Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Gone Home

Post-Launch Review
Gone Home
Developer: The Fullbright Company
Released: August 2013
Played: complete in 1h:24min


Coming back from a year-long trip to Europe, Katie Greenbriar arrives at home to find the house empty, her family absent. Katie explores the house, searching for clues that will tell her where her sister and parents have gone.

At Launch

Gone Home was well received, earning average review scores of 87%. Reviewers were very impressed with the game's story and narration, and with the non-traditional characters and story for a video game. Some critics felt that the game delivered a strong storytelling structure without providing a truly interesting or deep story.

Post Launch

There was a patch to fix some small bugs and localization issues.

I'm a big fan of exploration and piecing together a story, and Gone Home does this quite well. While there are a couple of roadblocks (in the form of locked doors) set up to prevent you from skipping straight to the end, you're free to examine the house at your own pace, and the secondary stories of the parents are often quite subtle in their developments.

The house has a lot of small details that make it feel real and lived in - shows and movies taped from the TV, an empty pizza box, a small pillow fort. Even better, you can find notes and pamphlets and clues that explain the presence of pretty much everything. You can play audio cassettes to get a glimpse of the music Sam enjoyed. There are side stories about dad's writing career and mom's work relationships. But even with all the context and story to discover, many rooms of the house feel quite sparse. I guess that's explained by the fact that the family has moved in recently and they didn't have the furniture to fill such a big house, but explaining doesn't negate the feeling.
I did find the journal delivery a little odd. When I find an important belonging of Sam's, I get a voiced journal entry - despite not having found a journal or pages thereof. I just picked up a class assignment, where is this voice and information coming from? I don't know. (turns out you find a journal at the end of the game, but until then the voiceovers make no sense)

That said, the story told through Sam's journal develops in a very realistic and natural way. It never swings into any extremes, which is very wise considering the subject matter. The voice actress for Sam is excellent, conveying a lot of emotion through pacing and tone without overacting. Even though it's not usually my kind of thing, and it's not nearly as much of a mystery as the advertising led me to believe, Sam's story is surprisingly touching, if somewhat ordinary.
Now, keeping in mind all that thoughtful realism, I had some problems with the environment's tone. I kept finding little hints that, to me, seemed to indicate that the game was constantly on the verge of going full supernatural horror. The game is set in a dark, mysteriously abandoned house during a thunderstorm. An inspection record notes that the house's electrical system makes no sense because there are too many wires. You keep hearing creaks from other rooms. You're sent through secret passages into the dark basement and attic where you're told not to tell anyone what you find. And to top it all off the "psycho house" was formerly owned by a crazy old man and is supposedly haunted. 
This kind of stuff - an abandoned, moody environment with hints that something is wrong - is what horror games like Amnesia or Dead Space or F.E.A.R. use to set the tone before unleashing the monsters. Honestly I was half expecting to find corpses in the attic or to be attacked by a ghost. That's not a good way to immerse the player in the story of a normal, average dysfunctional family. Maybe you wouldn't think of the setting this way if you haven't played horror games before, but since I have, I noticed right away.

I also find it a little odd that no one left a proper note for Katie, even though they knew she'd be coming home. Sillier still, Sam left a note telling Katie not to go looking for answers... and then left a journal for Katie to find in the attic? Huh?

Recommendation: maybe.

Gone Home is one of those games where I can acknowledge the quality but didn't really enjoy. Though the quality of the writing and voice acting are excellent, and I loved having the freedom to explore and piece together clues at my own pace, I felt that the tone of the story and the tone of the setting are at odds with each other, putting the tale of an ordinary dysfunctional family against horror tropes and sending you on a scavenger hunt for no real reason.
The way the game tells its story is great - I just wish the actual story had been more interesting, and lacking the tonal dissonance created by the horror red herrings. I feel like it would have gone unnoticed as a book or movie. To me, Gone Home is more a strong step in the right direction for video game narrative structure, rather than a great game in and of itself.

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