You arrive at the doorstep of a mansion. Your parents recently moved there with your kid sister but you are seeing it for the first time because you have just arrived from your backpack trip across Europe. It’s dark, stormy, and the place looks like it’s been ripped out of a King novel (one of the good ones). No one is home. The lights flicker. The TV is on but it’s just white noise. You enter the house looking for signs of your family.
It’s difficult to talk about Gone Home without venturing into spoiler territory. The game, if you insist on calling it that, is all about the story. There are no controls to speak of, no inventory to rifle through, no health meters, no reflexes are required, your amazing hand eye coordination is meaningless, and there is nary a weapon in sight.
Ah, so it’s an adventure game!
No, it isn’t.
There is no “adventure” here, either; at least not in the typical way we tend to view adventure games. There are no “puzzles” to solve, no riddles to think your way through and no dialogue options from which to choose. If you thought a game like The Waking Dead was devoid of actual game mechanics then Gone Home will feel like a school project.
But that’s part of what makes the “game” work. In Gone Home you are merely along for the ride; a passenger on a ghost train that only reveals itself as you muddle your way through a seemingly abandoned mansion one room at a time.
Is that enough? Is sitting down in front of your PC for two hours (literally) and piecing together an interesting story worth your $20? We like to debate the merits of “value” of a game when discussing its critique and while I still strongly believe that price has no place in the evaluation process of a game, (then again neither do stars, ratings, or any other ridiculous measuring stick) but in this specific case you need to at least know what you are getting into.
Gone Home is short – two hours short, but that’s somewhat irrelevant. More than that, the writers know you are playing a videogame where you are wandering alone inside in a spooky abandoned mansion that looks like it should be a terrifying place to wander around alone – it plays on that emotion at every possible turn. And this is where it’s difficult to really talk about Gone Home without giving anything away, and I do think you should play the game, which is really all a “used to be game critic” can offer, right? I’m glad I played it, but I’m not nearly as happy that I spent $20 to do so.
That said, the writers and designers of this game deserve great praise for their ability to tell an engaging story via spoken dialogue (journal entries), sound effects and music, Post-It notes, and by strategically placing mundane objects around the house that help you slowly piece together what happened to the family that lives there. It’s an amazing achievement that the writers can tell such an emotional story via post cards, letters, and travel brochures. As far as pure storytelling is concerned Gone Home is equal to and in most cases is far superior to anything you see in today’s so-called blockbuster videogames. Of course since the game is all about the narrative – it better be damn good or it simply won’t work.
But I can’t help but feel a little manipulated by Gone Home. Not because of its length or its lack of any real gameplay, but because it knows…the game knows I play videogames and it knows it IS a videogame and it takes that fact that uses it against me; when you strip that away you are left with a sad, emotional and ultimately wonderfully told story trapped inside a mediocre game.
6 thoughts to “Gone Home Review”
Well Portal was $20 and only 2-3 hours long as well, but at least that had the total package of amazing gameplay and a tight story seamlessly woven into it. Plus, you know, custom maps.
I’m torn. I feel like I should play this game, but I’d be lying if I said $20 didn’t sound steep based on the length and type of experience it is. I might have to wait for a sale on this one, but my wife wants to play it, so that may be irrelevant.
I’m glad you wrote something up, Bill. I was wondering what you thought of it after you tweeted that you finished it.
The game doesn’t get another chance for a first impression but I’m wondering what you mean by, “the game knows I play videogames and it knows it IS a videogame and it takes that fact that uses it against me; when you strip that away you are left with a sad, emotional and ultimately wonderfully told story trapped inside a mediocre game.”
What did it use against you?
I think Gone Home’s lack of “gameplay” really exposes the emptiness of the concept itself as a device for understanding how a player interacts with a video game. Let’s do a thought experiment that would satisfy the “game” purists. Take the same story and put puzzle locks on all the doors, with some comment somewhere about Oscar being a bit of an eccentric. Then you’d have a Professor Layton clone and (more importantly) you’d repeatedly forget what was supposed to be going on in the story.
From a design standpoint such gameplay would exist primarily to slow the player down rather than engage more deeply with their emotional or intellectual capacity. From a AAA studio this would all be crucial to prevent claims that the game was too short, wasn’t a “game” etc. Certainly these complaints result in lost sales.
What Gone Home brings that most other games do not is that I was completely inside the place of the game world. A video game is ultimately something that happens inside my brain due to the game’s systems. Focusing on my interaction with the game’s systems instead of what happens inside my brain is an analytical shortcut which risks missing something important that might be outside the scope of the systems per se.
So if you like, the “gameplay” of Gone Home is the process of piecing together the lives and meanings of these 6 very special characters, rather than the light game-y glaze of collecting keys and whatnot. In that sense the game has a lot more duration that it appears, since the thinking and discussion extend well past the closing credits.
Sure, other forms like movies or novels can also have this kind of implicit storytelling element with things to figure out. Which is fine with me since I’m not averse to blurring the lines between video games and other forms. Gone Home is successful enough to help make the case that more and better storytelling can be brought to the medium, and that we shouldn’t let obsolete notions of what makes a “game” and what makes it “good” get in the way of that.
Fair enough, I’m right with you on expanding the notion of what a “game” means. It just feels like $20 is a bit steep. Then again, that’s about what a DVD costs right? I guess you could think of it like a good film that you’ll be discussing with your friends afterwards.
I thought it was a really well told story, and I wasn’t expecting any deep game play systems. That said, I wish I had spent $4.99 or $9.99 instead of $19.99 on it. If I knew what I was getting into ahead of time I would have waited for a sale. Not everyone will feel the same about their $20 as I do though.
I like the concept of the game. The way you interact with it and all that. But I feel that 20 bucks is a bit crazy, especially because I have more time in something like To The Moon, which is also fairly short, even Lone Survivor. Though I’d like something in the same manner of Gone Home, but implemented on a bigger scale. Come on, Silent Hill style town, you’re alone and gotta explore the area, that sounds pretty awesome.