It’s been a very long time since I delved into my backlog and reviewed what I’ve played. This week I streamed ‘Gone Home’, a game that’s been sitting in my steam collection for a very long time.
It’s a game whose content is sure to be hugely divisive and it could be a marmite game. The question is though was it worth coming home for, or should it have stayed where it was?
Gone home opens on a dark and stormy night, you arrive on your porch, you take a step the porch floor creeks and there is a flash of lightning and a long roll of thunder. In front of you is the house door and note; you read the note, it’s your sister apologising for some “she had to do”. When you enter your home it is empty. The tone established in these early moment of ‘Gone Home’ are incredibly misleading. Here we have a game developer using the tropes of classic horror, yet ‘Gone Home’ is not a horror game. Call it misleading, call it misdirection, call it whatever you want. The opening is not an effective opening to the story The Fullbright Company wants to tell.
‘Gone home’ is all about the story, The Fullbright Company presents the gamer with a family drama that is kept domestic. You will never leave the confines of the family home and through the use of props, letters, diary entries and recordings (voice and mixtapes) you will shed light (literally and figuratively) on what has occurred here. However it is the telling of the story that highlights another issue. The Fullbright Company have put a lot of story into this game about all the members of the family, however they have given Sam a very big advantage over the others – a voice.
Although the voice acting is absolutely brilliant and her story is very well told through voice recordings, it leads to a sense of detachment from the parents – perhaps this is a deliberate move – but it is never explicitly told to the player. Why are these girls so detached from the parents? Ambiguity is the laziest of all narrative devices and it hinders ‘Gone Home’ rather than helping it. In the end Sam’ story is a cliche-ridden story of self-discovery. In the end it left me cold.
Throughout the game there are a number of (clumsily handled) metaphors – the most obvious is the locked doors that are physical barriers to the development of the relationship – reflecting the distance between Sam and Katie. As you go through the house you switch on lights; the attic (the last room to unlock and the end game) is also constrained by lights however here they are switched on – this room is accessed by a literal ladder to enlightenment (not at all ham-fisted).
‘Gone Home’ desperately wants to use the conventions of traditional Gothic literature to its advantage (which would explain the setting) however for Gothic to be truly effective the story has to be very clearly defined. The revelation should tie in all the loose ends and leave the reader (gamer) in no doubt about what they have seen and heard. ‘Gone home’ simply fail to do this. There are strands of the story that lack any sense of closure, there are numerous clues around the house that allude to a spiritual and haunting reality – “the psycho house” and “Oscar” the ghost. If this was truly Gothic we’d find out beyond all doubt what was behind the “haunting” – we don’t, in fact that aspect of the story is dropped almost as fast as it is brought up.
Don’t get me wrong there is a lot to like about ‘Gone Home’.
As an experiment looking at how story is delivered in a game it is refreshing (not a revelation), yes it is handled in a very in-eloquent fashion, but it should be applauded.
As an exploration of video game mechanics and the goals that are laid out for the player it is very honest and stays true to itself. The action-free approach is a brave one and it really pays off, the player has nothing to fear and this keeps them moving forward, everyone will see the conclusion and everyone will be able to form their own interpretation of what they saw.
The atmosphere conjured up by the set design is nothing short of stunning. The house is full of unique items (most of which can be picked up and examined from all angles) and it genuinely looks like a family is in the process of moving in – look through boxes are there are remnants of a life lived, play a mix-tape – it tells a story (of growing up usually). Like ‘Alien: Isolation’ the attention to detail is nothing short of a love letter to its era (in this case the 90’s) we have bands like the Mighty, Mighty Bosstones constantly being referenced (through posters and some licenced tracks). The piece de resistance however is the ‘X-Files’ references – they are everywhere, from the Mulder’s ‘the truth is out there’ poster to the VHS episodes. There is a genuine love for the 90’s and rummaging through the house is akin to the player being an archaeologist.
The fact that this review looks and reads like a literary review is a compliment to The Fullbright Company and their game but I cannot ignore its short-comings. In the end what we have here is an admirable experiment and attempt to further video game narratives. I feel that the story the developers wanted to tell is not the one that is presented in their final product. There is a sense of holding back or retaining information to protect the gamer from some truth (there are very real hints at abuse in the household – however it is very vague and I may be over analysing what I read), we are adults and we don’t need developers babysitting or patronising us.
Unfortunately video game developers are not novelists and there is a reason video game stories are so thin – they aren’t very good writers. We need good writers and this weakness in the industry needs to be addressed if our beloved hobby is to be taken seriously by other media.
Have you played ‘Gone home’ do you disagree with our thoughts?
Then flame us in the comment section below!