Spoiler Alert: This is a great game.
Gone Home is what I like to call a First Person Experience. This is a term coined, (I believe), by the guy who made ADR1FT. (BTW, that whole thing pisses me off. They spent years building up how fucking awesome ADR1FT going to be on the Xbox One and then, oops! Fuck all of you who wanted to buy this game for the One, we're launching it on the fucking Rift and now it's fucking canceled for the One. Fuck you. Yeah, I'm kind of bitter, whatever.)
In Gone Home, you are Katie, a college student who has been overseas for the past year, studying abroad. You arrive at your family's new home, an old mansion they inherited, late at night during a rainstorm. Your family is missing. Where have they gone? Why? You must search the mansion to discover the truth.
Now, I feel like I have to first talk about the 'controversy' surrounding the game. Some of it might have a foundation to stand on, most of it doesn't. Let's address that second one first.
I've come across a lot of negative reviews bitching and moaning that this game gets a lot more respect and praise than it deserves simply because it has a female protagonist with an LGBT plot and that they were pandering. First thing, I don't believe they were pandering. I believe they had a story they wanted to tell and told it, simply put. And if there were any unwarranted boosts to Gone Home's praise by people rating it good or upvoting it simply because it had a female protagonist or an LGBT plot, then I promise that the amount of furious, mouth-frothing hatred it received for those same exact reason far, far outweighed it. And again, even if they were pandering, so fucking what? Basically all video game companies pander. Only, for some reason, people only get pissed when the pandering isn't to straight white dudes?
The second big criticism I see is that the game did not offer enough gameplay to warrant the 20$ pricetag. And...yeah, okay, I get that actually. I balked briefly at dropping a twenty on the game since I'd heard it had about two hours of gameplay to it, but only briefly. I ended up buying it for the Xbox One and I enjoyed it immensely. However, as much as I really am for supporting the developer and ensuring that those that work hard and bust ass producing content get paid and rewarded appropriately for it, I do think that maybe this should have been 10$, 15$ tops. I mean, at a stretch, and I mean a stretch, if you do everything in the game, you could probably squeeze maybe five hours out of it. And that includes listening to all the developer's commentary. Which I did, because I liked it.
There's also a third criticism I've seen a lot and it is this: people arguing that Gone Home isn't actually a game. Now, we can sit here and debate what constitutes a game. Personally, I believe that Gone Home is a game, but the bottom line is: Who cares? No one's making you buy it, no one's trying to trick you into buying it, or if they are you shouldn't let them. If you don't think that you are going to enjoy this game, then don't buy it.
Like it's literally that easy. Let people enjoy Gone Home for fuck's sake. Stop pretending like you're doing a 'good thing' by 'warning people' about the game when in reality your hatred comes from some kind of bigotry.
Also, to cover my own ass: I don't think that if someone criticizes this game I automatically think they are wrong or homophobic or anti-LGBT. Valid criticism is always welcome and even necessary for growth and improvement. If you hate or even just aren't interested in Gone Home for being a walking simulator, then that's fine.
Basically, watch this video by Jim Sterling to encapsulate a much more articulate and well thought out version of my ideas. Seriously, it's a great video and makes some really good points.
Okay, that's out of the way.
To get right down to business, I will say that yes, Gone Home is really more about the experience than the gameplay. The gameplay itself is very simple: You walk around and you interact with things. Gone Home appeals to people who enjoy exploration, though. I mean, it basically just puts you in a big house and lets you loose with very little instruction.
There are some locked off areas, though, so you can't just immediately go everywhere. And there's a narrative to the whole thing. There's two actual goals, the broader one is to find out where your family is and what they've been doing the past year while you've been gone, the more specific one is to find your way up into the attic.
So, I'd heard about this game a lot and I even somehow got it on my Steam account. (I still to this day don't know where it came from.) But I couldn't play it, much as I tried. (Shitty laptop.) So I thought I was just fucked. Then I realized it was coming out on the Xbox One back in January 2016. I waited the couple of weeks and then grabbed it. By the time it was downloaded and I was all ready to play, it was pushing like three thirty, almost four in the morning. But fuck sleep, I was going to start playing this game immediately.
One of the first things I noticed was that the game was pinging my horror instincts. I kept expecting to turn around and there would be someone or something there, ready to jump on me the moment I noticed it. I mean, the game has the perfect environment for it: you're all alone and completely defenseless in a big, old mansion in the middle of the night with a heavy thunderstorm going on. But that was only because I'd played so many horror games and had grown to expect it. Eventually, I got past it and started to simply enjoy the environment for what it really was.
