I’m really not quite sure how to go about reviewing Gone Home.
Technically a walking simulator – that irritating non-genre description of games that keeps popping up more and more these days – developed by The Fullbright Company, it’s a game that’s been around since 2013, but only just released onto consoles. It was on my radar a while, though despite being two-and-a-half years old, I knew very little about the game or what to expect; only that I was very intrigued by the premise. Unfortunately that intrigue fizzled out to become disappointment by the time the credits rolled.
“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?”
That’s the opening paragraph on the official website that rather succinctly sums up Gone Home, and it’s a pretty accurate description. Playing as Kaitlin, a 21-year-old girl who has arrived at her parents’ new home after a year travelling, you’re dumped on a doorstep of an empty house. There’s no direction, no instructions; nothing but a mysterious note on the door. You literally have no idea what’s going on – and for the majority of your time playing, you’ll continue to very have little idea about what’s in store. Despite you playing as Kaitlin, the real main character of the story is her sister Samantha, and it’s through finding her notes and journal entries that the story of Gone Home begins to unravel.
For me, there was so much mystery surrounding Gone Home; the incredible praise bestowed upon the PC version along with the mysterious premise perhaps led me to believe this game was something it was not. In light of more recent “walking simulators” (ugh, there’s that phrase again) like P.T. or Layers of Fear, the game instantly felt like it should be a horror title, leaving you constantly on edge for fear of the unknown. Indeed, Gone Home perpetuated the idea that it was to become a scarefest by laying down various references to the occult; referring to the house as the “psycho house” and suggesting it was haunted. Unfortunately, nothing quite so interesting ever comes to fruition.
Gone Home very cleverly plays with the concept of the unknown. In reality, the narrative at hand is very grounded, and there’s little besides your own presumptions and pre-existing associations to suggest that something terrible is going on. But by relying on our human nature to be wary of the unfamiliar, The Fulbright Company have somehow managed to cultivate a very eerie environment that keeps us on the edge of our seats. Whilst it’s a feat worthy of applause in itself – managing to create a believable and captivating atmosphere is no simple task – for me, it was this strength that ultimately let Gone Home down, as the ending was perhaps one of the most anticlimactic I’ve ever encountered.
Right up until the ending though, I was left gripped and engaged in this very realistic world perfectly encased in the four walls of the large family house. Set in the early 90’s, Gone Home is littered with nostalgic nods to the era, from mixtapes featuring indie bands of the time to home-recorded VHS cassettes of The X-Files. Intricate details mean the game never gets boring; you can look in literally every nook and cranny of the house – you may not find much of interest, but that doesn’t mean you can’t go to your parents’ bedroom and open their underwear drawers or peer under the bed. The notes and trinkets you uncover that help weave the narrative are never boring either; from pamphlets of a couple’s counselling retreat that reveal so much you didn’t know about your parents, to the oh-so cliché teenage notes that your sister has passed back and forth with her friends in class. Everything has been carefully constructed and created in such a way to bring the game to life; even though we never see their faces, these are real people with real lives and real struggles.
Despite being very family-oriented, Gone Home still attempts to feed us a line to the supernatural in the hope that we’ll grab the bait. The aforementioned slights to the occult – Samantha’s “ghost hunting” diary and an assembled ouija board – are there merely to throw us off track and lead us to think the game is something that it isn’t. Yes, it’s a clever hook, and it does work to capture a more sinister and tense mood, but in the end it sets up nothing but disappointment. Until the very end of the game I was waiting with baited breath for the “freaky shit” to start happening – but unfortunately I was left very disappointed. With lots of clues suggesting something dark was waiting in the attic, finally climbing up the stairs and seeing what awaited in the final minutes of the game should have been exhilarating… but rather it felt like somebody had just let all the air out of a shiny birthday balloon, deflating with a disappointing fart. What had built up over the three hours of gameplay time should have been an “oh my God!” moment; instead it was more of a “so what?”.
It’s a shame that Gone Home is a bit of a non-starter. It has a lot of potential; the game is genuinely captivating whilst you’re playing it – it’s just unfortunate that it leaves you so disappointed once you’ve reached its conclusion. The human story it tries to tell is relatable, but it’s a story that’s so ordinary it’s barely even worth telling. By all means, play Gone Home for the exploration; for the 90’s nostalgia and for its down-to-Earth quirks, but don’t go into it expecting anything mindblowing. Expect a grounded story about a typical family and you won’t be disappointed, but anything else will leave you feeling rather underwhelmed.