by Christopher Coke
reviewed on PC
Character Building, Unspoken
The objects you uncover in the house wordlessly build her character. She likes science fiction books and the X-files and punk rock music. She loves the arcade and playing Super Nintendo with her friends. She is at the supremely vulnerable stage of adolescence where she is discovering herself and yet isn't quite sure who she is. Sam, as we know her, is both the child with a stuffed animal on her bed and the grown-up, hiding childhood things in her closet.
Moving forward comes with a sense of dread as the rolling thunder and snowy televisions seem to promise only catastrophe.
And as we begin to know Sam, so to we discover Katie and her mother and father. Knowing the daughter, it is easy to imagine the kind of people Mom and Dad might be as we uncover bits and pieces of their surroundings. Fullbright has expertly used the exploration mechanic to allow us discover these others, as imperfect and striving as they are. Father, the failed author now forced to review HI-FI units for a living and mother, the conservationist park employee. Throughout the house are letters and self-help books which reveal a deep unhappiness and desire for something more. Katie alone seems to be faceless and detached from the happenings of her home, known only through proximity and the occasional postcard.
Gone Home is a journey from room to room, uncovering all that there is to see. It is a story told by discovery, and to this end, Fullbright has done an impeccable job of making the home feel well and truly lived in. Drawers are filled with old receipts and post-it notes. Rooms are cluttered with boxes and papers and Dad's unsold novels. Cassettes can be picked up and played in empty tape decks, crumpled notes retrieved from the garbage, and old newspaper clippings held to the light. The house is grand and each room reveals more about its inhabitants. It feels, more than any title I've played, like a real home, to the point where I closed each drawer and cupboards I opened and made sure the lights were off before I left each room.
The only real gameplay concession comes in the form of locked doors. Certain areas of the house are inaccessible until others have been fully explored. This gates you from proceeding past the narrative path but in retrospect feels a little odd. Why would anyone lock off the kitchen? That same retrospect reveals that this was a necessary pacing choice and one which does little to hinder the experience.
Time and again, the developers at Fullbright play off of our dread. They seem to know that we, the players, will assume the worst. From the outset, the thundering storm and flickering lights, the disarray of old X-files recordings, and the father's fascination with alternate histories, all lead to something bubbling just under the surface. More than once I felt sure that something terrible was hidden behind the next door or that I would find little green men hiding in the attic. Fullbright repeatedly challenges our assumptions. To describe them is to spoil them, but they engender a new sense of appreciation for what the developer has accomplished. There is something bubbling under the surface but it is unlikely to be anything like you might expect.
The final reveal is both surprising and heart wrenching. It leaves questions: about Sam, about Katie, and about the family afterward. It is also likely to leave you wondering why and what that might mean for what you thought you understood. Gone Home's final sequence is one that demands reflection. It is also uplifting, inspiring, and new high watermark for what video games are capable of accomplishing.
As I neared the final minutes of my play-through, I found myself at the edge of my seat. Gone Home is a simple, graceful homage to love, loss, and hope. Exploring its home edifies exactly why video games are art. The storytelling is transcendent, it is touching, and it should not be missed. For the few hours you exist there, you are Katie, a girl upon the re-discovery of her family. You are touring the strangely alien place of what was once yours. This discovery does come at the price of replayability, however. In Gone Home, there are moments of fear, moments of joy, moments of sadness, and moments of peace. In the end, there is acceptance, the kind which comes from a tale naturally concluded and a chapter neatly closed.
Excellent story, discovery, voice acting, presentation