Sometimes it’s nice to have your expectations permanently jolted upward.
I’ve long pondered whether video games can really do storytelling as well as other media. While plenty of games tell stories as sophisticated as Hollywood bockbusters, full-blown, engaging, wrenching storytelling experiences seem to be few and far between.
That’s why I’m so glad I played “Gone Home,” a new first-person exploration game by the Fullbright Company, a Portland-based outfit.
You play as Kaitlin Greenbriar, a 21-year-old who has just returned from a year exploring Europe to your parents’ giant new house in Oregon — one you’ve never stepped foot in before. When you arrive, a foreboding note from your younger sister, Samantha, is taped to the front door.
“Katie,” it reads, “I’m sorry I can’t be there to see you, but it is impossible. Please, please don’t go digging around trying to find out where I am.” Inside, neither your sister nor your parents are home. As a violent thunderstorm pounds the house, you wander around, trying to piece together what has happened.
Luckily — and here is perhaps the only part of the game that doesn’t feel entirely true to life — notes and other bits of the family’s recent history have been left everywhere. There are letters and postcards and tickets stubs and other such evidence in every room.
As you explore, you gain more and more information about your family’s complicated dynamics — your father is an author of weird speculative fiction and your mother is a conservationist — and once in awhile you hear audio from your sister Sam’s journal that slowly pieces together her story line, which is the primary (and most compelling) one.
In a gaming landscape littered with plots that, for the most part, don’t match up to the fancy graphics they accompany, “Gone Home” is the rare exception. It grabbed me and many game critics in a way only the best movies and novels had before.
So why does it work so well? I’m going to do my best not to spoil the plot, because I really do think you should play this game, even if (or perhaps especially if) you’re not a gamer. So I’ll just say that it’s mostly because of the game’s emotional authenticity. We quickly get a richly personal sense of the main characters, and of the differences and disappointments that have begun to fester within the family. Given that this is a short game, it’s remarkable that by the time I picked up a snarky journal of Sam and her friend Lonnie’s ghost-hunting adventures — one in which Sam writes that she thinks she had had a brief conversation with a ghost upstairs, but it may have just been a radiator — I thought to myself, “Man, that is so Sam and Lonnie.”
Even though “Gone Home” deftly touches on a wide variety of subjects, from middle-aged frustrations to teen sexuality to underground music, it’s really about leaving childhood behind, about looking around and realizing that under the surface, everything about life has changed. The house itself represents this, in a way: It’s full of all of the trappings of comfortable domesticity, but at the same time it’s daunting (in part because of the weather and the circumstances) and completely unfamiliar, and playing as Katie you have no idea what to expect when you open a new door or round a new corner, no idea exactly what forces you’re up against. The half-unpacked rooms and closets still stuffed with moving boxes only add to the game’s intense emotional tone.
Then there are the countless notes between Sam and Lonnie, notes that will feel painfully familiar to those who remember embracing a certain cynical, offbeat affect during their high school years — an affect that makes it hard to take anything completely seriously (Lonnie to Sam in a postcard from Mexico: “You’d love Mexico, I think, probably.”). Postcards from you, Katie, are also littered throughout the house, and the way in which Sam’s writing style and sense of humor is like Katie’s, only more so, hits a common sibling dynamic head-on. (If you explore the house carefully enough, you’ll see the very different ways older and younger sister handled a sex-ed assignment.)
I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention the extent to which the Fullbright Company absolutely nails the period in which the game takes place. Though the two sisters are a bit older than I would have been in 1995, I, like them, grew up in a suburban house in the 1990s, and for me the game was a nonstop wave of nostalgia. From the Super Nintendo cartridges in Sam’s room to the videotaped recordings of “Silence of the Lambs” and episodes of “The X-Files” to the various band posters and the Trapper-Keeper-esque school folders, a huge amount of thought was put into the game’s setting.
But “Gone Home” doesn’t fall into the “Family Guy” trap of thinking it is clever simply for pointing at some cultural reference and saying, “Hey, remember this thing?” The world is so well-realized, rendered in such impressive detail (you can pick up a can of soup in the kitchen and read its nutritional information), it seems clear the developers were more interested in creating a believable setting than in scoring quick and cheap nostalgia points.
“Gone Home” is already a critical success, but it’ll be interesting to see how well it sells. Right now it costs about $20 online, which could be considered expensive for an experience that probably won’t last longer than a few hours (plenty of games cost the same and offer dozens of hours of playtime). And yet this is quite reasonable given the wonderful story and the high production values.
Whether the broader gaming public agrees is another matter, which raises the key question: How much do gamers value storytelling, after all?