It was a strange feeling that came over me as I regarded the contents of the home’s freezer: a few TV dinners, some frozen vegetables – all hopelessly dull things, in and of themselves. But for me, at that moment, they formed a complex intersection of emotions. I felt heart-sore. I felt homesick. I felt nostalgic.
I hate nostalgia – that cloying, soporific sense of longing for something lost in time. It makes me feel like an anachronism. It makes me feel lonely. It makes me feel like I’m dying.
So no: the emotions Gone Home evokes in me are not comfortable. And they’re a far cry from the grandstanding power-wank that passes for emotive content in so many games (games, it must be said, that I thoroughly enjoy). With all its careful disarray and hand-rubbed humanity, Gone Home tore me gently apart. And I’m glad for it.
If you have somehow not been riveted by the very idea of this game since The Fullbright Company first announced it, here’re the bare bolts: filling the role of Katie Greenbriar, you arrive home to find your parents and sister gone, the house so freshly abandoned it feels like a landlocked Mary Celeste.
It’s with this simple premise, and in this simple setting, that Gone Home’s deeply human drama unfolds, rooted with disarming quaintness in a fictional rendition of 1990s American suburbia. There is no “action” here; just a considered and personal exploration of a family’s life in the wake of their disappearance.
Gone Home’s story is a thing of asynchronous beauty, taking the art of found-object narrative to rarefied heights. Multiple plot arcs are woven together with sensitivity, all through the voyeuristic lens of the things left behind; and the intimate inner wiring that makes up the lives of the game’s central characters is exposed in a way that feels natural and thrillingly illicit.
It’s testament to the skill of the designers that the sprawling old mansion is with rare exception free of the level editor’s forging marks. The house on Arbor Hill feels like a real, honest-to-goodness home. Items do not betray the incredible consideration that went into their apparently casual placement; the toothbrush on the basin, the Spanish textbook in the lounge, the pile of old newspapers in the basement – all of these are apportioned their subconsciously expected places. Indeed, Gone Home is acutely sensitive to the power that everyday things exhibit in the negative space that remains when their owners are absent, and the game uses that power to cultivate a deeply uncanny, even funereal experience.
The writing and, importantly, its portrayal are utterly spot-on. Everything, from the hackneyed typewritten drafts that lie crumpled in the wastepaper basket of Kate’s father to the exquisitely narrated diary entries of Kate’s sister Sam, is stylistically and presentationally perfect. The characters of Gone Home come alive without ever being present.
But the most impressive character is perhaps the empty house that encodes so much incidental information and emotion, like a forlorn spatial mnemonic filled with joys, tragedies and touching banalities. And secrets – Sam’s secrets, Kate’s parents’ secrets, and the secrets of the home and its disturbed original owner. Secrets great and small generate much of the game’s gravitational pull, and whet a distinct edge of mystery.
Critically, nothing in Gone Home is overdone; the plot hints at tropes, providing juggy handholds with which to grip the story, and then it twists them into new territory without having the audacity to draw attention to its cleverness.
Really, it’s hard to fault Gone Home on any count – and to try would be missing the point entirely.