Gone Home Review

ImageI awoke in my bedroom shortly after five, the palpable melancholy of Gone Home still fogging my mind. Though the simple narrative has its highs and lows, the net sum lingers like a loss. No game I’ve ever played has struck so strong an emotional chord, or played a dirge quite so beautifully. Spoiler alert: I wept.

But not for the reason you might expect, reading the premise. “You arrive home after a year abroad. You expect your family to greet you, but the house is empty. Something’s not right. Where is everyone? And what’s happened here?” Ideally, that’s all you should read before playing the game, which was recently released on PS4.

Like Dear Esther with a terrestrial dash of Metroid Prime, Gone Home is a game of exploration and quiet contemplation, though in every nook and cranny you’ll find vibrant artifacts of vanished lives: letters, bills, ticket stubs, and secret confessions. The thrust of the narrative is delivered via audio diary entries — movingly read by actress Sarah Robertson. As you roam the ominous Greenbriar estate, you begin to piece together a disquieting quilt of emotional isolation, the threads of which lead to the resolution of the game’s central mystery. The documents left behind, however implausibly, are haunting in the bittersweet triumphs, failures, and frustrations they express. Adding to the ambience as you explore, sheets of rain buffet the facade of the house, and thunder rolls down the lifeless halls.

The house, like the Greenbriers themselves, has its share of secrets. Hidden passageways snake between floors, unwittingly connecting generations of family history. Though most of the house can be explored in any order, several areas remain inaccessible without a key — the further you progress, the clearer and more satisfying the overall portrait becomes. Without giving anything away, I would posit that the year’s best character writing is here, even if the characters are not.

Still, Gone Home is destined to find detractors. Be advised that “gameplay” is limited to movement and interaction with specific objects, and those with more stringent definitions of what constitutes a “video game” may find themselves bored. Even if you are invested, the sheer number of rooms and objects to repetitively investigate can be daunting. And then there’s the L word — that’s right, Length. I played through the story in around three hours, and though the experience was far from technically perfect, the core experience is too powerful to write off.

Conceptually brilliant yet never conventionally “fun,” Gone Home is yet another talking point in the games-as-art debate that packs an unexpected emotional wallop. For gamers fatigued by cover systems and camping, developer The Fullbright Company offers a welcome respite in an eerie and unfamiliar place. You may finish Gone Home in a single sitting, but its restlessly melancholy tale of love and loss will be with you for many nights and early mornings to come.

Spent Shells

Ask a gamer to complete a Venn diagram with Mario on one side and Call of Duty on the other and you’ll get a lot of blank stares. “Mindless fun” isn’t a criticism often levied at Nintendo, but it’s exactly what they strive for with their most important franchise. Platformers, particularly 2D sidescrolling platformers, are all about quick reflexive actions to achieve a simplistic goal. Notably omitting Braid, the narrative is never terribly important; how Sonic the Hedgehog gets from Emerald Hill to Chemical Plant will remain forever a mystery. The same goes for shooters, which drop players into shallow kill-or-be-killed scenarios; the particular hypothetical presented inhibits the why.

Fun though they may be, both genres stretch the definition of art. Even a sports simulation game has the extent to which it emulates reality as a measure of artistic success — what do New Super Mario Bros. U or Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 contribute? While the latter franchise does tackle broad political ideas, it does so without nuance. Plastic-faced characters voiced by B-list actors spout military buzzwords to elaborately expound a disposable premise.

Conversely, Mario stories rehash ad nauseam a (some would argue sexist) damsel-in-distress tale, and then evaporate in complete confidence of their own unimportance. Yet both series still succeed on the terms a well-constructed blockbuster movie succeeds, which is to say, they are fun. But as my interest in blockbuster gaming wanes, fun isn’t enough anymore. When two of gaming’s most significant, stalwart franchises have become this creatively cowardly and emotionally defunct, something’s gotta give.

The best games of the expiring console cycle were not the blockbusters. Dead Space, Red Dead Redemption, and Skyrim may be remarkable artistic achievements, but the most mind-blowing moments of gaming nirvana I’ve experienced over the past eight years were the out-of-left-field experiments. Portal, Braid, and The Unfinished Swan are masterpieces that uniquely marry story with innovative gameplay to restore purposefulness to shooters and platformers in a way behemoths like Nintendo and Activision either no longer can, or don’t care to.

Indie gaming has become a major talking point of late as Microsoft, Nintendo, and Sony wrestle with the internal question of just how important these games are and will become. As independent developers fumble to find a foothold in this shifting landscape, there seems to be an acknowledgment from on high that the perfunctory thrills of Mario and Call of Duty may not be infinitely sustainable.

The future is nebulous, the marketplace is crowded, and in the short term, nothing will change. The video game industry is still in many ways a surly teenager, obsessed with its own burgeoning maturity, but not without nostalgia for childhood innocence. From their first baby steps, shooters and platformers have learned to walk, run, and ride a bike — but now it’s time to decide what they want to be when they grow up. Both can and will do great things, but only after their parents abandon the endless attempts to recycle spent shells.