By the time about an hour had passed, I realized that I was getting so tired that I had to stop, because it was interfering with my ability to comprehend and enjoy the game. Let me tell you, that sucked. I did not want to stop. But I did. And when I got up the next day, I went right back to it and played until I beat it. Then I went through it again and picked up any achievements I'd missed. Then I went back through it again and listened to all the commentary from the creators of the game. There was a lot and it was basically all awesome to listen to.
Although I have to say, the guy who made the soundtrack, Chris Remo, his commentary came off as way, way too distant and wooden, like he was reading off of a script. Very mechanical.
Speaking of the soundtrack, it's awesome. I ended up buying a digital copy of it and it's pretty rare that I buy soundtracks. It's a great, low-key ambient original soundtrack and the game wouldn't have been nearly as good without it. At least for me.
Let's talk about the year the game is set in.
Gone Home takes place in June of 1995. June 7th at 1:15 in the morning, to be specific. The creators said that they did this because 1995 was, in their mind, kind of the end of an era before the internet and cellphones became very prevalent and the plot would become a little more impracticable. And that makes sense to me.
But beyond this convenience, I think it really helps to enhance the sense of nostalgia that the game is meant to exude. And I mean it's all there, from the old SNES games (although for me N64 games would be more appropriate), to the pillow fort in the living room to the empty pizza boxes and soda cans lying around to the TV Guide and the stack of VHS tapes. Walking through the house and finding all this stuff is almost like walking through a slice of the past, frozen and preserved, waiting to be examined.
And to make the game even better, you aren't just looking for information on your sister. Your parents are missing, too. And there's a whole treasure trove of personal information waiting for you, and it's kind of easy to get lost in this game and feel like this is your life, and the game examines some uncomfortable and, sometimes, honestly ugly emotions and situations. And you end up learning more about your family than probably you really wanted to.
So, let's get into the specifics of the game.
At its core, Gone Home is a horror game...just not like you'd expect. There are no jump scares. No monsters. No scary guys with knives coming after you. Really, except for some well-timed randomly generated lightning strikes and some creepy rooms in the basement (one creepy room especially) and one minor jump-scare where a lightbulb bursts (I wouldn't be able to help myself either, if I was designing this game), all the horror is experienced secondhand. And even then, it's not all horror. But it is a different kind of horror.
Gone Home is about the isolating nightmare of being 'not normal', of being 'confused', of being an outsider. It's a story about being a homosexual in a world where that's not only misunderstood, but hated. I'd like to say we're not there anymore, but that isn't even close to the truth. We have made strides, as a society, in getting the fuck over homophobia, but it's still far too prevalent for anyone to claim it's been dealt with.
In Gone Home, you find journal entries from your younger sister, who's still in high school. She's kind of awkward, she's clearly got some self esteem and attitude issues, and she resents being forced into a new town, a new house, and a new school. Then, not long into the new school year, she meets someone. A girl named Lonnie.
You get to read about how their friendship grows into something more, and the sad, painful realities of what happens when people at school and her parents find out. And the even sadder reality of what happens when a relationship grows very unexpectedly, and you are forced to choose between the plans you had for yourself in life...or to give it all up for the relationship.
Your parents aren't great people either, it turns out. Your dad is a miserably failed writer and a backsliding alcoholic who has difficulties letting go of his strangely intense obsession with a time-traveling spy and JFK. He wrote two books in the series and they failed, and then apparently he just refused to write ANYTHING else for like twenty years? What the fuck? Just write something else. That aspect of his character bugged me a lot. I couldn't imagine writing only two books in two decades, it'd drive me insane.
There's clearly tension between your parents, as you find evidence of your mom, who is much more active and social and works at a state park, trying to get your dad to go out and do stuff. And then you find further evidence that she might have cheated on him. And clearly the tensions between your parents and your sister were rising. Especially when they begin to suspect that maybe their daughter might be interested in another woman.
Really, there's just so many little things you can find: notes and receipts and journal entries and items that help paint this picture. You really have to piece together a lot for yourself, and even then, you don't really get any definitive answers. Well, you do find out where your sister and your parents are, but when it comes to some of the background stuff, you're really just left wondering.
If you think you'd like a two hour interactive experience, then go buy Gone Home! I definitely recommend it.
And I'd be remiss if I didn't plug my own fan fiction novelization of the game. I had a lot of fun writing it and I think (hope) that I got the spirit of the game right.