take: hide certain documents from the parents!)

Will you like it? If you only like shooters, no. If you like point-and-click adventure games, maybe, but be aware that it’s not a puzzle-solving game and there are no real choices to make. Also, it’s short (it took me two hours) and the list price is $20, which is maybe steep; I got it on sale. But it’s different, and well put together.