Making new friends was awesome when I was a little kid…especially because I would get to see their homes. Old farmhouses, duplexes, little suburban cubes where the first floor wraps around itself in an attempt to seem bigger than it really is–I was always surprised at how differently people lived. Years later, the sound of pounding down a set of wooden stairs and the texture of carpeting against my face (after passing out playing Final Fantasy 8 until 5 AM) stuck with me. I grew to associate these tactile sensations directly with the people who lived there, and my memories are snapshots of people and sensations all shuffled together.
Gone Home is about the weird space between a dwelling and its dwellers–not quite in a way I could appreciate with my friends–at least, not at the time.
After an extended tour of Europe, Katie returns home to an empty house. While Katie has insight into where her family is or what the troubles in their lives are, she remains silent. The huge home is filled with diary entries, work memos, post-it notes, cassette tapes, and manuscripts. Soon you are delving into the intimate details of unfamiliar lives, occasionally being reminded that these people are your family, and they know you. Maybe there should be dissonance between the player and Katie, as the player is simultaneously missing information about their situation and is asked to care about people they haven’t met. Maybe her silence should feel forced.
But as I took each emotional artifact into my hands, their owners became shockingly real. Everyday items spoke of loneliness, regret, fear of failure, and a painful craving for acceptance. This is how the game tells its tale, but only enough for the player to fill in the blanks. That experience elevates an authentic, touching story into something beautiful and strange. I wouldn’t change anything about the narrative.
The fact that I played Gone Home while staying at my own childhood home for a week (helping my family with their business) was mostly by accident. When I had finished it, I knew how Katie would see things. For her, it is a story about living and watching others do the same without her; for anyone who has come home to what used to be their room, it’s an intimately familiar feeling. All of the game’s emotional themes will be familiar to most players, and that makes them powerful. By placing the player in a detailed setting, filled with believable people (even if they’re not present), then letting them become acquainted on their own terms, the game creates a feeling of familiarity blurred by distance. It speaks volumes about being an older sibling, a child, and (I imagine) a parent.
It’s a depiction of truth that I can’t imagine being nearly as effective in any other medium.
When the game pulled tears from me it wasn’t because of the life its fictional characters lead, but because of the life I imagined for a young girl who may exist some day. Likewise, I imagined how I would view my friend’s homes differently as an outsider. If I could see those places as an adult, would I see divorce looming in their family’s future? If I could see their homes as a stranger, rather than as a friend who is excited for the weekend, would I see pain?
Some critics have questioned whether Gone Home can really be called a game, stating that it doesn’t really have mechanics or rules. To the former, I would say that the game has mechanics that are either so transparent that you won’t notice them, or that, like much of the game, they occur within your own headspace. To the latter, the game has a clear goal; I feel sorry for anyone who doesn’t see it.
You should play Gone Home. It isn’t very long. I don’t know if it is a watershed moment in gaming, but I wouldn’t criticize someone who thinks it is. At the very least it is a genuine, artfully presented story, and you’re missing out if you don’t try it.