Three years on from release and Gone Home has one of the most infamous reputations in recent memory. Sure, it was recieved well by critics, but consumers weren’t so kind to it. It’s one of those games with a huge divide between the general critic and consumer consensus. Those that swear against Gone Home claim it “isn’t even a game” among other things, but is it really that bad? Why all the vitriol over any game within the “walking simulator” genre? Are consumers so rigid in their expectations of what a video game is that once something challenges those expectations, said game is automatically dismissed as “boring” and “not a game”?
Gone Home is an incredibly simple game. Like others of its ilk, you won’t find many genre conventions. Gone Home is devoid of combat and puzzles that never go beyond finding the right key or combination code. There’s also no fail state. Traditional gamers will be instantly turned off by the lack of tangible gameplay mechanics that could be considered fun, but that’s not what Gone Home is.
It’s a directed story driven experience that hinges upon exploration and the player’s own curiosity. The game begins with Kaitlin Greenbriar returning to her childhood home after spending years overseas. Upon returning home, Kaitlin finds the house deserted with a note attached to the front door imploring her to shy away from investigating what happened in that house.
The intro sets an expectation for an eery horror game when in reality, Gone Home is nothing more than a relaxing stroll through a harmless house. Once players acclimate to the fact that no danger resides in the house, the game settles into a comfortable groove.Gone Home rewards thorough exploration. The crux of the experience lies within finding notes and other scattered items around the house left by the various family members and learning about them as individuals. The main plot line involves Kaitlin’s sister, Samantha, though there is much more to delve into than just her story. The attention to detail is staggering. Rarely has a video game seen such an organic and lived in environment. Save for the slightly odd layout of the house, each room tells a story in a convincing manner.
Players that soak in the environment will find a lot to delve into. It’s not always incredibly deep and emotional plot lines that you’ll find either. Sometimes the beauty of Gone Home lies in the smaller details. For example, the family living room has a television guide with different real world shows on them from the 90’s. In that same room, shelves are littered with labeled VHS tapes; recorded episodes of tv shows.
The nonlinear structure ensures that anyone that wants to experience the meat of the story can get right to it and finish the game within less than an hour whereas those looking for more context and narrative can find it. Unfortunately, the main story is also the weakest element of the game. Notes left behind by Samantha are accompanied by voiceover which gets the job done, but the delivery is a bit hamfisted. In lieu of the emotional highs and lows, the impact of her story is lessened dramatically by how much is spelled out to the player. Too often a monologue by Kaitlin will detail exactly what she’s feeling and exactly what happened to the extent that it leaves no room for interpretation. Whereas some of the other subplots from the Greenbriar family require a degree of mental exertion to piece together different parts of a whole, Kaitlin’s story requires none of that exertion.
If Gone Home had chosen to employ the same degree of restraint with its main plot as the rest of the experience, it would have hit home a lot deeper. As it stands, though, it’s still a worthy experience for anyone that doesn’t mind a “boring walking simulator” and wants to be immersed in an environment.