Gone Home (**)

Two stars.

I’ve been avoiding Gone Home, because I wasn’t sure that twenty dollars was a reasonable price for what seemed, from the various descriptions I’d read, like a virtual real-estate agent. ‘Tour this amazing house! See the newly remodeled kitchen!’ is a hard sell at $20. And the game absolutely requires that you have no spoilers whatsoever when you begin playing, so you can’t turn to a summary of the game to make the decision for you.

Eventually, feeling like I was missing something important, I bought the game. I was basically correct: $20 is too much. It was only $10 worth of experience. I finished the whole thing in one sitting of about three hours, and the only real replay value it has is wandering the environments noticing all the little clever details. If you’re looking for renewable gameplay, this isn’t it.

I’m going to pretend, then, that I paid $10 for it, and then contributed another $10 to the game’s creators to encourage them to develop more games like Gone Home.

I mentioned that it’s important that you have absolutely no spoilers when you start playing Gone Home, so I’m going to cut here and continue afterwards. Seriously, if you think you might like a game where you explore a creepy house and gradually reveal a story, and you think $20 is within your price range, don’t read any further; just go play it.

The first standout feature of Gone Home, the thing that lingers in my mind when I think back over my experience, is the sense of directionless dread. I didn’t know what was wrong, or if anything even was wrong, but let’s face it: homosexual love stories often end in tragedy in popular culture, and lesbian love stories seem to nearly always end in tragedy. I don’t know why this is, but it’s such a common trope that the comments on Netflix for any LGBT movie with a happy ending are endless ‘OMG a lesbian movie without a tragedy!’.

So once I realized that it was a lesbian love story, I was primed for a tragic outcome, and that made every spooky pseudo-supernatural red herring the game threw at me all that much worse. By the end, I was convinced I would throw open a door and discover one of the characters had hung herself in a fit of teenage angst. That this did not happen left me with a nice warm feeling, a sense of benevolence that let me forgive the game’s various flaws.

The dread, in fact, created one of those flaws all by itself: you cannot run. You have no ability to move quickly; you plod from room to room as though you have all the time in the world. Which, of course, you do, but when the story took a turn that left me very very eager to get into the attic, suggesting that I might be just moments too late, this inability to run caused me to break right out of the world, and back into passive observer space. Katie, the protagonist, should be running now. She can’t, so I recognize that I’m playing a game.

Which is not to say I think the game needed a run modifier key, because that would lead to running all the time, everywhere, and the deliberate pace worked well for the first two-thirds of the game. There are moments, though, where I felt betrayed by the movement, where I feel like the developers could have enabled running just for those moments, possibly with a horror-movie-esque stumble and fall as the consequence. This seems like both a missed opportunity and an immersion-breaker, and the latter is a serious problem in a game that exists solely as a piece of immersive art.

The second standout feature of the game is that (aside from the ‘main’ story) it tells its stories in subtle ways, little bits of information that are meaningless alone but contribute to a larger whole. As I explored part of the house, I found a lost ticket stub tucked into a heating vent. I picked it up and saw the name of the band, and a lot of pieces fell into place. Oh, I see. So that’s what’s happening here. (I was wrong, but that’s another of the game’s clever narrative tricks: almost everything is a red herring, built up in your head to be more significant than it really is.) But this moment of realization was only possible because much earlier I’d encountered a room where I’d learned Dad’s musical tastes, and Sam’s musical tastes were spread all over the house. So this means Mom went to a concert… with who?

Nearly every item in the game is burdened with this kind of layered significance. I think I know where a trail is leading, but every single new breadcrumb could shift the trail’s direction, possibly precipitously. This is a level of sophistication in narrative control that I have literally never seen in a game before. It’s as though every moment is the ‘big reveal’ from the middle-end of Bioshock 1. Every single encounter with a new artifact in the game’s world forces you to re-evaluate everything that’s come before. It’s audacious in ambition and brilliant in execution.

Except. The main story of the game, which is only the ‘main’ story by virtue of being the story that gets a voice-over from a fairly talented actress, looks ham-fisted and obvious by comparison. I’m constructing a narrative of temptation, depression, betrayal and forgiveness around Mom, Dad, and even Great Uncle Not-Appearing-In-This-Film, but sister Sam doesn’t leave me with any room to build to my own conclusions. It’s a shame because the writing in the voice-over is quite good, and so is the acting, but it seems comparable to dousing your hundred-dollar steak dinner with Sriracha. The Holy Rooster Sauce is great, but you’re paying a hundred bucks for a masterfully-prepared steak that might as well just be a slab of ground round.

Ultimately, Gone Home’s failing is this: it is too good for its own scope. At the start, confronted with an empty house and no explanations, I’m weaving a dozen storylines in my head, trying each of them on, comparing them to the available evidence. The evidence is unsettling in the way it seems to support nearly any wild theory I’ve imagined, and soon I’ve got a handful of parallel stories I’m expecting to follow. Maybe the house is haunted. Maybe there’s been a suicide, or more than one. Maybe there’s been a murder. There’s the omnipresent storm outside, with warnings of floods: maybe there was a wild chase in the downpour, and someone drowned. All the electronics are missing from every TV, but videotapes abound; what’s on them? What wasn’t I supposed to see? Did that chair move while I wasn’t looking? Is there someone else in the house with me, who I’ll glimpse out of the corner of my eye? What’s in this old, dusty safe?

Unfortunately, by just past the halfway point, I’ve been forced to discard all those trailing pieces of story for one solitary narrative. I’m not allowed to escape with the sense that the house is haunted, or at least that it’s any more haunted than any old house. I’m not allowed to wonder at the whereabouts of anyone; I know where everyone is, and when they’ll return (if they’ll return). And the game’s vast palette of color is pared down to just one or two, where the first room of the house was every color imaginable. In that first room, anything could have been true.

It’s maybe asking for the impossible to want a game to sustain that sense of possibility; certainly it would have taken many many more man-hours of work to build the game that was implied by that first room. But I think it could be done, and it should be done; Gone Home seems like the storytelling version of a tech demo, a signpost pointing the way for a future game that will let me build the story in my head, picking and choosing pieces of narrative to fit my desired path, and then make that path real, bringing me to the ending I’ve been anticipating, rather than the ending that I’ve been led to.

I don’t think Gone Home is, as a game, worth $20. But as a guide towards a possible future of game storytelling? Yeah, it was $20 well spent.

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