Editor's note: this review may contain spoilers.
There's an interesting schism when it comes to opinions about Gone Home, a highly unusual game created by indie developer The FullBright Company. On the one hand, critics adore it. On the other, gamers seem to have hated it; on Metacritic, it netted itself a critic rating of 89, and a user rating of 4.9.
We suspect that this is because Gone Home flagrantly defies the usual expectations about video games. It looks like a first-person survival horror, and plays a little — but not a lot — like a point-and-click adventure. There are very few, if any, puzzles to be solved, and nothing to kill; Gone Home is about discovering a story, not being its hero.
You play Kaitlin Greenbriar, returning home in 1995 to Portland after a year-long holiday in Europe. While you were away, your family moved into a new mansion, inherited from your father's uncle Oscar, a pharmacist with an interest in the occult who had been ostracised by the Greenbriar clan. Your 17-year-old sister Sam, who had started a new high school, and your parents are mysteriously missing from the house. It's completely, uncomfortably, empty.
It sounds like the set-up to a horror game, and we can't help but feel that this is intentional. Throughout the game, so many of its cues — the panicked voicemails to Sam that you discover upon entering the house; pouring rain and crashing lightning; the low, eerie ambient music; the occasional bolthole clearly used by Oscar; the giant, oppressively dark house — all combine to create an intensely spooky atmosphere. The game knows it, too; cheekily, you'll find a note early on telling Sam not to leave the lights in the house on like her sister (you) does. Up to that point, I had left on every single light I'd passed by. (I kept leaving them on, because heck, it was dark and spooky.)
Yet, as spooky as the game gets, with popping incandescent lights and sudden cracks of thunder at key moments, this isn't a game about jumpy, cheap-thrill scares. As you start to explore the house, rifling through drawers and cupboards and garbage baskets for a clue to where your family might be, certain items trigger the narration: Sam, speaking to Kaitlin, telling the story of where she has gone and why.
This disconnect between the expectation and reality is thematically brilliant, neatly creating a sense of displacement, a feeling that you'll discover lies at the core of what Gone Home is all about. This feeling is further reinforced by the deprotagonisation of the player character, allowing you, the player, to experience and understand some of Sam's deep sense of unbelonging.
There's not a lot to the gameplay. If you're the kind of person with a lot of patience for exploration, though, it's deeply rewarding. You make your way through the new Greenbriar home — a house that Kaitlin has never seen before, so it's unfamiliar to both player and character — poking through closets, bedrooms, your dad's study, your mum's sitting room. Many items can be interacted with, although not all are useful or relevant. Cups, for example, can be picked up and examined, but have little to do with the story, while sometimes, books will have notes taped to the cover with interesting information.
As you move from room to room, you'll hear Sam speaking, narrating a journal she's written to Kaitlin, triggered by certain items, like a scrap of school work or a ticket stub. You learn that she's been having trouble adapting to a new school; she's been given the nickname "Psycho House Girl" because of rumours about Uncle Oscar, and has trouble making friends. And then she does make friends, but with another misfit, a girl by the name of Yolanda, "Lonnie", and things start to change.
Aside from wanting to know more about the story, you'll find yourself hoping to find those items for other reasons. Sam's voice, excellently provided by Sarah Robertson, is strikingly vibrant and conversational, in contrast to the moody violin music and rainfall. It provides little windows of normal comfort in the house's uneasy emptiness, and you find yourself deeply invested in Sam's problems, many of which are eminently relatable, we suspect, to gamers.
It's not a game for the impatient. You can't rush through; the game rewards careful attention to detail. For example, where are your parents? You can figure it out — the clues are all there, but you have to look for them. Likewise, some rooms of the house are locked. The game has a definite progression that encourages you to take your time to find keys and lock combinations, uncovering other scraps of information along the way, and making sure the key events of Sam's story are covered more or less in the correct order.
And then there's the soundtrack. For many who were teens in the 1990s, it kind of is like coming home. Sam is discovering the Riot Grrrl movement, with original bands Bratmobile and Heavens to Betsy accessible through tapes Sam has left scattered about the house — a very different, frenetic, yet nostalgic reprieve from the oppressive atmosphere of the house and the comforting sounds of Sam's voice. Both touch an emotional core that's rarely seen in video games.
Gone Home is about alienation and isolation. It's about finding yourself, and finding your place in the world. It's about taking chances and pushing off from everything you've known. But to us, there's something else there, too, hidden in the game's title. Always, at some point in your life, you start to put away childish things, and life as you know it changes. Your parents become human and (sometimes disappointingly) fallible; your childhood, and the home of your childhood, will never come back in the same way again. In a way, they're just gone. After a point, you can never really go home again.
WindowsXP SP2 or higher; OS X v10.7 Lion or higher; or glibc 2.11 or newer
Video card with 512MB of VRAM
2GB HDD space.
CNET Australia played Gone Home on an unmodified Alienware M14x.