Gone Home Review

By Stew Chyou on August 31, 2013

The first Mortal Kombat film, Chronotrigger, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, and the PlayStation. These were amongst a plethora of occurrences in the year 1995. But a little before their advent, there was a little occurrence of its own right in Boon County, Oregon. On June 17th, 1:15am, Kaitlin Greenbriar returns home from a year long overseas trek throughout Europe.

During her absence, the Greenbriar family inherited a manor from late uncle Oscar on 1 Arbor Hill, a.k.a. "The Psycho House". Expecting to return home to open arms, Kaitlin instead finds a hastily written note taped to the front door from her younger sister, Sam, advising not to find her. Entering the estate, the house is found empty, certain parts ransacked, the TV left on looping the emergency broadcast of the thunderstorm that bellows from outside, and the budding resolve to forgo your sister's request to look for answers sets in.

Gone Home is a tale that doesn't narrate in the commonplace mode of pulling a trigger to reach the next chapter or having your hand held throughout its story via integrated cutscenes. If this already doesn't sound like anything that fits within your personal definitions of a what a game should be, turn back now. But, if you enjoy the subtle musings that come in the form of collecting logs, and examining objects in the environment to piece together a scene using imagination as your glue (familiar elements found in the Deus Ex, Fallout, and Bioshock series) you might want to give this a gander.

Brought to you by a team sporting resumes chronicling works in Bioshock 2, Bioshock Infinite, and Minerva's Den, the prescribing of Gone Home as an immersive adventure of exploration is advisement without slight pause. Assuming the role, and perception, of Kaitlin you engage the manor as you would a layered treasure chest - the entire payload is not provided upfront, rather, it's divided up amongst compartments which increases in value as you shed each layer of the puzzle box to get to its center.

Your lock picking tool comes in the form of merely acting on pure curiosity. Pick up a crumpled note salvaged from school, a mix-tape smothered in doodles, magic eye pictures, or gaze upon numerous X-Files references, each item serves as both a reminiscent gateway to the '90s cultural zeitgeist and as a minuscule jigsaw piece that makes up the true Greenbriar family portrait.

Inspecting the house isn't conceivably standardized and the same can be said about explaining why there's no one home: certain parts of the house have been locked up (for now), dad's creepy obsession with conspiracy theories (gotta love the '90s) fills up one wall of his office, no one seems to remember much about Uncle Oscar, and who the hell was that on the answering machine? The crackling of the thunder, the infrequent pondering of whether it's you or something unseen making the floorboards creak, and trying (hurriedly) to find the light switches in the dark; the experience is tailored to have you constantly wonder just what your sister left out in her note.

While the title acts as a point-and-click, things aren't piled on too high to disrupt the flow of the story. Not every item needs to be picked up and examined, however the choice to minimize exploration deprives one from learning much about the household without its key members present. As you collect certain items of key importance an audio excerpt from Sam's Diary begins to play providing additional info and affirmation on details. Collecting enough diary entries eventually leads you to obtaining keys and number combinations with overall zero calories on challenge.

Very much from the perspective of Kate, you begin to learn that the Greenbriar household is not as picturesque as initially assumed. The parents' marriage has become strained from Terry Greenbriar only paying mind to his struggles as a writer and Jan's boredom with the monotony of married life has her making questionable attempts in spicing things up. Both share in the tribulation of raising a teenage daughter who, unlike her older sister, doesn't seem to live up to her parents' expectations. In the absence of her sister, Sam archives a year of being left to the wolves of the highschool hierarchy and an alienated home, her escape in the form of befriending the illustrious Lonnie and, as detailed in her diary, their journey creates a snowball effect, unprejudiced in rolling over whoever happens to be in the way.

At first, Kaitlin is expected to be the protagonist especially as the missing tether that might have kept the Greenbriar family in line. Over time it becomes apparent that the lead character is Sam herself, the nucleus of which much of the transpired milestones surround. As the timeline of the last year's events are unearthed through your findings, the entity of Kaitlin begins losing relevance as unintentionally, but consequentially, her absence from her family's lives has made her ostracized which is felt throughout as the occasional discovery of the gleeful, yet oblivious, postcards gradually lose traction with the evident diminishing solidarity of the Greenbriar family.

Dialling back on mainstream mechanics, to the point of simplicity, places a heavier emphasis on the story and immersion factor. This somewhat makes it forgiveable that the graphics optimization is lacking of mercy. The Steam message boards reverberates the subject with players of different specs experiencing drops in FPS even at the lowest settings, and a glitch where the performance worsens when loading up a save. It's not enough to rob and ruin, but it's an annoyance that still lingers in memory.

Final Thoughts

Gone Home manages to achieve multiple feats with an entrancing method of storytelling complete with cleverly inserted red herrings. The mindful attention to crafting an experience results in its central subject matter, often victimized as cliches, to be portrayed with not just class but having it all resonate at a frequency that makes the issues - some if not all - relatable to a number of players. Despite being somewhat brief, Gone Home is as long as it needs to be to get its point across but with the combo of super simplistic gameplay it doesn't have much of a leg to stand on in the replay department.

Well brandished narrative
Non-demanding interactivity makes it recommendable for even casual gamers
Graphics optimization leaves a lot to be desired
Gameplay, and soundtrack especially, isn't for everyone
Very little incentive to make a return trip
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