You’ve just arrived home from a year studying abroad in Europe – though the word “home” is a loose term for this place. You’ve never set foot in this house, as your family moved here while you were away; the only contact you’ve had with them over the year came in the form of random postcards. It’s after one in the morning, and no one appears to be home. A note on the wall from your sister warns you not to go poking around the house. Rather than waiting outside in the bracing chill of an Oregon rainstorm, you decide to look around for the spare key and make your way inside.
As you enter, you notice the massive foyer that still somehow belies the true size of this mansion. The lights flicker as you look around all the unpacked boxes and various clutter, hoping for any sort of clue of your family’s whereabouts. Rather than sitting around and waiting for someone to come home, you decide to do something a bit more proactive.
As you wander the house, you’ll come across all sorts of things: notes, letters, trinkets. Things that were supposed to be secreted away: a porno mag hidden underneath a stack of old books, a note from Sam to her friend Lonnie, a letter to your mom from her old dorm mate. Dresser drawers are unseated from their tracks, electronics appear to have been hastily removed from their home entertainment centers; the entire house is in a state of disarray and chaos, despite the complete lack of any presence inside it. This is a broken home in more ways than one, and discovering where exactly your family has gone is merely the root of a much larger problem.
But the main draw to Gone Home isn’t its fairly rudimentary mechanics, but rather its potent narrative and the organic way that it unfolds. Certain details that you’ll find at the start of your voyeuristic snooping will come full circle by the end, and none of the notes or messages that you find feel forced or unnatural, and are all incredibly well written.
And before you even have a chance to realize it, you’ll have a full narrative arc for every single member of the family, just by glancing at environmental cues. Each item, document, poster; everything carries weight within Gone Home’s mise-en-scene, and all provide detail and insight on the lives and personalities of these characters. Small touches – a series of sticky notes that exclaim “YOU CAN DO BETTER,” a mixtape with a local riot grrl band on it, or a couch fort in the living room – all mean something within the greater context of Gone Home’s narrative. Discovering those connections are some of the greatest moments in the game, and proof that this particular story couldn’t be told outside of the trappings of interactive fiction.
Video games have a tendency to focus on a macro scale: save the world, defeat the giant robots, embody the amazing, all-powerful magical being. They tend to drown out the notion that we can use video games as more than just power fantasies and hacky genre fiction. But every now and then, a game comes along to prove that interactive fiction has its place in the pantheon of expressive art. Gone Home is not only an important game in its own right, but is absolutely vital to the advancement of how we approach narrative in games, as well as the subjects we tackle.