Not that we’re anti-combat in videogames, but sometimes we wonder what kind of game Irrational might make if it had the option to shed shooting mechanics entirely. What if the component of BioShock Infinite that is exploring Columbia, speaking to Elizabeth and experiencing its twist-heavy story was the whole of the experience? What if the storytelling – the angle of the game we’re most interested in – was everything? Gone Home, made by a studio composed of former Irrational and 2K Marin staff, focuses entirely on environmental-driven narrative, and offers a richly compelling snapshot of what happens when such talented designers focus solely on this gameplay element.
The staff at Fullbright previously worked together on BioShock 2: Minerva’s Den, which was something like an episode from a long lost Rapture anthology, encapsulating all that’s remarkable about that franchise into one very personal-feeling microcosm. Gone Home offers an equally rich backdrop – the game is set exclusively in a Portland countryhouse, where Kaitlin, the eldest daughter of the Greenbriar family, has returned home to find her entire family absent. There’s a worrying note left by her sister, Sam. There’s a weather warning on the TV about the storm outside. Her parents aren’t there to greet Kaitlin. It doesn’t quite add up.
Entering the house, elements of the family’s history are drip-fed through notes, details in each room and props that create a stirring sense of mystery, as well as specific bits of voiceover narration from Sam that details her relationship with a girl called Lonnie. All forms of interaction in Gone Home are based around learning about and exploring this one environment, and uncovering the personal dilemmas of the other family members. You also learn about Kaitlin herself, reflected by what you find, so you never feel like an outsider looking in.
The elements of Gone Home are all familiar, then – documents and audio tapes from characters detailing their thoughts are commonplace in contemporary big budget games, but unlike the heavy-handed, time-wasting filler we’ve seen creep into certain titles, Gone Home is very specific with what it places within this house, and the order in which you can find them is equally important. The notes, letters and diary entries you find are not overwritten, rarely placed in an obvious fashion, while the detail within slowly puts together a picture of the residents.
You will learn about Kaitlin’s father and his struggles as a writer, or the key aspect of her mother’s day job that she’s dwelling upon. It’s all there, as a complete piece, waiting for you in the rooms of this house – but it’s Sam’s fascinating story of a very challenging young life that’s the main thread, here, and Fullbright manipulates your perception as to the true nature of that tale until the finale in a fashion that will likely see you complete the whole thing in one sitting.
The house. It’s a hard thing to perceive from just looking at the screens of a moody suburban home, but being there is unsettling in the way that Resident Evil 2’s police station was in 1998; lots of dread-invoking sound effects and signs of life in an abandoned locale. While Gone Home isn’t a horror game, it certainly crosses into that genre enough to leave you on edge, as well as questioning what’s really causing those frequent floorboard creaks from upstairs. The house isn’t completely open from the start, either, and exploring those initially locked areas offers genuinely scary moments as you investigate the history of the property, as well as Sam’s theory about an occupying spirit.
The Greenbriar’s house is gradually unlocked in a way that allows you to organically piece together the family’s story. That doesn’t just come in the form of rejection letters from the father’s publisher or Sam’s diary entries, either – the detail within the Nineties setting is as such that you’ll stop and read the stickers on the side of the Greenbriars’ recorded VHS collection (many clumps of The X-Files episodes), or enjoy fleeting references to Twin Peaks and music of the time. Props and choice cassette tapes telegraph that timeframe perfectly without overcooking it.
Subtlety pervades the entirety of Gone Home’s design – this is a well-written story that anyone who pays attention to the evolution of interactive narrative will appreciate. Like Minerva’s Den, Gone Home combines strong characterisation with an unpredictable plot over the course of about two-and-a-half hours, minus BioShock’s concessions to combat-hungry gamers. If nothing else, we hope Gone Home influences developers to think about the potential of story-driven games without depending on combat or traditional design ideas. It really can work – this is the evidence.
There’s no way a big publisher would ever see Gone Home’s subject matter as commercial, yet it broadens the potential remit of narrative in games in leading by example. Gone Home is the kind of work that will impress people who write off the medium because of the prevalence of guns in commercial titles. Its potential wider significance aside, however, the Greenbriars’ story is unforgettable.