A few months after its initial release, I reviewed Gone Home, a very divisive little game that I knew next to nothing about before playing. Despite my attempts at the contrary, I walked away from the game with a rather negative opinion of it. Not because of the subject matter or my bias against it, or the lack of traditional skill based gameplay or any one of those common criticisms that are brought up by some people. Rather, my problems come from the story itself, and seeing as how the game recently released on consoles, I figured now is as good a time as any to better explain why.
Gone Home Review
Platforms: PC(Reviewed), Mac, Linux, PS4, XBO
Developer/Publisher: The Fullbright Company
For all intensive purposes, Gone Home is about a young woman who returns to her home after being away for a year, discovering what happened to both her parents and her younger sister over the past year by exploring their home. It is a story largely told through the environment, notes scattered through the house, audio diaries, and what one infers from the house itself. So it is a very story based game but, what exactly it about? Primarily, it deals with a teenage girl in the 90s coming to terms with her lesbianism, and the general bad stuff that comes with it. It certainly is a unique plot for the medium of video games, one filled with a lot of detail and plenty of callbacks to a bygone time, but when I try to lay everything about the story out, I cannot see anything special.
The story is predictable, cliche, and failed to get me emotionally invested in its characters. I simply cannot figure out why I should care about these people who live pretty mundane lives, maintain a mess of a home, and are going through a series of trope riddled problems. I don’t have any reason to care about the struggles of a teenage girl who is going through a problem that is eye rolling in an amount of overzealous drama, or a struggling writer of a father who lost his job as a reviewer because he didn’t listen to his editor. The only parts of the story I found to be truly interesting were the ones shrouded in mystery, such as the remnants of a seance found in a hidden passageway under a stairwell, or a few minor environmental details, such as the cover art for SNES games that I unfortunately found more appealing than the game I was playing.
Then there is the ending, which I suppose may seem to be thematically appropriate, but it originally struck me as cutting the game off partway through, and now I see it as a very dark ending that is driven by teenage angst and stupidity, throwing one’s life away in pursuit of love. Maybe this is because I know of someone who did a similar thing, and now they’re homeless, living in a car with her husband. As a whole, I felt like I gained nothing by playing the story, that whatever curiosity I had would never be followed up on, and I spent a lot of time hearing a sob story about people who are never actually seen or met throughout the story.
However, it is entirely possible that I am simply missing something. During my second playthrough I certainly did not find everything, I simply went through the motions of the story, picking up whatever clues came my way as I explored this mansion of a home, and there may have been some redeeming factors I did not come across on either of my playthroughs. That’s the biggest problem with environmental storytelling. In games, especially first person games, most players, including myself. are notoriously poor at picking up certain details, and need either a light shining on them or need to be presented in the center of something.
In Gone Home, you are exploring a cluttered home environment, one that has not been cleaned in quite some time, and it actually made navigating through this house all the more annoying. It is easy to spend minutes exploring a single section of a room, scanning for details and clues in the meticulously crafted world, and still miss something. You would only end up doing this if you are invested with the story, and while the story initially tries to grip the player by adopting a ‘dark and stormy night’ atmosphere to evoke a sense of horror, it’s pretty clear from one look at the UI, control layout, and controls themselves that there is nothing horrific going around, and based on your first note, you can tell that any dark twist would be a gauche and uncalled for narrative development.
I know that going out and saying that something is boring can often be interpreted as somebody simply lacking the mental capacity or genre savviness to understand a piece of media, but I really found Gone Home to be boring above all else. It relies too heavily on sympathy and an emotional connection to the familiarity of the story while not offering much nuance to this form of story, or at least any that helps Gone Home from feeling derivative. It is a story driven game where I had the most fun by looking at very detailed fake SNES cartridges and listening to 90s feminist girl rock blast through a cassette player.