The Insight: Gone Home, Retro, Then Much More

How a game with a retro feel mirrors the way we are now, or rather, the way we could be. Writes the author, “It feels honest and sincere and refreshingly free of hipster posturing and ironic detachment.”

By Jeremy Voss

You don’t need much. In fact, this is all you should know before you start playing Gone Home:

It is early June, 1995.  You are 20-year-old Kaitlin Greenbriar, the eldest of the two Greenbriar daughters. You’re excited to return home after a long European adventure.  Home will actually be a new place for you – your family moved into a new house while you were away.  But when you arrive, iIt’s the middle of the night. A terrible thunderstorm looms outside … and nobody’s home.  There’s just an ominous note on the front door from your younger sister, saying that she’s gone and that she doesn’t want anyone looking for her.

From here, your monumental task is to not only explore the house. You have to find out what happened.

Gone Home is a first-person exploration game; there are no enemies, no time restrictions, no punishments or penalties.  Like an early Roberta Williams game updated for a trip in time back to the 1990s, you are exploring a house – not an ancient cavern, not a hidden tomb, not a rocketship.  The clues you uncover as you open desk drawers and file cabinets are handwritten notes, concert receipts, business correspondence.  It is hard to explain why something that sounds this mundane could be so compelling, but I found myself utterly enthralled right from the very beginning, as I tried to figure out how to unlock the front door.

The game is a success on a wide variety of levels.  First, it features one of the most well-developed and fully realized lead female characters in game history – Sam, your younger sister, who is voiced brilliantly by Sarah Grayson.  Indeed, the success of Sam as a character is making me rethink my position on the tired trope of audio diaries as exposition.  (Exhibit A: Bioshock Infinite.)  I’m a 37-year-old man, but I found myself relating to Sam over and over again; I knew girls like her in high school – hell, I’ve felt a lot of what she feels, to the extent that all teenagers, regardless of gender, go through the same sorts of things – arguments with parents, feeling out of place, realizing that your childhood friendships don’t carry the same weight, feeling a deep connection with someone for the first time.  The game stirred up memories and emotions that I hadn’t felt in years.

And it’s not just Sam’s character that stirred this stuff up for me – it’s that the game takes place in 1995, and it’s immediately clear from the period detail that the game’s creators know exactly what this means, and what 1995 felt like.  (In fact, now that I think about it, I was the same age as Kaitlin in 1995.)  This is important, because 1995 was a time before iPhones and Facebook and Spotify.  If you wanted to communicate with someone, you passed them handwritten notes; if you wanted to share music with someone, you made them a mixtape, and you’d also probably draw an album cover for it.  In the absence of blogs, you’d create zines.  You’d go through a TV Guide and circle the shows you didn’t want to miss.

These are the sorts of things you will come across as you examine this seemingly typical suburban house for clues.  The game scratches a particularly wonderful itch – the need to scour every nook and cranny for hidden things.  And so, in this particular case, what makes this itch all the more powerful is that the things you’re looking for appear meaningless on the surface, but those objects clearly carry enormous weight.  I found one particular piece of paper crumpled up next to a hallway wastebasket.  Without spoiling anything, all I’ll say is that the note itself caught me by surprise and started to make my blood boil; and after reading it, I, too, would have torn it up and thrown it away in anger, not caring if it landed in the basket or not.

As you explore, you’ll find that there are actually three different narrative lines to pursue – that of your sister’s whereabouts, that of your parents’ whereabouts, and that of the house itself. That the game is able to make these stories so deeply moving and compelling – without any cut scenes or dialogue beyond your sister’s audio diaries – is what’s truly remarkable.  You learn about the inner lives of your closest family members through their stuff.

No one would say that Gone Home is a technical powerhouse; it is certainly not the prettiest game ever made. It’s not 60 hours long, either, and it’s not the sort of game that will hit the same highs on your second playthrough.  But in a time when AAA game budgets can run eight digits deep, and when thousands of people work on churning out yearly entries in blockbuster franchises that don’t offer anything more beyond simply offering more, the thing that makes Gone Home feel so special is that it feels real.  It feels cared for; it feels crafted.  It feels honest and sincere and refreshingly free of hipster posturing and ironic detachment.

More to the point:  it made me feel.  Deeply.  Each of the three stories are powerful in their own way – this amazing, very spoiler-heavy post at Clockwork Worlds about the house’s previous owner blew my mind, actually, as it made some connections that I hadn’t put together.  But the main journey in Gone Home is ultimately Kaitlin’s uncovering of Sam’s story.  Sam’s story is one of the most powerfully told and emotionally resonant stories I’ve ever played.  To say more would ruin it, of course, but that’s only half of it – it’s not just the story itself, but the way the story is told that’s so revelatory.  When I came to the end, I found myself in tears, with a big goofy grin on my face; it’s not just that I was satisfied with what happened, I felt like I’d helped.  I felt like a good older sibling, even if I was only a shoulder to lean on.

There are times when one has the urge to ask why videogames matter.  I can’t speak for everyone, but for me the answer is: they matter because they can do things like this.  They matter because it has been a long time since any game made me feel like this.  It matters because I didn’t know games could do this.  And now that I know that they can, well… that’s why Gone Home feels so important.

* * *

For further reading:

I’ve been playing games since 1982, and I’ve been writing about games since 2008 or so; in all that time, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen so many heartfelt responses to a game before.  These are very spoiler-heavy, but well worth your time if you’ve finished the game and want to keep falling down the rabbit hole:

Correlated Contents – Gone Home: Dramatic Irony and Other Stuff

Danielle Riendeau (Polygon) – Finding Someone Like Me in Gone Home

Russ Pitts (Polygon) – How The Unlikeliest Fan Found Himself in Gone Home

Merrit Kopas – On Gone Home

Clockwork Worlds – The Transgression: You Can Do Better

Cameron Kunzelman (This Cage Is Worms):  On Gone Home

Brendan Keogh (Critical Damage): Notes on Gone Home

Ben Abraham – Jump Scares and Ludonarrative Harmony

Mattie Brice’s Alternate Ending – Ghosts

Auntie Pixelante – Gone Home

Kimfully Delicious – You Can’t Always Go Home

Naomi Clark (Dead Pixel Co) – Not Gonna Happen

Jeremy Voss, a writer living in New  York,  is a member of the Circle. Read more of his games essays at Shouts from the Couch.  

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