Gone Home is a story told by the ephemera accumulated in a single house over the years: the many letters, sticky notes, reminders, school assignments, newspaper articles, journal entries, photographs, books, and mixtapes left in the wake of human life. A girl returns from Europe to an empty home and has only these leavings with which to discover the whereabouts of her family. Exploring the house, the player can uncover the story of mom, dad, grandfather, the previous resident, and, most centrally, little sister Sam.
Sam’s story is that of an adolescent lesbian, which is as far as I know a first in video game storytelling. The narrative of discovery allows the player to uncover fragments of Sam’s life as depicted in doodle-covered notes passed in class, pink demerits from the principal, and childish decorations in her bedroom. This is a story taken at the player’s pace — rushed or savored — and the gameplay is entirely exploratory. A couple of keys and safe combinations must be found before advancing, but there are no real puzzles.
Gone Home is a nugget of plot and theme that lasts a couple of hours at the most, and thus even a single misstep can be detrimental to the overall experience. Many of the artifacts in the house are believable pieces of a family’s life. Sam’s notes, for example, closely resemble things I’ve seen my little sister write at about the same age. Other texts are less realistic, and some are far too on the nose. Overall, there are a few genuinely touching details, but there are problems with the the lack of nuance, the story’s artifice, and its conclusion.
Gone Home’s primary weakness is its attempt to appeal to the masses despite trying to tell the story of an outsider. Sam’s story is prohibitively generic, limiting its success and effectiveness to a select group of people; namely those that are brought up a certain way, who live a life most consider normal by American standards. This life, depicted so often in film, television, novels, and most commercial art, is lived by so few. Human life is more varied than entertainment would have us believe. While Gone Home avoids most of the usual damning cliches, the brilliance of authenticity is absent. As a homosexual, I was alienated by Sam’s story.
That’s not to say I was unaffected, as there are a few powerful moments. Unfortunately, the artifice by which Sam’s story is delivered is a bit strange. In order to make the story more affecting, Sam’s journal entries are given voice (quite well acted, too). This could be understood as the protagonist “hearing” the words in her mind, but the journal entries appear as if from nowhere. The protagonist doesn’t discover her sister’s journal until the end of the game, creating a strange disconnect.
Finally, the narrative’s conclusion is troublesome from a storytelling perspective. The penultimate development in Sam’s love story is more effective than the last. In a game like Gone Home, the authenticity of reality needs to be maintained for full effect, but the conclusion breaks that by being unrealistic.
Uncovering the lives of the other family members is like undertaking free-form side quests. The protagonist’s dad has an up-and-down writing career, for example, and a letter from his father tells him that he can do better. Again, not all the fragments of these stories are believable, but the way that they accumulate in the player’s mind during exploration is compelling.
Gone Home tries to tell a story about real human beings, but only manages to tell a story about those similar, yet distant automatons that inhabit the realm of fiction. Gone Home partially succeeds, and I don’t doubt that many people will be moved by its quietly dramatic story. If Gone Home were a short story instead of a video game, it would be nigh worthless, but since it’s a game that puts the player into the story, many gamers will find themselves reflected somewhere within Sam’s house. This is the type of human story that will further video game storytelling, but that makes Gone Home’s failures all the more difficult to bear.
Gone Home will make some players feel as if they’re returning home, but I never lived there.