Publisher: Fullbright Company
Developer: Fullbright Company
Platform: Windows, Mac, iOS, Linux, PS4, XBox One, Switch
Walking simulators (a game where there are virtually no puzzles and you walk around unveiling the story) are fairly popular now, but they were few and far between for the first thirty years of gaming. An early one that comes to mind is Infocom’s A Mind Forever Voyaging, though being a text-only game it still felt like there was quite a bit of work to do. The Dark Eye comes close, though there’s a lot of guessing as how to advance the story and there are some binary choices to make. I would guess the first big modern version of the genre is Journey, though it wasn’t ported to the PC until 2019; no doubt it inspired the wave of PC games to come. And it appears the wave started with the excellent Gone Home.
Playing in the first-person, you play as Katie Greenbriar, a college student who is traveling abroad in Europe, circa 1995. While you were away, your parents and little sister moved into a (spooky) mansion they inherited. You come home to find the place deserted for no apparent reason, and the messages on the answering machine allude to something terrifying. At first I was skeptical as the haunted house trope is just so tiresome, but Gone Home smartly focuses on a personal story, that of Katie’s sister. Samantha is 17 years-old and is struggling at the new house in her new school with her struggling and not very supportive parents. For the two to three hours it takes to play the game, you learn all about her (while Katie also learns more about her) via various letters, notes, cassette tapes, and scraps of homework lying around the house. Periodically, the player hears the voice of Samantha (with an incredible performance by Sarah Grayson) reading aloud from her journal (which Katie will presumably find later). These journal entries (which can mostly be found in any order) are the heart of the game and by the end I found myself very much caring what happened to her. Samantha explores her relationship with her parents, her desires for after graduation, her sexuality, and her newfound love of riot grrrl music and culture, all in an earnest and realistic way.
Katie also learns a lot more about her parents, not just through Samantha’s writings, but also from their personal belongings throughout the house. Her dad is a struggling author and her mom is a forest ranger. And while the player learns about the broken relationship Samanta has with their parents, it never feels cliché; they feel like real people with real problems.
As mentioned, the mansion is spooky. Most of the lights are off (though they can be turned on as you go). The phones are disconnected. The cable is cut. Floorboards creak. There are hidden rooms that can be accessed at any time, though the game will deliver hints as well. While not exactly a horror game, there is plenty of tension as Katie unravels the mystery.
Sadly there are several drawbacks that hamper immersion at times. While every room is quite detailed, several objects are repeated (which was also a problem with What Remains of Edith Finch). All the notes and letters you find are randomly scattered throughout the house, even in places where logically Samantha would not leave them; it winds up feeling like contrived pacing, and if the story itself wasn’t so strong it would have killed the atmosphere. You can pick up nearly every object in the house, though 98 percent of them you don’t need or learn anything from. While I appreciate that you can pick up toothpaste and coasters and tampons (and easily put them back thankfully), it can be easy to miss something important among the sundry items. Objects can be viewed 360 style, but other than the occasional back of a letter or ingredients on a cereal box, there is nothing to be seen and the game doesn’t require you to ever examine anything that closely to advance.
There is no order you must follow, and the game can be finished in less than a minute if you know where to go. I happened to explore the house in more or less a chronological order (per the journal entries), though this was mostly luck. One can imagine the story being somewhat confusing if you hear the journal entries out of order, though each one is saved for you to play back chronologically if you like.
Nothing about Gone Home feels terribly original, and while I don’t think I would play this again, I was glad to experience this story and definitely recommend it to those who like puzzleless interactive games.