Gone Home: Console Edition Review
Moment for moment, I don’t believe I’ve gotten more out of a game than Gone Home. Exploring the mansion on Arbor Hill took me less than three hours when I first did so back in 2013, rummaging through drawers and examining every loose knick knack in painful detail. Picking through the treasures and garbage of the Greenbriar family was engrossing, voyeuristic, and painted pictures of family teetering on the edge. A father obsessed with righting an unspeakable wrong, a mother lost in the throngs of infidelity, and a daughter struggling to finally love someone else and allow herself to be loved. Each room held a new piece of a larger puzzle and a new answer to the question: what happened?
You play as Kaitlin Greenbriar in Gone Home, recently home from a European vacation. You arrive at your family’s new home in Oregon on a July night in 1995. A note on the door from your sister, Sam, begs you to - please - not look for her. The family manor looks ransacked; cable boxes are stolen, bedrooms left in disarray, all while an oppressive darkness hangs within the house.
If there is one singular thing Gone Home is an absolute case study in, it is how to properly design a game space. With little more than the threat of something ominous, the invocation of basic horror tropes, and devilishly subtle conveyance, players will find themselves magnetically drawn from one plot relevant object to the next. Each offers a voice over from Sam that slowly brings the situation into focus, all the while guiding you through various subplots.
The moratorium for spoilers on this game has long since been broken and talking about it requires that we examine the ways in which developer Fullbright handles the game’s central plot. Sam is a lesbian experiencing her first true taste of romance and as we begin to understand her relationship with her paramour Lonnie, it becomes clear that she has run off and left her family behind. On a surface level, this plot is not revelatory. But we’re dealing with videogames here, a medium not necessarily known for mature, sensitive subject matter. While other games before it may have featured LGBTQ content, it was not necessarily a primary focus. Gone Home approaches the topic with a degree of empathy that was and still is remarkable for the medium.
I had complicated thoughts about Gone Home’s narrative, but reminded myself that I can’t rightfully think of a game that functioned explicitly as a coming out narrative before it. Let’s be clear as crystal here, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the presentation is without flaw. I believe Gone Home’s reputation as an important LGBTQ game is well deserved. However, the affair can be overly saccharine. Sarah Grayson’s vocal performance as Sam filters between amazingly affecting and something far too close to the content of an afterschool special and there are a host of environmental storytelling moments that come off as needlessly manipulative. I’m looking at you, bath tub.
These flaws prevent Gone Home from being a sort of perfect queer game. It didn’t need the melodrama to succeed. The proof exists right one of the aforementioned subplots: a tale of childhood molestation involving Sam and Katie’s father and their great uncle Oscar. There are times I wish that Gone Home left more of its central plot in the realm of implication rather than overt narration, if only because of how well Fullbright acquit themselves with this particular bit of writing.
I admit that, as a member of the LGBTQ community, I always find myself incredibly moved every time I play this game. I often wonder at what comes next - what is the next watershed game for us? And when it comes, will we be moved from Gone Home’s teenage years into a more raw and open adulthood?
If it sounds like I am judging Gone Home harshly here, perish the thought. This is a game by the people who made Minerva’s Den for crying out loud! This is a game that moved me to tears! This is a game that understands how to draw players into a space, how to make them care deeply for characters they might only know through bits of writing, and shows a deep craftsmanship that rightly earns it a place as an experience that you owe it to yourself to play. The cracks might be showing a bit more now in 2016 but Gone Home is a triumph of design work.
Everything fits together snugly. From the appropriation of riot grrrrl and zinester sensibilities and the soothing work of composer Chris Remo to the more traditional videogame accoutrements of vocal diaries and keycodes. Nothing feels out of place or extraneous. Certainly, nothing feels like it is done without purpose. This is a game forged by a team of experienced developers and it shows. Better, the process is given a wonderful degree of transparency in a series of developer commentary diaries that can be activated and listened to while you explore the game.
On a practical level, the console port is a bit less refined than what you might purchase off of Steam. I found myself tossing some items into oblivion and clipping through doors in ways that I would otherwise forgive if this wasn’t a title so concerned with verisimilitude. Gone Home understands full well that it is a simulation of a time and place and goes to great lengths to keep you there. It makes these minor porting issues noteworthy but not unforgivable. Just don’t balk if you find yourself pulled back into the real world if the simulation breaks down.
Before, if you told me that you hadn’t played Gone Home, you may have been forgiven for saying that you weren’t a PC gamer. Now? No such luck. The console edition of Gone Home is a generally solid port of an absolute must play. It isn’t a perfect game, but it is a game that managed to push itself to the forefront of an important dialog for the culture. If you don’t have this game in your Steam library already, you really should pick it up now. Let go of reservations and inhibitions and you will find a game that rewards you for caring as much as it does.
Heather Alexandra is a ZAM contributor whose work has also been featured at Paste Magazine, Kotaku, Unwinnable Weekly, and more. She can be found on Twitter at @transgamerthink or her personal blog, TransGamerThoughts. Heather hopes to one day become an air pirate and you (yes, you) are invited to join her crew!