After playing Dear Esther and To The Moon, I have been on the lookout for other good ‘story games’ – that is, games that primarily tell a story through the videogame medium. Some people don’t class these as games, given that there are often no foes, no puzzles to solve or anything similar. I’m undecided on what to call them, but I like them anyway.
I heard some of the rumblings about Gone Home being such a title, and apparently getting rave reviews. There are also some mutterings, many revolving around the $20 price point for a ‘game’ that takes maybe 2 – 3 hours of play. Possibly longer if you’re having problems with the very few puzzles.
Still, it looked to be a story game, and that was enough for me. I paid, downloaded, then didn’t get a chance to play it for a week due to work.
I’m not sure I can, or want to, talk about this without spoilers so, you know, spoiler alert and all that.
Once I did get a chance to play it, I was immediately hooked by the atmosphere. You (as Katie) begin in an enclosed porch at your house – after a trip to Europe. There’s a wild storm outside and the house is silent. Once you get inside, you hear only the storm and the creaking of the house – no-one is home, or alive.
There are a scattering of lights on in the house, some of which flicker randomly, but most of it is shrouded in darkness. You can turn lights on, of course, but that means delving into the dark to find the light or lamp switch.
You soon find that you can pick up and examine a lot of things in the game. Most of them are ordinary household items which are no apparent use in the game, and which you can’t actually keep in your inventory.
After a while I began to make mental notes of where pens, cassette players and the like were, figuring I’d need them later for something. I found you can put a cassette into a player and have it play. This was obviously important.
As you find various notes around the place, the story is told of your younger sister, Sam. You build up a picture of her life before, and while you were away. It starts fairly innocently, but after a time you get an image of a teenager who is going through some issues with her sexuality, and the fallout from that.
In the background of this story is a (apparently dead) Uncle who used to own this place – known as Psycho House to the kids at school. There are hints that his ghost may still be around.
Then you find that the large, sprawling house is littered with secret panels, doors, rooms and passages.
And here I’m going to remind you about spoilers again, as I’m going to delve right into the heart of the game itself. Do not read further if you want to enjoy the story by yourself!
Are you sure?
In essence, Gone Home is one big “fake out“. Which is both good and bad. It has all the tropes and overtones of some kind of horror or thriller story, which ramps up the tension. Each step into a new, dark room, is tense. When you hear a voice in another room, it’s a choice between sneaking a look, or rushing in to see who it is. The constant rain and thunder, especially hitting when you’re in a new room, also keeps the tension bubbling. Also, despite the spoken story all being about Sam, there’s so much background information that makes you wonder about the Uncle, the history the house and its possible haunting. When you finally head towards the climax, you might wonder (as I did) if I’d be facing a ghost, or a dead body, or worse.
With all my years of playing adventure games, where I’d been trained that all objects you an interact with are useful, and must be kept, it was interesting to note that only three or four objects can be kept. A few more can be carried around and used (a cassette int a cassette player, for example). Another group gives you back-story on the various threads being loosely woven. The rest, the majority of the objects you can play with are just window dressing. Detailed, interesting window dressing, but window dressing nonetheless.
Once you get past all this it turns out that the game is all about Sam and her life. The legend of the house, the Uncle, the ghost hunting , even the objects are all pretty much red-herrings. There is nothing to leap out at you, there is no ghost, no dead body. There is only one ‘jump scare’ and I’m not sure most people will come across that one.
From that point of view, it’s a disappointment. The game builds up to a very everyday story.
On the other hand, it’s refreshing to see these tropes set up and then to see them fall away completely. The game is full of Chekhov Guns that are never fired. There are plot threads that trail away to nothing, leaving you to draw your own conclusions.
And in itself, Sam’s story is very simple, very poignant, and I think has more added to it by being told in this format, rather than reading a faux diary or similar style of book.
Having said all of that, which side of the ledger does this game fall?
Firstly, I think it was worth the money, though I can see why others might disagree. As a game, there isn’t enough to solve. It’s really a story with a couple of puzzle elements, rather than a puzzle/adventure game with a story.
As a story, the main story succeeds, though it is somewhat disappointing that the other threads just trail off. On the other hand, I do admire the developers for going all the way with the whole “fake out” as a very effective way to tell a simple, moving story.
I’m glad I bought it, I’m glad I played it. I’m glad they did it the way they did.
And yet, part of me still wants those extra threads explored and perhaps tied up.