Game Review: Gone Home

Recently my beloved laptop of 8 years reached that point where it technically still worked but in reality was just not very practical. It took about 10 minutes to start up, 5 to open a program, and crashed if I tried to watch a video. Then the plug started sparking so it was definitely time to go shopping.

The new laptop is bringing me a lot of joy. I can download and play games on Steam again. One of the first things I tried was Gone Home, a Fullbright production released in 2013. I know, I know my finger is hardly on the pulse here. If you game this will be old news for you. And you may have read a dozen blogs on this already anyway. But just in case you’ve never heard of this before, I heartily recommend it because it is a BEAUTIFUL experience with a romance between two teenage girls as a main plot point and a HAPPY ENDING.

This is not a drill.

I repeat, IT HAS A HAPPY ENDING!

You play Katie, an American who returns home after spending a year abroad in Europe only to find none of her family is home. What has happened? Why is everyone missing? By walking through the rooms and looking at everything inside you can begin to work it out. And it’s not what you would expect…

It’s a short game, playable in 2-4 hours depending on how long you take to explore. But the more time you take to open every cupboard and drawer, read every scrap of paper, and examine every object, the more you’ll understand the characters and their lives. And that is all there is to it really. You don’t meet any other characters in the game. There’s no running or shooting. Nothing will jump out and try to hurt you. You’re just looking at stuff.

I feel that if I tell you any more about the plot it would spoil it for you. The main joy for me was not knowing a single thing about it going in and watching it all unfold and surprise me. But I can tell you what other things I loved about it.

The house has so much soul. You really feel like you get to know all the family members by the end. It really captures how people live. For example, you can tell who uses a room most by whose belongings dominate the space. Or where each character feels their happiest. The game doesn’t patronise you. Sometimes you have to put together the information you’ve learned from multiple rooms to figure out what’s happened. Sometimes you only realise something on your second or third walk round, or by trading theories with a friend because you’ve both noticed different things.

I don’t even know where else to start. The graphic design is beautiful. As is the music. The Easter Eggs are very funny. It’s set in the mid 90s so invokes a lot of nostalgia for those who remember that era. You can pop tapes into cassette players and listen to music as you explore the house and see which episodes of The X-Files people have recorded off TV. There were at least two LGBT women/game designers on the creative team that I know of which is awesome.

Gone Home oozes cool. Katie’s younger sister Sam makes feminist zines and listens to riot grrrl music. And I love how interactive everything is. Yes, there is not much point in collecting all of Sam’s pin badges that she’s strewn around the house, but it is fun to see what’s on them, and how many you can find and return to the desk in her room.

Anyway…all this is besides the point really, which is that it has a wonderfully written, detailed teenage romance between Sam and a girl called Lonnie whom she meets at school. Sam has been writing you a diary whilst you’ve been away. Discovering certain things in the house will trigger an entry to be read out by actress Sarah Grayson. There’s 23 in all. So as well as learning about Sam through the environment the story unfolds in her own words too. You hear her ups and downs in life. How she falls in love for the first time. How she discovers her sexuality.

Our memories, relationships, and experiences in life are connected by objects. What I loved was that by the time I reached the end of the game I could say, ‘oh they wrote this together’ or ‘Lonnie bought that for Sam back in May’. Their relationship felt so real and vivid to me. Like I could call them up and invite them out for pizza. The ending was so beautiful I listened to the final diary entry 3 times in a row and cried. (Happy tears.)

And if you want more there is, of course, a whole load of fan art to be found on the Internet.

image

The picture shows a photograph of Lonnie that you find in the house. She’s got blonde hair, and is wearing her dark green army cadet uniform.

The major drawback for me was the intentionally creepy aspect of the game design. It’s amazing how unsettling dark rooms, thunder & lightning, and creaky doors can be. But it made me feel very anxious when I didn’t need to be. And it took my mind down Horror Highway (i.e. wondering if I’m going to find someone’s dead body) when simply walking along Mystery Lane would have been fine.

You can download the game via Steam, or if you just want to listen to Sam’s journals they can be found over on YouTube but of course you won’t get the full picture from those alone.

One last note, I left the game feeling very positive. You can see that each of the characters (except Katie) have gone through bad patches in life. Yet there are clues that they have also worked hard to overcome them and that happier days will come. In a world where our futures are portrayed so negatively (bis cheat, murder, die, don’t exist at all, or leave so that others continue the story) this was a wonderful feeling to end on.

 

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