You come home to a house that is not your own. But this is your home. The date is June 7th 1995, and for over a year you’ve been on an abroad trip touring through Europe as a young woman on the cusp of adulthood. Your parents and younger sister Sam have moved into the estate of a late relative in your absence. You take a taxi from the airport and arrive at the front porch just ahead of a massive storm that rocks the county. Travel bags piled in a heap, You find an ominous note tacked to the front door signed by your sister. The words “Don’t look for me“, “I had to do it“, “Meet again someday” nail themselves at the forefront of your mind. You find the spare key and open the front door, stepping into a house that is not your own.
‘Gone Home’ is a first-person, interactive mystery game produced by indie game developer “The Fullbright Company”. The game drops you into the shoes of Katie Greenbriar, who must search through her new family home in order to answer the most salient question. “What happened to your mom, dad, and sister?”
The adventure is marked along the way by spoken excerpts from Sam’s private journal, documenting her first year at her new school, her personal journey of maturity and her blossoming revelation of self-identity. To go into anymore detail would be a supreme disservice to how the game tells its story (i.e. a spoiler). These excerpts guide the narrative and the course of exploration throughout the game, as I moved from one corner of the house finding keys and passages that wrap around back to where I needed to go.
I think that one of the biggest strengths of ‘Gone Home’ is that the compulsion to investigate and delve into the story says a lot about how the “character” of a living-space says about the character of those who inhabit it. A crumpled piece of paper, a hand-scrawl note on the underside of an envelope, a bottle perched on top of a bookshelf; We know these characters, their quirks, concerns, and conscience, by the little innocuous details they leave behind, sprinkled about the house.
The “level” design of this game is a pure labor of love, a typical 90’s suburban household captured with such a keen verisimilitude that the game almost feels like a time machine skipping back to a quiet pocket of private history. Pizza boxes, discarded pieces of clothing, cassette tapes and couch cushions, the artifacts of a rich inner family life are yours to explore and piece together. Environmental storytelling is king here, ex-developers of Bioshock 2 count among some of the members of the Fullbright Company’s development team and it abundantly shows.
My initial play-through took me around 2.5 hours to complete, not including the time I spent gawking at the scenery and puzzling together theories in my head along the way. I’m fairly certain that I haven’t really discovered “everything” that the game has to offer, as one minor but persistent mystery still eludes me.
By the end of the game, I loved Sam as though she were my own sister. I was happy for her accomplishments, wounded by her challenges, proud of her growing maturity, and concerned for her deliberate attempts at misguided teenage rebellion. By the end of the game I had the answer to almost all my questions, and I will sincerely miss my time with the Greenbriar family.