Gone Home is a game about environmental storytelling and being an archaeologist. It is one of the most important videogames of the last few years.
Basically, think back to that time you played BioShock and saw a dead body lying amidst a pile of beer bottles. Think about how you then made up a story in your mind about how that guy must have locked himself in a room and tried to drink away the pain of watching Rapture disintegrate, only to die alone in some tiny back closet. And think about how that story — a story consisting only of a corpse and a bunch of beer bottles, with no dialog spoken whatsoever — was way cooler and more interesting than most videogame stories because nobody called you on the radio and told you what happened; you had to draw the conclusions yourself, which made the story feel more personal, more significant, more real.
Gone Home is basically an entire game just based around that kind of subtle, cerebral detective work — of paying attention to your surroundings and drawing conclusions about what must have happened before you arrived, and what sort of people might have lived there.
Most of Gone Home takes place in your head. You don’t have to actually do much in the game — there are only a handful of locked doors that require keys, and essentially no “puzzles” in any real sense — but the entire time I played, my mind was constantly working and theorizing and revising. The puzzles of Gone Home aren’t, “how do I weigh down these three buttons so I can open the door?”, but, “why is the father of this family so emotionally distant?” I know that sounds like a Peter Molydeux quote or something, but that’s honestly just what Gone Home is about. You find evidence of a family’s life — post-it notes, letters, shopping lists — and find yourself compelled to uncover more. Who are these people? What are they like? Where’d they all go? By scrounging around in the father’s work room, you might discover a bottle of booze hidden atop a bookshelf. A few rooms later, you might find a letter from the father’s editor, saying his stereo reviews are too novelistic and self-indulgent, and that he’s a worthless piece of shit who should be fired. Your mind puts the pieces together: he’s been driven to drinking because he can’t do what he really loves — writing novels — and he’s worried he’s going to lose his job with the stereo magazine. But how did he get the job, and why isn’t he writing novels? Maybe later, you’ll find clues that’ll give you the answers you want.
Or maybe you won’t. Because Gone Home is confident enough to not force anything on you. There are no cut scenes, no moments where control is taken away. You’re given only one goal, and you’re free to do it at your leisure. I’m relatively sure you could speedrun the entire game in about six minutes, but this is a game about rewarding curiosity.
Like I said before, BioShock is pretty much Gone Home’s closest analogue. The incredibly immersive atmosphere (the graphics, the lighting, and the sound design are all top-notch) and the dense environmental storytelling of the Greenbriar home might remind you more than a little of Rapture, even if the settings are drastically different. While BioShock divides the player’s attention between combat, explicit narrative, and environmental narrative, however, Gone Home keeps things tight and focused. There’s nothing to do other than explore this home, and so you explore it meticulously. That hidden bottle of booze above the bookshelf? I’m pretty sure that if I’d come across a similar hidden bit of narrative in BioShock, I wouldn’t have noticed it my first time through the area — after all, I’ve got Big Daddies to fight and resources to gather. In Gone Home, however, your attention is so focused on the details of the environment — on what’s written on a crumpled up piece of paper, and where it’s been thrown, and why it might have been thrown there — that you naturally find things that would be nigh-invisible in a game with more systems and complexity. Despite — or more likely, because of — the fact that your only verbs in Gone Home are “look at,” “pick up,” and “use,” it feels every bit as immersive and tangible as the immersive sims that clearly inspired it (Thief, BioShock, etc). Hell, the Greenbriar home feels as tangible and immersive to me as Citadel Station from the original System Shock — as you play through the game, you become familiar with every little aspect of the architecture. You remember where everything is, the purpose of every room. The setting itself becomes a character.
I won’t bother saying much about the story itself for obvious reasons, suffice to say that it’s really goddamned good. Well-written, terse, and subtle, the Fullbright Company managed to tell an incredibly sweet, moving, and satisfyingly normal story through nothing more than a few brief audio logs and a shitload of well-placed environmental narrative. As more rooms of the home open up to you, more details of its occupants come to light. Even though you haven’t actually interacted with a single soul, you’ll still experience a clear, linear story just by moving through the house and exploring its rooms in their intended order (you can also unlock all the doors at the beginning of the game if you so wish, but it’ll jumble the narrative chronology). I spent a couple of hours exploring the Greenbriar home, and I came out of it with something downright unbelievable: a deep, poignant understanding three characters I’d never seen or spoken to.
Some people will say that Gone home isn’t a game, or that it’s too short, but, honestly? Those people don’t matter. To me, Gone Home feels like one of those watershed moments — proof that, yes, we can do more with videogame narrative. Yes, you can make a game that takes place in a single, small, immensely detailed location. Yes, you can make a story-driven game where 99% of the player’s interaction takes place in their mind.
I’d also personally recommend turning the map off before you play, but that’s me.