Gone Home Review: There’s no place like it

Home. Home is where we’re surrounded by family, by the ones we can trust. Home is what many spend years trying to find, and others spend years trying to sustain. Home is where the prejudices of the world stop at the front door. Home is where we feel normal.

Gone Home is the story of a young woman trying to find where she belongs, how she belongs. It’s the story of Samantha Greenbriar finding her home.

Her sister, Katie, returns to the cold moisture of the Pacific Northwest after a year away overseas. While she was gone, Katie’s sister and parents moved to the inherited house of a madman. In BioShock, the residents of Rapture spoke their last words into microphones, in often, unbelievable ways; In Gone Home, Samantha’s voice is carried through her diary entries. The house is haunted, Samantha’s high school peers told her. Are the ghostly remnants of Samantha’s thoughts whispering into Katie’s ear, or is it just another video game storytelling conceit? Gone Home doesn’t provide the answer.

gonehome4Gone Home’s empty house hosts a series of unfamiliar things, many without direct explanations to the questions they bring. From the most minute of ‘90s homeware, to the discarded notes and stationery of Katie’s parents, and the punk rock mix tapes of Samantha’s senior year. You won’t find hidden coins in the fridge, instead, you’ll find expired milk and used condiments. “Gosh, Dad,” Katie thinks to herself as you roll your cursor over a magazine bearing a nude woman hidden inside a cardboard box. As you dig deeper, it becomes clear how distinct and unsettling the items of a house can be. There’s a deliberate quality to most of what you find, though the game isn’t shy of placing Important Things in oddly convenient locations.

Everything, though, can be studied or tossed from Gone Home’s first-person perspective. You can spend all day gazing at the plain, yet comforting, utilitarian box art and wrappings, or you can step back and puzzle out their significance. Gone Home rewards careful eyes. The stacks of identical books and the rejection letters tell you Katie’s father is a struggling writer. The jealous letters from a faraway friend show you that Katie’s mother still holds onto a part of her youth. And the budding, scribbled notes between Katie’s sister and her new friend Lonnie form a foundation for Gone Home’s main, external narrative.

gonehome2That story is so rare in media, and rarer in games, that only because of the contemporary surroundings of the game, it must be hailed as unique. It’s told so matter-of-factly, so genuinely that, hopefully, with time, Gone Home will be known as a pioneer, rather than an anomaly.

It’s refreshing then, that Gone Home embraces those differences and connects its themes of uncertainty and exclusivity to your actions. As you step through the many rooms of the house that developer The Fullbright Company built, you grow a familiarity. Despite the distant creaks and taps, you adjust. Every switch and tug that lights your way through the house, salves your fears. Gone Home has no puzzles to solve. It exists to tell you a story, similar to narrative experiences like Dear Esther. It’s obstacles are emotional; it’s length is how long, or short, of a time you decide to spend in it.

In the end, it’s Gone Home’s deeply personal story that pulls you through. When your goal is uncertain, Samantha’s unraveling self-discovery keeps you moving forward. When her journey sounds like it could end, you want to tell her it’s going to be okay, you want to sit beside her and cry too.

Gone Home is moving in a way that leaves you feeling like you’ve learned something valuable, something tangible. Like you’ve lived another life. We come to games to transport ourselves, to feel what others feel. Gone Home takes what may be alien to many and makes it normal. Gone Home feels like home.

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Pros: A personal story worth seeing, an incredible artistic attention to even the most insignificant details

Cons: A few inexplicably convenient story items, little gameplay reasons to play again

Final Verdict: 9/10 (Gone Home is something entirely unique, if you’re looking for an experience similar to Dear Esther, give it a try.)

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A review copy of Gone Home was provided by developer The Fullbright Company. I played and completed the game in three hours, according to Steam. The $19.99 game is available DRM-free on its website, and also available on Steam.