Monday, March 8, 2021

Gone Home

When Gone Home first released in mid-2013, it received lavish praise from game journalists, including perfect or near perfect scores and several Game of the Year nominations. However, it also received a lot of backlash and, as a result, birthed the term “walking simulator”, a label used unironically by both developers and detractors. I didn’t play it when it initially released, but I did get it as part of a 2014 Humble Bundle, Humble Indie Bundle 12, and played it to see what all the fuss was about. It didn’t really click with me at the time, but I never wrote a review to express that. A few years later, I decided to take another look at it and see if my opinion had changed. Although I now have a better idea of what worked about it, I also have a much clearer idea of why I’m still not that big of a fan.

On June 7, 1995, Katie Greenbriar returns home from overseas to her family’s rural home in Oregon. However, she finds a note on the door from her sister Sam, imploring her not to investigate what happened inside the house. Undeterred, Katie enters the locked house and finds that she’s alone with no idea why. To find out, she begins exploring the house for clues.

Katie returns to her family's home in Oregon.

In a then-unconventional setup, Gone Home tells its story entirely through environmental narrative, with the developers taking great influence from their prior work on the Minerva’s Den DLC for BioShock 2. To discover the circumstances behind the disappearance of the Greenbriar family and the current state of the house, players must explore the environment and read notes or interact with other objects in each room of the house and piece everything together themselves. This system of narrative delivery can actually feel rewarding, especially when you discover some hidden details that lead either to more information or the occasional in-character joke.

To help facilitate the story, gameplay is rather minimal, consisting entirely of walking around and clicking on objects. Exploration also not only yields more story content, but lock combinations or keys that help players unlock more areas of the house. There’s also a backpack system that lets you view key items or read the diary entries you’ve listened to, as well as accessibility features that modify the experience to suit your skill level or let you listen to developer commentary.

Gone Home also has a good sense of atmosphere. Each room of the house is darkly lit, so turning on the lights helps greatly with visibility. However, even with the lights on, you don’t quite feel safe at first, with a constant thunderstorm outside and randomly creaking floorboards while walking around. It gives off this horror mystery vibe that really draws you in and makes you curious enough to explore the house.

There's a lot to explore within the house.

Unfortunately, for how well Fullbright thought out the central core of the game and furthered the concept of environmental narrative, the execution is rather lacking.

Some of the bigger issues actually go back to that great horror mystery atmosphere. I would have liked a full game in that genre, but about halfway through it’s more obvious that you’re actually playing through a teen romance drama involving Katie’s sister, Sam. Beyond the fact that the exact nature of this romance didn’t resonate with me (and good for you if it does), it feels disappointing when the answer to such a burning mystery turns out rather mundane. Plus, Sam’s final actions are presented as more or less inspiring, but on closer inspection are based on a huge leap of faith that’s not even guaranteed to work out. Also, while the diary entries are decently voice acted, the writing sounds a bit flowery at times and they last so long that while listening to one, I triggered another, which forcefully cut off the previous one.

Though the developers took great care in how they arranged their story breadcrumb trail so the player would experience a complete story arc even without looking into every detail, the placement felt unrealistic. Since the game bars you from advancing until you find the right keys, the developers control the pacing of the main story and put everything in a relatively straight line when, in reality, a messy house would mean you’d have to look everywhere for the full picture. In other words, Fullbright made a video game version of a novel.

I also noticed a couple gameplay issues, including a lack of a sprint button. Katie moves at a snail’s pace throughout the house, so if you want to go back to a previous area, it takes a little too long than it should, though I suppose that was so the player could hear Sam’s diary entries for as long as humanly possible. There also isn’t much in the way of replay value, unless you really want to go back and find even more items to interact with or want to hear developer commentary, since the core experience never changes on subsequent playthroughs. The game’s modifiers I mentioned earlier also include options like automatically unlocking every door, which has the side effect of allowing anyone to speedrun the game in under two minutes if they so desired.

The various modifiers available to the player.

To better explain how Gone Home fumbles on replay value and acknowledging player agency, I’d like to briefly mention The Stanley Parable. Apart from having clever and witty writing, The Stanley Parable solves both of Gone Home’s narrative issues with the inclusion of branching pathways and random events. Not only do these pathways offer a lot of replay value, they also take player agency into account and alter the narration based on the player’s actions. On subsequent playthroughs, the narrator’s exact dialogue can also change and the player may randomly see differences in the environment when they reset the game, which adds to the sense of discovery.

Perhaps the one true insult from Gone Home, however, is the price. There’s only around two or three hours of content tops when played normally, but it launched with an asking price of $20. At the time of this writing, Fullbright has since dropped it down to $15, but that’s still a bit much for what you get. I’ve seen it occasionally go on sale for $7.50, which feels like a much more reasonable price point for the content.

Gone Home’s core ideas are actually pretty interesting and it did help pave the way for a new development style, for better or worse, but its shortcomings make it difficult to recommend at full price. If you’re still curious and want to check it out, whether due to interest in the genre or its historical significance, then feel free to do so. However, I’d suggest picking it up during a sale or the rare opportunity when it’s free on one of its available platforms.

No comments:

Post a Comment