Gone Home arrived as a free game for Playstation Plus users this week so I finally got around to sitting down with one of the most lauded indie games in recent history. Fullbright’s game was held in high regard upon its PC release for having a good narrative and an excellent story telling technique so I was very interested to play it through for myself.
There follows a few spoilers for Gone Home.
Taking the role of 21 year old Kaitlin Greenbriar you arrive at your family home in Oregon having spent a year travelling around Europe. It is not the house you had left however as the family have moved in the meantime. This is an equally strange place for both you as a player and Kaitlin as a protagonist. It’s the early hours of the morning, the weather is terrible and there’s nobody else in the house.The first thing you’re greeted with is a handwritten note from Kaitlin’s younger sister Sam telling her not to investigate what happened.
Gone Home plays with genre. The old house, the rumbles of thunder outside and the rain belting against the windows give this a horror feel. The foyer of the house, with the large staircase in the middle of the room and doors at either side, reminded me a lot of first entering the Spencer Mansion in Resident Evil all those years ago. I actually turned around and tried to see if the game would let me back out of the front door. Whilst this wasn’t possible there also wasn’t a rabid dog trying to kill me on the other side.
Edging towards the phone on the side table reveals two messages. The first is your own voice explaining to your parents that you won’t need picked up from the airport and the second is a girl crying. So begins the story of Gone Home, pieced together by searching for objects in the various rooms of the house. Every once in awhile the voice of Sam will read pieces of the journal she left behind for Kaitlin upon her return.
Gone Home has a few stories running through it even in the fairly short play time. Sam’s is certainly the main thread however. She doesn’t settle into the family’s new surroundings very well initially as she struggles at a different school. The house the family have moved into used to belong to Oscar, an older relative of the Greenbriars who seems to have gained a reputation locally. Sam is instantly nicknamed ‘Psycho House Girl’ by her classmates which hardly helps matters for her.
Sam’s life changes when she meets Yolanda DeSoto, nicknamed ‘Lonnie’. The two girls bond over games of Street Fighter 2 in the local arcade and grunge music. The sound of Sam’s voice becoming noticeably happier as the initial few audio logs go by is certainly uplifiting. She’s genuinely over the moon when Lonnie wants to visit the ‘psycho house’ and is exhilarated after they sneak out to a Misfit’s concert. Before long the two become romantically involved. For once a homosexual relationship between two women in a videogame isn’t put in there for the purposes of titillating a young male audience. There’s a very human and honest quality to the relationship between Sam and Lonnie which probably goes someway to explaining the impression the game made on most of the people who have played it.
Upon investigating your parent’s bedroom you find a Bible in the bedside cabinet. Already I was figuring that their daughter’s gay relationship would not sit well with Mr and Mrs Greenbriar. In the en suite bathroom though there’s a book about how to repair your marriage so I gathered they perhaps had other things on their mind at the time. The reason for both parents not being there at the time and for the house having quite a few pizza boxes sitting around the place is that they’ve gone on a short break for their anniversary. A leaflet found later advertising a course for couples to improve their fractured relationship has dates on the back which are exactly the same of this ‘holiday’. Perhaps Sam’s parents aren’t so much disapproving of her choice of partner but more the fact she has found a love they’ve long since lost? Later discoveries include the fact that Mr Greenbrair has written two spy thriller novels which were published to mediocre reactions twenty years previously. His ambitions to be a writer have seen him write reviews of audio equipment for magazines. The final few letters around the house addressed to him however show that a small publishing company want to reprint his books for their audience and also want him to write a third. His marriage might be failing but his longed for career seems to be forming. Mrs Greenbrair is a forest ranger and seems to have been promoted according to her correspondence found in the house.
There are more stories, many of the details of which I’ve probably missed. It’s actually part of the beauty of Gone Home. The stories told are small, private affairs as you are entering somebody’s home. Kaitlin as a character is probably fine running through the house looking at her family’s letters and notes, as a player it has something of a odd discomfort to it. The fact that the narrative is discovered through finding objects and discovering room inside the house is a definite advance over similar games such as Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture which I played this time last year. In that game it felt like you were moving from place to place watching a performance before moving on. The self discovery of Gone Home’s characters makes it better for me in the long run.
The ‘gaming’ aspect of my brain kept on telling me that something was going to be in the house alongside you in Gone Home. There were just too many dark corners and strange noises around the place. This was amplified further whilst reading the notebooks of Sam and Lonnie who have been trying to communicate with the ghost of Oscar. I honestly thought that I’d be down in the basement and eventually find old Oscar throwing cups in my direction as blood dripped down the walls. It’s a testament to the restraint shown by Fullbright that it never comes to that.
Towards the end of my playthrough it seemed like the game was taking a darker turn. Lonnie is due to leave town and join the military. The final few journal entries seem to hint that there’s a double suicide on the cards as the two women cannot face being apart from each other. Finding a pentagram in the room under the stairs which seems to have been an effort to say ‘goodbye to Oscar’ made me believe the worst. Making it to the attic, the place where Sam has set up a dark room for her photography (no Photoshop in 1995 y’see) reveals that Lonnie got off the bus in Salem and Sam has driven out to pick her up, probably never to return again.
As the screen faded to black and the credits began to roll I wondered what would have came next in Kaitlin’s story. Would she have tried to get in touch with her parents and tell them about Sam? Would she phone the police and report her missing? It seems a fairly safe bet that she wouldn’t sit alone in this strange house and wait for somebody to come home. For the game to go any further might be a mistake however. The story being contained in one house which has marks left by all involved renders it far more memorable.