Sunday, January 12, 2014

Review: Gone Home (2013)

Gone Home (2013)

Available for PC, Macintosh, Linux
Price: $20

Gone Home is not like any game that most of us have ever played in recent memory. It's in first person, but you never even see a weapon, let alone carry or use one. It's set in an empty house on a dark and stormy night, but it's not a horror game. While there are some simple puzzles and item hunts you need to complete to progress, there is no possible way to "lose" beyond rushing through the game and missing most of the story. It is the sort of game that, going by the reactions, has divided those who played it -- you either think it's saccharine hipster glurge and a transparent ploy to pander to the Upworthy/Buzzfeed crowd, or you think it's one of the most moving stories to show up in a video game in a long, long time. After you play it, you will either have it on your list of the best games of this generation, or you will be putting it on your list of the worst. There is no middle ground when it comes to what people think of Gone Home, and for that alone, I give it my highest recommendation. You will get some kind of emotional reaction from this game, whether it's an embrace of its characters or an unbridled hatred of all of them, which is more than can be said for too many games these last several years.

In Gone Home, you play as Kaitlin Greenbriar, a young woman returning from a tour of Europe to visit her family at their new home in Portland, Oregon. That location was not an accidental choice on the developers' part, as this game takes place smack-dab in the middle of the '90s (that decade made famous by Portlandia), at the height of the golden age of alternative rock and DIY culture. This is made especially apparent by Kaitlin's teenage sister Samantha, an aficionado of "riot grrrl" punk rock who is just starting to discover who she is. Kaitlin arrives in the middle of a rainstorm and finds the place not only abandoned, but hastily so, as though the people who lived there had fled.

From what -- or more precisely, to what -- is the big mystery. I'll try not to give away much of the plot so as to avoid ruining one of the main attractions of the game, but I can say this: while the initial setup may seem like something out of a survival horror game, and it does run with that for the first fifteen minutes or so and occasionally drops nods to it later, it very quickly goes off in a completely different direction. It soon becomes clear that it's Samantha, not Kaitlin, who is the real main character, with Kaitlin serving as little more than a player avatar to explore the lives of Samantha, her parents, and the people around them. This story, and Samantha in particular, is the overwhelming source of most player reactions to the game, both good and ill, and whether or not you get into it will be the deciding factor in whether you walk away from the game singing its praises or damning the people at the Fullbright Company who made it. Me? I absolutely loved it. The unanswered questions it leaves at the end were in just the right places to make me want to keep going and see a sequel, having grown fully invested in the main characters over the course of my two-to-three-hour journey with them. The characters are well-written and otherwise intelligent, feeling like real people with realistic motivations, but the rash decision that guides the game's climax is precisely something I would expect a teenager in Samantha's position to make. Was it the wisest thing for her to do? Certainly not, but it leaves just enough to the imagination that it's easy to draw one's own conclusions about it.

The story is all the more impressive by the fact that it accomplishes all of this without the player ever seeing the main characters in the flesh. This is where the gameplay comes in, revolving around Kaitlin exploring the house and reading documents -- school papers, letters, diaries, concert fliers, 'zines -- left behind by the occupants, and examining their personal items. Gone Home is pretty much all about exploration, about looking about through an upper-middle class suburban home circa 1995 and learning about the people who lived there through what they left behind. There are no enemies to overcome, no real puzzles, just a house -- and the lives of its residents -- to explore.

None of this would have worked if the game did not have such an incredible atmosphere to envelop the player. If the home -- a major character in its own right -- fell flat, the game would have collapsed around it. Fortunately, the home and its "feel" were unassailable. As you explore the Greenbriar home, you get a sense that this is a place with history, long before Samantha and her parents moved in. There is more atmosphere packed into a single living room than in any number of generic gothic castles. It is filled with little touches like VHS recordings of The X-Files, Lisa Frank trapper keepers, period-appropriate technology (like Super Nintendos, cassette tapes, cathode-ray tube TVs, and a lack of cellphones that would've otherwise made this a very short game), and even a copy of TV program listings accurate to the year, on top of the grunge-era aesthetic of everything associated with Samantha. All of this makes the place feel like truly stepping back in time twenty years, like the developers truly loved that era, not like some poorly-researched period piece cashing in on '90s nostalgia. Secret passages and cubby holes are everywhere, each hiding a piece of the home's history or holding at least something for you to find. Last but certainly not least, there's the soundtrack, be it the score by Chris Remo or the contributions by the '90s riot grrrl bands Heavens to Betsy and Bratmobile. The music is so perfectly enmeshed into the game that I eagerly bought its soundtrack not long after I finished it. If you're a fan of feminist punk rockers, the music alone is almost worth the price of admission. Occasionally inviting and occasionally creepy, the Greenbriar home is among the best-realized video game settings in memory.

If I had one major problem with Gone Home, it's that, for twenty dollars, there's really not a whole lot of gameplay. Even if you take your time and explore every nook and cranny of the home, you'll get roughly three hours out of the game. Though the exploration alone, particularly trying to see what you may have missed, gives it quite a bit of replay value, that's pretty much all there is, and it only goes so far. While I understand what the Fullbright Company was trying to do in making a game that didn't rely on fighting bad guys or having any other obstacles to exploring the home, that didn't mean that they couldn't also throw in a few more cool puzzles that relied on more than just digging through drawers to find keys or lock combinations. Samantha in particular would've been a great avenue to put such puzzles into the game, using them to hide aspects of her teenage life from her parents. It's already established in the story that she's a gamer, so puzzles in the style of some classic LucasArts adventure games, with occasional explicit references to such, would've been very much in-character for her. As such, I'd recommend either waiting for a sale or a price drop, or getting the Record Collection bundle, which includes four albums worth of music for just five dollars extra, greatly sweetening the deal.

(Also, and this may be just me, but I'd love to see a mod of this game that takes the Greenbriar home and turns it into a survival horror setting. I have an idea for a story, but for risk of spoiling the main game, I won't outline it here.)

Score: 4 out of 5

It's an unpolished gem, but one that still stands out in the modern gaming environment, telling a moving story in a wonderfully realized setting. Gone Home is certainly not for everyone, between its slow gameplay and a story that you're going to either love or hate, but it is still a wicked, engrossing little experience.

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