Gone Home - Review
Gone Home has all the hallmarks of a great survival horror game. It's opening, in a somewhat bizarre way, is reminiscent of the beginning to the original Resident Evil, albeit in first-person. In fact, it has a lot of elements that would feel at home in a survival horror title: you read notes, listen to recordings, and explore a (presumably) empty abode.
However, at the same time, Gone Home is much more than this. It's impressive how the game effortlessly manages to conjure up a sense of foreboding and dread, whilst at the same time, developer The Fullbright Company seem more concerned with experimenting with other elements. It's the best non-horror, horror game.
Returning home after travelling abroad, Kaitlin Greenbriar finds the family house empty. Other than that you're given no further information and are left to explore the house. Sure, there's a general order in which the game nudges you through its carefully crafted world, and some bits of the plot make more sense when read in one particular order than another, but what's remarkable is how little you notice the developer pulling the strings as your curiosity gets the better of you.
This is only reinforced by the setting being nailed down almost perfectly. Set in the mid-1990s, strolling into the Greenbriar's living room you'll find The X-Files circled in bright red marker on the TV guide, while finding numerous Bratmobile badges strewn about the house, along with plenty of Riot Grrrl cassette tapes, courtesy of Kaitlin's sister, Sam.
In many ways, Sam is as much the game's main character as Kaitlin is. Reading certain notes, or playing different recordings will trigger another section of Sam's diary, voiced incredibly well by actress Sarah Grayson. Finding out what happened is slowly revealed to you as Sam reflects on school, her life, and her relationships, which all go back into steadily feeding your desire to learn more about the house and its inhabitants.
It's the quality of the writing that is perhaps the game's most important element. Few characters, in any game, come together as well as Sam does. Her pithy remarks, and funny sense of humour are at odds with the growing concern, panic and fear that are experienced as you explore.
In fact, if it wasn't for the physical act of moving room to room, Gone Home has just as much in common with interactive novels as it does actual video games. Even within its amalgamation of survival horror and adventure game elements, the most you're required to do is make note of a padlock code, or discover a few hidden alcoves marked on a hastily drawn map. Gone Home is a game that wants to be played, discovered and enjoyed, and it won't have any silly, anachronistic gameplay spoil the way you choose to explore the house.
While the main plot manages to stay engaging right up until the game's end, it's supporting strands don't always end with a satisfying conclusion. Kaitlin's mother and father each get some story to themselves but it doesn't evolve into anything particularly satisfying when compared to Sam's. This is especially apparent with the dad's story, which, depending on how you go about exploring the house, would seem to have a major impact on the overall narrative. However, like with the rest of the supporting cast it's quickly cast away when it's no longer needed. Gone Home is so intent on setting up Sam and her tale that some of the other elements can sometimes seem like little more than afterthoughts.
It's a fairly common argument made against videogames that they don't utilise all of their potential. Amidst shooters, fighters, and racers, there's very little room to take time to explore small, intimate, ideas. Well, Gone Home at least provides a response to that. It's about nothing more than exploring a house, reading notes and listening to people talk, and yet it manages to be just as enthralling as all the laser-gun fights, car chases, and punch-ups in the world.
In its effort to do so much with so little, it doesn't quite hit every note right, but by god does it come close.
Gone Home was released on August 15th for PC, Mac and Linux.
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