Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Gone Home review - connecting the dots

If you have any interest in playing Gone Home, don’t read past this paragraph. Just go buy it and play it. It’s best played blind, without any pretense knowledge, and gives you an experience that can’t be replicated in movies, books, or other mediums.

It is 1:15 AM on June 7, 1995. You are Katie Greenbriar, just coming home on a dark rainy night from a year traveling through Europe. You arrive at the house, but no one is home. There is a mysterious and ominous sounding note on the door. Where is everyone?

As you make your way through the house, you’ll find old letters written by Katie’s younger sister Sam. Voiced by Sarah Grayson who comes off as natural and intelligent, Sam explains through audio diaries what’s been going on since Katie left. For me, this created an odd relationship between the two characters, Katie and Sam, where I was playing as Katie, but reacting to things as Sam, making Gone Home played as if from the second person perspective.

Despite that odd sensation, Gone Home is a first person exploration game in the same vein as Dear Esther. Using the Unity engine, when cranked up to highest quality it stuns with lighting and detail. Letters and notes are charmingly human with hand-written text, their personality bleeding through with the way the letters lean and slant. The inclusion of high-resolution textures gives even a crumpled up piece of paper on the floor a clean and crisp look that adds to the discovery element, making them alone almost worth the asking price of $20.

From start to finish, Gone Home will only take about three hours to complete. That might seem short in comparison to other games, but like a good book, its quality trumps its quantity. There’s little reason to evaluate works of fiction based on their length for value. No one I know goes to see a certain movie over another because it has a longer running time. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad is a classic for its story and themes, with its short length barely even a concern. Gone Home may be half the length of most games, but it’s dense and concise at what it attempts.

And what Gone Home attempts is a main mechanic of discovery. Almost everything inside the house can be picked up, examined, thrown, or put back in its place. Tissue boxes, pencils, books, and drawers all hold something that plays a part in the story, but not all of them are important. This simultaneously gives the house a real lived-in feel while also subverting Mise en scène, a French film term literally translated as placing on stage. It’s the idea that everything in a scene is meticulously placed and exists and for a reason. In Gone Home, that phone book in a drawer may have a phone number circled inside that is important, or it could just be a regular phone book.

Gone Home is in essence what I wanted Dear Esther to be. Besides exploration, there’s a sense of discovery as you make your way deeper into the house. Whereas Dear Esther relied solely on storytelling through observation, Gone Home instead leans the other way and presents a premise brimming with interaction. The more I interacted with objects, whether digging through old boxes or finding a hidden panel in a hallway, the more I wanted to dig through the house and learn more.

What makes these interactions compelling is the way they bring the player’s own thoughts and beliefs into the house, constructing an idea Gone Home may or may not follow through on. After finishing and discussing it with others, I was amazed at the various ways others thought the plot would conclude, despite all of us following the same, and effectively linear, path. Everyone’s experience was different. More so than any other medium, Gone Home takes your own interpretations and uses them to connect the dots of the narrative into something beautiful.

Games can give all kinds of different fantasies and experiences. I’ll never be a wizard trying to save the world from dragons, but games can offer a simulation of that and loads of other scenarios. Gone Home does the same thing, except it put me in the shoes of something much more real, grounded, and contemporary. In the Venn diagram of the world, few people will fit into the experience Gone Home offers. And with barely any hurdles for people who don’t normally play games, Gone Home is a game everyone can and should play.

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