One of 2013’s critical indie darlings, Gone Home made a huge splash when it released. Critics praised it as a huge leap forward in interactive storytelling and for its non-violent content. Several notable publications such as Polygon, GamesRadar, and Giant Bomb gave the highest recommendations they can give and awarded the title perfect scores. Statements such as, “After completing the game, I sat in spellbound, smiling silence for nearly an hour,” from Danielle Riendeau at Polygon and Giancarlo Saldana’s acclaim in his GamesRadar review that, “Gone Home attempts to explore the boundaries of a game’s communicative potential and succeeds by giving us a story that satisfies our senses and touches our innermost being,” had me excited to play the title for myself. Unfortunately, my response to Gone Home fell far short of what others seemed to have enjoyed so thoroughly.
I played Gone Home for about an hour from start to finish and walked away wishing I could have that hour back to do something different with my life.
Gone Home places players in the shoes of Katie Greenbriar, a college student returning from travelling abroad in 1995. Katie arrives home, only to find that the house her family recently moved into is deserted, with her parents and sister nowhere to be found. As Katie, players navigate the house to discover what became of the Greenbriar family. Gameplay consists of wandering the house, looking at things, moving small objects, and occasionally interacting with buttons.
The problems I had with Gone Home became apparent within the first ten minutes of wandering the massive Greenbriar residence. After I found the key to the front door, I entered the house and began looking at various knick-knacks on shelves and opening drawers obsessively, eventually stumbling across a hand-written note from Katie’s sister, Sam, whereupon I was rewarded with a voice-over narration by the talented Sarah Grayson. That’s when I realized that this was going to be the entire game. At first, I didn’t think there would be anything wrong with the lack of interesting gameplay. I had recently finished playing through The Stanley Parable, which has even less interactivity than Gone Home, and it was so brilliant it made my top 10 games of the generation list.
However, as I made my way painstakingly through room after room, I rapidly lost my enthusiasm. Gone Home tries to immerse players in the role of Katie by setting movement at a certain realistic (i.e. slow) pace and adding little touches like a button that puts objects back in the place you found them. The Stanley Parable saddles players with extremely limiting controls to make points about game design, interactivity, and storytelling in the video game medium. The Stanley Parable’s gameplay serves to complement its story and can even serve as a point of commentary in its own right. Gone Home feels just the opposite. Its gameplay fails to add anything of importance to either its own story, which is the central focus of the game, or to the enjoyment I derived from it, which was nonexistent.
Boring gameplay can be fine if there is a solid story to back it up. The original Mass Effect’s gameplay wasn’t anything to be excited about, but the story was compelling enough that I wanted to see it through to the end. Most of the praise people have lauded Gone Home with seems to center on it containing a narrative not traditionally associated with video games. Deviating from the norm in the video game industry is a bold move and one I wish more developers were willing to do. The problem is that simply having a non-traditional video game narrative doesn’t automatically make it worthwhile, especially if it is something we have experienced before in other mediums. The sole hook of Gone Home is to discover what became of the members of Katie’s family. With the exception of one red herring, it is fairly easy to figure out where the plot is going within the initial twenty minutes, and the destination isn’t terribly interesting. Without spoiling anything, the story boils down to a time-worn shtick that we’ve all heard a million times before across every form of media and has been better told elsewhere without the slow, monotonous gameplay.
I don’t mean to imply that Gone Home isn’t well crafted. The voice-acting is particularly well done and deserves recognition for attempting to infuse some life into the game. Its environments have an astonishing attention to detail. Almost all text written on papers or books can be read if zoomed in and there are little secrets spread throughout the house for those who care to find them. The house’s architecture is impressively laid out and great care was taken into making the secrets it conceals believable. Little touches are scattered around the home that make it apparent that the game takes place in 1995. All of these aspects are testaments to how much care The Fullbright Company took to create the Greenbriar home. However, all of that work is wasted on someone like me. To be perfectly blunt, I didn’t care if I could read most of the text if I zoom in on documents and I also didn’t really care to spend hours combing through a digital house to learn more about Katie’s family, because I didn’t find any of them particularly interesting or compelling.
The experience of playing Gone Home is, to paraphrase one of my colleagues, like taking the audio diaries scattered throughout BioShock and making them the center of your game, eliminating everything else. There are precious few distractions in Gone Home, none of which break up the tedium of walking around inside a house looking for things. Eventually, even minor annoyances like the sluggish pace at which Katie walks become frustrating because you just want to finish the game and be done. I could recreate the experience of playing Gone Home almost perfectly by losing my car keys and trying to remember where I put them, with none of the satisfaction or resolution that goes along with actually finding the dang things.
Does Gone Home appeal to somebody? With over 500,000 copies sold, you bet your bootstraps it does. Was I in Gone Home’s target audience? Absolutely not.
Now, where are my keys…