Gone Home Full Playthrough Stream and Final Thoughts
The Kids Are All Right
I’m intrigued every year by the increasing amount of really stellar independently developed and produced titles, and 2013 has been a particularly exceptional year for indie games. You’ve no doubt noticed that Gone Home appears on everyone’s Top Ten and Game of the Year lists, including our own, so the second I saw it on the Steam Holiday Sale I snatched it up.
A first person adventure game is not unheard of, but typically the subject matter relies on the horror genre and an oppressive atmosphere to draw you in and keep you engaged. While Gone Home does throw a few uneasy moments at you, and even a subplot involving a possibly haunted house (not to mention the constant thunderstorm outside), it instead creates a rich narrative based simply on the objects you find upon your homecoming to a strangely empty house. Given this unique set up and its critically acclaimed pedigree (read our review) I decided to play it that night and live stream my entire experience. Watch me pick up and examine everything not nailed down and read my final thoughts below (spoilers, obviously).
Before I dive into my experience, I should mention that I ran into a very irksome issue in trying to run the game. Be warned if you’re running a 64-bit operating system you may have to manually rename the executable and file folders to force it to run the 32-bit version, and apparently it also didn’t like my anti-virus software. I followed the directions in this thread and the game launched perfectly. These are not grueling fixes to someone that’s been gaming on PC for decades, but I worry that the casual gamer looking to try the game out will instead see a black screen, shrug, and move on, and that is truly horrifying. Hopefully the developers can push through a fix soon but as always the community around a game provides the best resource for tech support in case you run into similar issues.
I’ve never had much family drama in my life. I’m a straight white male so never had any major societal concerns, and just about every product or piece of entertainment was already marketed towards me. Somehow I managed to avoid growing up to be a complete douche nozzle (thanks mom!) and feel proper empathy for others. This is important when experiencing a subdued but story-driven game like Gone Home, who’s entire premise relies on your empathizing with your younger sister Sam. As the character you embody, Kaitlin has little to no characterization aside from a few personalized descriptions while hovering over items (finding your dad’s hidden porno stash elicits a “Gosh, dad.”). Although there are major subplots involving both of your parents’ work lives and their relationship, make no mistake that the entire game’s premise rests on Sam’s burgeoning sexuality and teenage rebelliousness thanks to the now frequently used audio diary system.
I found Sam equal parts intriguing and cliché. Her awkwardness and general selfishness is typical teenage woes that I tend to nod and move on about, but that classic tale of your first teenage love combined with her discovery of her homosexuality was intriguing and told in a refreshingly realistic fashion. Every time I “discovered” a new audio diary by examining a connected item I stopped what I was doing and felt fully absorbed into Sam’s plight. It’s wonderfully interesting to feel like you know so much about a character even though they remain completely off screen for the duration of the game.
The narrative takes place in 1995, which made me immediately nostalgic – these were my Junior High years! SNES cartridges, VHS Tapes (complete with labels when taped from the TV – holy crap we had dozens of these), cassette tapes and stereos, and an ongoing story about a borrowed game of Street Fighter II was a fun reminiscence, and it was fascinating to travel back to a world without cell phones, iPads, or even a home desktop computer (the Greenbriar’s were slightly behind the times, we got our first PC in ’94). But I could immediately see this was mostly a game design decision; if you try to make this game during modern times the entire game becomes a 20 minute exercise in trying to figure out the password to the PC or phone, if any. Going back to a time where people actually wrote things down and kept physical journals makes searching through a house’s many drawers and cabinets actually mean something, and provides an intriguing way with which to tell a story. That being said, the game’s adherence to realism proved a little silly at times. For example you can open the refrigerator and examine every item in the fridge; open the fruit drawer, pick up that over ripened banana, and twirl it around till your heart’s content. None of it serves any purpose and is almost distracting. I commented near the beginning of the game that it would take me forever as my veteran Adventure gaming brain would leave no cup unturned and no chest of drawers unopened, but soon found myself actually searching the house in a logical, dare I say realistic manner – opening desk drawers and looking at papers while mostly avoiding the oven and bathroom counters. As the game provides no instructions on how to explore the house while sprinkling lots of neat little side stories and clues in interesting places, the gameplay derives entirely from your own pace, and if you’re like me you may find some journals out of order, creating a unique sequence of events for each person.
Unfortunately once you reach the basement the exploration becomes very linear as the developers usher you into a specific path towards the end – basement, kitchen/dining room/garage, and finally the attic. While I can see the obvious importance from a story standpoint, it’s still a bit disappointing to see such obvious gates in the form of locked doors that must be triggered one after the other. The secret passages are a nice touch and instill a cool sense of progress as you go back and discover these hidden caches and corridors, and all the various subplots wrap up quite nicely by the end. The end itself was a bit disappointing as well. I’m glad Sam ended up being happy but she essentially runs away from home with her first girlfriend (a girl who gives up her lifelong dream of joining the army) while her parents are away and just misses her sister, causing you the player to spend a few hours picking up the clues in this unfamiliar and super creepy house. Still, the story and gameplay do remain steadfastly grounded in realism, and I was emotionally invested throughout my entire experience.
Any time you can play a first person game that’s not a murder simulator or psychological nightmare is an interesting venture, and I think The Fullbright Company pulls it off quite well with minimal gameplay mechanics and very little danger or suspense. Is Gone Home one of the best games of year? Your mileage will certainly vary, but even if the subject matter doesn’t appeal to you I encourage you to give it a shot (or, you know, watch my video). Games like Gone Home are important for the gaming industry to keep moving forward in providing innovative new ways to engage its audience and reach different kinds of gamers, but I’m not about to climb onto a pedastal and sing its praises just for that reason. I think it’s a interesting exercise in a first person adventure game built entirely on exploration and discovery, and certainly remains one of this year’s most intriguing titles.