This will be a spoiler-free addressing/review of the game. I plan on writing a much more personal and spoilerific post about this game’s effect on me afterward.
It’s 1995, and you are Katie. You have just returned from your year abroad in Europe to an old mansion that your family moved to after you left. But no one is home, and no one is in sight. Only your curiosity pushes you forward. This is Gone Home.
Gone Home sets the pace and tone of the game from the first room. You start just inside the house, with your bags at your side. Examining the tags and your passport confirm who you are and the situation until now. On the front door, a note left by your sister, Sam, expresses some urgency and alarm. But the door is locked.
Yet you aren’t told to get a key. No objective pops up with a pointer to the location. It’s nothing but the story and the intrigue that motivates getting inside. No catalogue of shorthand “relevant information you’ve found so far” exists: it’s only your own ability to discern what the letters, documents, sights, and sounds mean to the story. Or to you.
The gameplay is simple: you move around the mansion; turn on a lot of lights; interact with and examine things; and listen and read. The menus and items are minimal. There are no achievements to modify your playing. It is purely about exploring and discovering the unusual circumstances you find yourself in, at your own pace.
And it’s absolutely worth discovering! The developers put so much creativity into revealing aspects of a character’s growth and change in the year you were gone, and in the past. The tiniest little extra notes on postcards, for example, exemplify a richness in the characters, and comparisons between similar or connected objects and writing create a tangible sense of character progression in your absence. Fantastically narrated journal entries, music, and a few answering machine messages give so much more life to characters than can be revealed through text or visual alone.
Every room in the house and so much of the environment tells a part of the story. Sometimes discoveries are character-focused, but sometimes they serve to paint a larger picture of the culture and times of the 90s, and also much further back. The technology you interact with and the media you see are a product of their time. Movements, events, and fads are shown from the time that both make you feel within it and give further reasoning for the shaping of characters’ lives. And as I will discuss more in my second post, it made me feel oddly at home myself.
There’s little more about the story that I feel comfortable divulging in a spoiler-free discussion. So much of the joy of this game is in its journey of discovery, of slowly piecing together the events in your family’s lives and their themes and meaning. It is an environment quite enthralling, reaching farther in both time and location than just a mansion in 1995. Its stories twist, turn, and intertwine, and even elements you might expect you will happily look forward to revealing through the game’s beautiful writing.
The game’s story, tone, and mood can affect you. I felt a tension throughout investigating a home that is little more Katie’s than it is mine. There’s this fear of “getting caught” that underlies other emotions. I physically cheered at points, laughed heartily with amusement many times, felt warm at heart, and pondered at length as to the meaning of disparate clues. Even as I finished the game and read fan discussions the next day, I realized I had not only missed some interesting clues, but also a more deeply-laid secret to the story that I had hardly considered. It is entirely up to you, the player, as to how carefully you wish to understand the events and motivations of characters.
I am a slow, careful player and finished the Gone Home in 4 hours. I bought it on sale for $10, and I believe it well worth that price. If you find thoughtful exploration games with rich story and characters highly appealing, it is easily worth the $20 normally. And frankly, if you have a soft spot for the 90s, you might also love the environment regardless. I highly recommend the game!
Gone Home is available on Steam here. ($20)