Contains Mild Spoilers
In 2008 psychologist Sam Gosling released his book titled, Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You. In Snoop Gosling and a team of investigators rummaged through people’s homes, offices, and dorm rooms to decipher what their possessions said about them. This idea is also the main premise behind the critically acclaimed Gone Home: A Story Exploration Video Game. Gone Home is a period piece, taking place in 1995, Oregon. In Gone Home you play as Kaitlin Greenbriar, a college student returning home from studying abroad, only to find that her parents and sister are nowhere to be found. Finding a cryptic note taped to the front door from Kaitlin’s sister Sam sets the story in motion. What begins as a mission to find out where everyone has gone becomes a mystery to unravel just what has happened to her family in the year since she has been away.
From the get go, developers The Fullbright Company make it clear that this isn’t a typical video game. There are no weapons to wield, no bad guys to confront, and no discernible puzzles to solve. The emphasis is on revealing the narrative through exploration. In the past members of The Fullbright Company worked on BioShock 2 and all collaborated on the Minerva’s Den DLC. Similarities in gameplay shine through. The first-person exploration style is reminiscent of the BioShock games that came before it. As is telling a story through clever environmental design. Only this time you won’t be scouring through a dystopian city but the familiar setting of a family home. What results is an atmospheric presentation that guides the player through the rather large and mysterious house, and a journey of discovery.
Your only tools are your curiosity and heightened level of observation. The designers made sure to keep the player on their toes by creating a sense of urgency with every clue uncovered. As you traverse the house, turning over the most mundane household items may reveal something to shed light on the mystery. You can’t help but feel a little guilty for your invasion of privacy. Searching through Sam’s room feels like a betrayal of trust and to any teenager is like a cardinal sin. While this is Kaitlin’s family, it isn’t her home. She has never stepped foot in this house before. This works on a narrative level also, creating a sense of relatability between Kaitlin and the player. You are both searching through the house for the first time and by going through her family’s belongings, sort of seeing them for the first time.
Light and darkness also propel the story forward. Gone Home borrows from horror game tropes and subverts them with player expectation. A table lamp left on in a room draws you into it, away from the engulfing darkness. Scaling the wall to find a light switch before your imagination takes over, becomes one of the game’s most enduring mechanics. Even those never afraid of the dark will find the dark hallways and cavernous rooms unnerving. The stormy atmosphere only adds to the tension. I initially left every light on in the house. But after finding a notice about the difficulty of rewiring the electricity I began to strategically turn off some lights in fear that I would blow a fuse. There is even a self-referential nod in one note from Sam’s father scolding her for leaving every light on in the house, just like her sister. A TV creepily left on in the living room with a severe weather warning only reinforced my fear that the power would eventually go out. Finding a splattered red bathtub makes your mind jump to the worst conclusion, only to discover it is red hair dye. Our preconceptions of what types of stories games can tell informs us of what to expect. We expect horror. We expect violence. What we don’t expect is a touching scene revealed through an audio diary expressing the intimacy of dyeing someone’s hair. But inclusion of these horror tropes isn’t cheap trickery. Anyone who has been alone in a giant house knows how frightening it can be. Houses creek and breathe, all the more during stormy weather. It is our perception that creates the fear.
The narrative teases that this is going to be a haunted house story. Sam reveals that the community describes the house as the “psycho house” and she as the “psycho house girl.” Sam also leaves notes about her paranormal sightings around the house, only fueling fear in the player. While the Greenbriar house isn’t literally haunted, it is metaphorically haunted. Kaitlin and Sam’s great Uncle, Oscar, owned the mansion. Through documents in the house we discover Oscar once owned a pharmacy in the community but became a recluse. It is alluded that something horrible happened between Kaitlin’s father, Terrence, and Uncle Oscar. Oscar left the house and all of his belongings to Terrence but his presence can be felt throughout the old-fashioned home. Finding a secret passage reveals some of his newspaper clippings. Also, haunting the home is the psychological damage inflicted on Terrence. His mental state can be seen through excessive drinking in his study and inspirational post-it notes. Most evidently, the house is haunted by its inhabitant’s possessions. Even though they have lived in the house for a year, unpacked boxes still fill rooms. Empty pizza boxes liter the house. The disheveled state of the house is reflective of the family’s relationship.
Audio diaries play an important role in Gone Home. As Kaitlin dives deeper into the story, certain items will trigger audio diaries from Sam adding insight and giving a greater significance to the found object. At first these seem gratuitous. The BioShock series is known for its inclusion of audio diaries. Since they have become a storytelling standard. As the game progresses it becomes evident that these aren’t audio diaries but written journal entries in which Kaitlin is “hearing” Sam’s voice. The diaries are a carefully thought out narrative device, not a standard addition. The acting is astounding and convincing. And when the calming music begins with every entry you feel as nothing can harm you. There is still plenty to read in the Greenbriar house. If these journal entries were just more readable notes scattered around, they would weaken the realism of the plot and wouldn’t have the emotional impact they do. The rest of the audio design is equally effective. Sam’s riot grrrl cassette tapes found around the house color Sam’s personality. The player gets to see another side to Sam and the story is further layered through another sense.
Gone Home is also a time capsule to the ’90s. The Greenbriar house is filled with VHS tapes, TV-Guide pages with the X-Files circled, large cordless phones, and SNES cartridges. In a way Gone Home addresses just how much culture has changed since the internet era. If Gone Home took place today it could be completed by going through someone’s personal computer or cell phone. This is why so much emphasis is placed on touch and physical material objects. Gone Home is a tactile experience. You must pick things up. These things mean something to your family members. Whether finding scores of your father’s unsuccessful books, your mother’s park ranger materials, or Sam’s photo developing chemicals, these objects helped define whom these people are. Anyone growing up during the ’90s will feel a tinge of nostalgia. I remember a strange feeling coming over me when I saw RCA cables hanging out of a wooden entertainment cabinet and VHS tapes. I just stared at them. They seem from a time so long ago, when it really wasn’t that long ago. Technology has just progressed dramatically. It’s clear Gone Home was made by people growing up in the ’90s for an audience of adult gamers.
Ultimately, Gone home is a coming of age story. It’s a story of defining one’s sexuality. And it’s a story of a reconciliation of sisters. Gone Home is a triumph in narrative game design. Most importantly, Gone Home‘s design speaks in the language native to interactive media. It doesn’t rely on cut scenes and the tools of cinema, not that those tools are inherently bad. Gone Home successfully integrates interactivity and exploration to tell the story it wants to tell. The successes of Journey and The Walking Dead marked the coming maturation of games. There is a growing audience that wants to see games explore more complex themes and a subversion of genre conventions. There are no juvenile male power fantasies here. Gone Home signifies that the medium has reached adulthood. Gone Home is an adult game, for an adult audience.