Now I don’t usually prefix posts with giant spoiler warnings but Gone Home is a special case. So if you have at least a passing interest in playing it without any preconceptions don’t read this. That being said if you’re reading this header you’re more than likely to have finished the game or at least have no existing interest in playing it. I’ll try not to rely on names so you might be able to read this and remain relatively unspoiled.
We’ve become accustomed to immersive escapism in our games, so much so that it’s often rare to find a game that even tries to mimic our own reality. We’re so used to artifice that anything resembling our real world is a completely alien in a game space. Not to say we don’t explore issues and topics that surround our real life through escapism but those issues we do explore are greatly muted thanks to their fantastical nature. Rarely have games tried to break this mold, we tend to be more comfortable with wizards and super soldiers dealing with emotional and social issues rather than anyone that resembles a real person doing the same. We’ve shied away from ourselves and while I’ll admit my morning routine isn’t very exciting and certainly wouldn’t make up a grandiose adventure there’s still lots of interesting aspects to my life and millions of others that are left completely unexplored in the medium of games. The way we operate socially and culturally are hardly touched upon by games, you’re more likely to find a game displaying the life of a fictional, ennobled murdering machine learning to love his beefy companions in a professional way than a game about a single mother struggling with unpaid debts. Perhaps we’re just too squeamish though, blood and gore is fine to deal with because once we turn off that game it’s gone from our lives. However stories about financial and social problems are very real part of our world so it’s easy to see why that brief moment of escape from it all is so attractive. So preamble had let’s talk about Gone Home, a game that’s willing to bring up the hard stuff, and yes, it’s not wrapped in metaphor or fancy, it’s just a story about a home and a family, that’s it. Shocking I know.
From a glance Gone Home looks suspiciously similar to The Chinese Room’s ‘Dear Esther’, a game that was characterised by its environments with a story punctuated by a narrator. It was a somber and short affair, you were a mysterious figure stuck on an island seemingly stricken with guilt over a death you caused thanks to your alcohol abuse. Dear Esther had a lot of fancy to it, it was ‘subjective‘, and often described as ‘artsy‘. Yet in reality it was a far more unconjoined affair. Hard to imagine given the game’s lack of almost any interactive system. The story was poorly told, often leaving the player confused about events and while this may have added to the mystique of the game’s world it certainly took away from the game’s emotional depth. Before I sound like I’m hounding Dear Esther let me be clear, I actually really enjoyed it but for a reason that was never intentional. Dear Esther, is beautiful, not just visually, but audibly and linguistically.
There are so many wonderfully crafted edges on the game however it suffers from one glaring flaw, there’s no engagement with the player on any level. The player has no investment in this world and no agency. The demoralising story and fatalistic tone aggressively encourages the player’s disenfranchisement. The game was in no way reactionary and while interactivity might not be necessary to create an engaging story in a game it does sort of irk the question as to why that story is a game. I’m all for variety mind you but surely having an artist pour over a three-dimensional world to allow an avatar to traverse it is a lot of work if nothing meaningful exists in that environment. Perhaps this fear is why so many games try to tell little stories through their environments. Skeletons in Fallout are often arranged in a harrowingly frightened poses and the scrawled artwork of Portal’s resident loony ‘Ratman’ divulges much-needed exposition. You might mistake Gone Home for an exercise in this form of storytelling, and while it does rely on it, Gone Home is not like these games. They may appear structurally similar but they are fundamentally different products, not because you can pick up objects and rotate them, but because Gone Home is a story about very real, boring, banal people. It has this connection and verisimilitude to real life, a grand applicability to our own family homes and dynamics. It’s not a game about a man stuck on a mystical ‘real’ or not island or a space marine shredding zombies a new one, but a story about one family unit and all the politics that surround that. Tension, love, frustration, miscommunication and cultural preconceptions all take precedence in this game more so than any conventional play system. Unlike Dear Esther, Gone Home is simply more engaging due to its grounded nature in a very believable portrayal of a family life.
So what is it actually about? What’s the jig, the big story, the twist, the turn? Well the game is this multilateral experience, it’s not about one person or one story but a collection of them. It explores causality as we act as a sort of omnipotent player, experiencing the surface of the house and the depths of it simultaneously, causing us to constantly reframe our views. Yet perhaps the most striking thing about Gone Home is its simple nature, it’s not fantasy escapism but skirts the line of more traditional fiction. This could very easily be anyone’s family home and that’s perhaps the most intriguing thing about it. See this isn’t normal for the games industry, developers are far more comfortable exploring these issues from a distance, hidden under game systems and fantasy settings. So Gone Home in a lot of ways is unadulterated, it is a story that is full of clarity because it is completely uncompromising. Ironic that we’re more accustomed to handling an alien space rifle than dealing with family conflict. Everyone at one point has had this tension in their life, they’ve brushed up on the wrong shoulders of brothers or sisters, disobeyed parents and raged against authority. Yet this isn’t the case with games. Games exist in this void, separate from current contemporary issues in society, and no I’m not referencing stuff like politics and wars but things we do everyday like work and the hobbies we engage with.
Games are hardly ever self-referential and if they are it’s often confused with parody so this sort of game about games dialogue is rare and often overstated. Yet Gone Home operates with a subtlety and nuance not seen in the game’s industry, it’s not a self-aggrandized tear jerker or a hand holdy set piece but a very naturally evolving story that swims in and out of reference, existentialism and even metaphor. Hidden rooms in the house symbolizes the hidden aspects of these people’s lives, it represents not only the distance between them but the lies they tell each other and the fear they all feel.
Just ask yourself how many games have you played that explore a writer suffering from a deep seeded existentialism and a sense of inadequacy thanks to his father’s high standards? How many games have you played that follow the story of a teenager’s budding sexuality and their confusion in the adult world around them? How many games have you played that discuss romantic fallacies, titillation and damaging escapism? Yet more importantly, how many games have you played that are all about life? Games are usually very stupid things, plots are unintelligible, player agency is thrown by the wayside for ‘cool‘ set pieces and menial perfunctory mechanics artificial bloat the length of the games. Yet Gone Home stands clear and proud, not afraid of itself or ourselves for that matter; and while its existence and subsequent praise might point out a great weakness in the medium of videogames it still deserves to be played by anyone who cares for the maturing of this industry.