One of the long running debates in video game criticism is whether or not critics and players should be focused on the mechanics and systems that comprise these games or on the stories that they tell. Are games systems that challenge us or some kind of storytelling generator? The binary to me and some need to draw up “sides” on the issue frankly has always been a rather silly discussion that overlooks what the video game really is and really does. Video games create worlds, worlds that can be explored, that can be played, and that can be “read.” Great video games are about building a world for a player to do these things in, which feature activities that require a player to master systems and mechanics, but they are also spaces in which stories are told and emerge because they generally are not abstractions of systems but ones based on familiar ideas and conventions that we associate with worlds themselves.
Gone Home is a game and a story in some ways, but what it really is is a house. That house is a world that a player is intended to explore, ferret out its secrets, and come to understand at least five relatively coherent stories in. But it is the world that is the focus. It is the world in which we come to understand systems and our expectations of them and stories and our expectations of them by inhabiting that world and slowly unfolding it ourselves and at our own pace.
The basic premise of Gone Home is that a young woman named Kaitlin Greenbriar has come home after a year abroad. The player finds himself “standing in her shoes” from a first person perspective on the porch of her home in Portalnd late one stormy summer night in 1995 with no one to greet her. In fact, the house seems to be empty. From there, the game’s systems and stories emerge merely through world building. Kaitlin and the player will have to find a way in and then begin to explore and try to understand the space that she is occupying and what may or may not have happened there. Again, this is a video game. It is about experiencing a world.
The brilliance of Gone Home is the way that the game understands the player’s expectations of the conventions of systems and mechanics, storytelling conventions, and the typical genre conventions of both. The stories that unfold as you examine items in the house and explore from room to room are based on the player’s piecing together of what is seen in the house, what is read in the house (there are a tremendous amount of notes and documents scattered around the house that feel authentic in the near pre-internet, pre-cell-phone era of the game’s place in time), and what is heard in the house (there are also very authentically a lot of cassette tapes and stereos to play them on in the house), but also on what a player of a video game expects to find in a game set in an empty house on a dark and stormy night.
I spent a good deal of time turning on lights in rooms (I don’t think that I have ever worried so much about where light switches are in a video game as I have in Gone Home, dreading what might be lurking in dark corners because the setting, the gameplay, and the tone of the game’s mystery suggested to me that I should. The beauty of my constant need to illuminate rooms, though, is that that is essentially what Gone Home is all about, shedding light on a home.
Over the course of the game, you will see lives emerge in the house, your father’s, your mother’s, your teenaged sister’s, and a dead relative who left the home to the family, all by looking at their things and slowly illuminating them (both those things and the selves that used them), seeing what they have written, what they have read, what they have watched, what they have listened to. Each of the stories have a certain conventionality to them, but the house is beautifully designed because as you explore each room, you may discover that how or what you were thinking about what you are looking at changes (especially what you expect the outcomes of certain plotlines to be) the more and more that you illuminate new rooms and new areas of the house.
What Gone Home then is about is about exploring spaces and discovering the meaning of those spaces as you interact with them. In that sense, it is about the purest distillation of the video game that there is. The game’s themes and its stories all revolve around discovery. And what it’s central interest is in allowing you to discover what home means now to Kaitlin and the others who have moved through these hallways.
Beyond these vagaries, I can’t say much more about what Gone Home is “about” or “does” because doing so would ruin what the game is about. It forces you to be an explorer, to make discoveries, and to understand a world and its systems and what it means to the people within both.
The only hang up that players may have with the product in the end is the price tag. This is a three hour or so exploration of a world, of someone’s home. At $19.99, this may seem too steep a price for some people to pay for a guided tour of the inner workings of a family via the space that they have occupied. However, if the notion of exploration and discovery intrigue you, your time will not be wasted on Gone Home. Its systems, its stories, and its home is worth being challenged by, surprised by, and fully explored.