When I'm alone in someone else's home, I really can't help myself: I peek in the fridge, take a look in the medicine cabinet, and if I'm feeling particularly brave maybe I'll even root around in a drawer or two. Gone Home is a game that takes these voyeuristic tendencies and turns them into a game mechanic. The entirety of Gone Home involves searching a sprawling, empty home in order to find out what happened to its residents. You'll analyze journals and scan receipts, slowly piecing together events over the course of a few hours. On paper, it's just about the dullest-sounding game imaginable. But in practice it's a stunningly emotional story told almost exclusively through the environment.
Gone Home puts you in the role of a young American college student who has just returned from a year-long European adventure. Your family moved into a big new home while you were gone, but when you arrive at the front door both your parents and sister are missing. There's a note taped to the entrance from Sam, your younger sister, urging you not to go looking for her. Naturally, all this does is make you even more curious.
That's all of the setup Gone Home provides. The entire experience hinges on whether or not you find it compelling enough to investigate further. Gone Home's story reveals itself slowly, and much of it is inferred. You learn that your dad is a struggling author when you spot a box of unsold books in a closet and an empty liquor bottle hiding on a top shelf. Your sister's difficulty at her new school comes to light through letters from the principal and notes passed back and forth with a classmate. Every so often you'll be able to listen to Sam read excerpts from her diary, further fueling your interest in learning just what happened while you were away.
"Your mind fills in the gaps better than we could."
At no point do you actually see these people, yet over the course of the game you really feel like you know them. And not just as one-dimensional characters — the struggling author, the troubled high school student — but as real people. "At one point we discussed, and even prototyped, having another character show up as a surprise," says Steve Gaynor, from developer The Fullbright Company. "But in the end it just wasn't right for the game. In a video game, I think that on some level it's much easier to connect with a character that you never see face to face; the voice and their presence in the world is that much stronger for you never actually having to be in the same room with them. Your mind fills in the gaps better than we could."
Gaynor previously served as the lead designer on "Minerva's Den," an add-on story campaign for Bioshock 2 that shares a few similarities with Gone Home. You play as a silent character from a first-person perspective, and your interaction with other people largely comes from audio clues. They may be drastically different thematically, but Gone Home almost feels like a Bioshock game with all of the violence and traditional video game challenges stripped away. It's like if you were able to explore Bioshock Infinite's floating city Columbia without having to worry about shooting dudes in the head.
Gone Home is also something of a period piece. It's set in 1995, and the plentiful references to that time will definitely spark the flames of nostalgia for players of a certain age. You'll come across a TV Guide with an episode of The X-Files circled in pencil, and you can pick up cassettes loaded with Riot Grrrl music, pop them into a tape recorder, and rock out. All of these small details help make the house in the game feel like a home; a real place where real people live. The letters and scraps of paper scattered about don't feel like they were left there for you to find; they just feel like they should be there.
All of these small details help make the house in the game feel like a home
"I think most of it is implying a believable space — that yes, the foyer connects to the east hall connects to the family room connects to a closet," says Gaynor. "And that any individual room you're in is believable when you stand in it. But if you were to compare the house in Gone Home to a real, lived-in space, you'd find much much less clutter in the game vs. reality. But as long as it reads as believable in the moment, no one is actually doing that side-by-side comparison while they play, and they stay in a mindset of the place being real."
The game is the first release from the small, Portland-based studio, and it's something of a risk: it features no weapons or violence, little in the way of traditional gameplay, an almost entirely female cast of characters, and story elements that fall outside the norm of most mainstream video games. (I won't spoil them here, but you should definitely play the game through to the end.) And that's exactly what the team was aiming to do. "We hope that some people who are tired of those things, or who never connected with games in the first place, might get into Gone Home specifically because it's different," says Gaynor.
Gone Home is available on Steam now for Windows, Mac, and Linux.