Open a closet door in the Greenbriar household and amongst the stacks of storage boxes and shelves of dusty books, you’re likely to find a nugget of character development. A hotel matchbook, perhaps, with a suggestive invitation scribbled on the inside fold. Or maybe a mix tape of ‘90s grunge, covered in the teenage doodles of high school boredom. Few of these individual items are interesting in and of themselves, but each object – purposefully detailed and deliberately placed by independent developers The Fullbright Company – adds another brush stroke to the Greenbriar family portrait. And the picture they eventually paint in Gone Home’s short, movie-like length is more intimate and relatable than the most realistic of character models or the deepest of dialogue trees.
You assume the perspective of the eldest Greenbriar daughter, Kaitlin, who, on returning to that home after a year spent travelling around Europe, finds a locked front door with a troubling note taped to its glass. Your father, mother and sister are conspicuously absent and there’s no obvious indication as to why. Piecing together the answer to this puzzle is a matter of rifling through their possessions and examining each jigsaw piece LA Noire-style for clues about the past year’s events.
Those clues are strewn throughout the detritus of the Greenbriar’s everyday life. There are no enemies, no weapons, nor levels to speak of here, only the coffee mugs, desk fans and light switches of an authentically crafted abode, bottlenecked by a few locked doors for the sake of pacing.
Gone Home instils an explorers curiosity through play, which is almost entirely a product of just how interesting a setting the Greenbriar’s house is to discover. Framed by the crackling flashes of a night time thunderstorm its long dark corridors and creaky doors set an ominous, gothic tone as you syphon through an equal amount of red herrings and revelations. Why is your dad so obsessed with John F. Kennedy? What happened to your uncle Oscar, the previous owner of the property? Just who is your sister’s new friend Lonnie? Do any of these questions even have anything to do with why they are gone?! In terms of action Gone Home is something of a passive nun, but there are so many intriguing questions and interesting answers awaiting in its hallways, that exploring every inch of every room feels vital.
It helps then that every one of those inches has been meticulously authored to give a distinct sense of time and place. Board games, fridge notes and travel memorabilia are the indicative remnants of a family unit. And whilst you need only check your luggage tag to realise that the game is set in Portland, Oregon, 1995, your mum’s letters to a friend, your sister’s exam papers or your own sport trophies could all tell you the same thing.
Such minute attention to detail is perhaps unsurprising when you consider that Gone Home is the creative brainchild of a group of developers whose credits include Bioshock 2’s superb story based DLC, Minerva’s Den, and Bioshock Infinite. Gone Home is a far cry from a corridor shooter, but the thoughtful, deliberate set building that made Rapture and Columbia such compelling locations to explore is evident throughout Château Greenbriar.
Elsewhere the influence of one of Bioshock’s most divisive methods of storytelling – the audiotape – is felt in the most conventionally game like design element of Gone Home, as the family’s overarching story is traced through a series of narrated entries from your sister Sam’s journal, triggered by interacting with narratively important objects. These audio diaries give a sense of direction to your wandering, tracking the events of the past year from your younger sister’s perspective, but they also feel a little too deliberate and artificial in a world that has otherwise been painstakingly crafted to feel like a genuine place. Piecing together the story through your family’s left behind possessions is an engaging mystery, but it becomes a little too easy to figure out the direction of the narrative from these told stories around halfway through the game.
What Gone Home eventually becomes (to give the slightest hint here would be to numb your initial play through) is subversive, suggesting a few obvious directions before touching upon a subject rarely explored within the medium of videogames and almost never handled as artfully as this. There’s a humanity to Gone Home, a relatability to the universal themes explored in the artefacts of its messy bedrooms and lamp-lit hallways. Whether it’s the struggle for parental acceptance, the frustration of failing career ambitions or the decay of a long term relationship, it’s likely there’s something here that will poignantly remind of your own life experience, regardless of what stage you’re at.
But then it’s also entirely possible to bypass much of Gone Home’s depth along the way, which is both the best thing about the game and the worst. There are few restrictions in how you go about exploring the household, meaning it’s fairly easy to miss key character building details. You don’t have to look at the paper in your dad’s typewriter, but if you don’t you might never know that he’s writing stereo reviews for Home Theatre Aficionado magazine. And there’s no progression limiting impetus to search the shelves in his study, but skip past them and you’ll miss a scathing letter from his unhappy editor. It’s not so much what these objects are that matters, but where they are, why they are there, and how they fit into the context of everything else that’s important. And the sense of discovery that comes from piecing them together at your own pace is something only possible through interactivity.
As a medium defined by the word ‘interactive’ and shackled to the word ‘entertainment’, videogames have long struggled with detaching themselves from violence and mechanical action in order to satisfy the latter of those terms. Gone Home is an important game not only because of the story it tells, but also because of the way it goes about telling that story. Similar to the more abstract Proteus and Dear Esther, it’s a triumphantly successful demonstration that narrative doesn’t need to be funnelled down the barrel of a gun, balanced on the edge of a blade or relegated to a background cut scene for the sake of gameplay. Instead Gone Home actively embraces the unique possibilities of interactivity, laying out a breadcrumb trail of fascinating trinkets that leads to a touching crescendo without ever withholding control.