On May 15, 1995, I learned a life lesson in disappointment. I was a high school junior, skipping an afternoon class to go out for lunch with my best friend. Someone had left behind a Boston Globe on the table and we flipped through it to the entertainment section to read that My So-Called Life—a TV show we loved to the point of obsession—had been cancelled. A few months earlier, when this unflinchingly realistic portrayal of high school life was pulled from primetime after only 19 episodes, we had written letters to the network and circulated a petition around school that picked up a few hundred signatures. (We weren’t that crazy; teens were doing the same all over the country.) But in the end, network executives decided that the American viewing audience just wasn’t that interested in a real, raw look at the secret lives of teenagers.
Gone Home, an indie production from the four-person team at The Fullbright Company, is not a retelling of My So-Called Life, but I have to think the developers were fans. Set in June 1995, Gone Home is a story game that peeks into the interrupted lives of a Portland-area nuclear family, the Greenbriars, who seem to have vanished from their house in a hurry. As you piece together the mystery of their disappearance, the game addresses many of the same real-life issues MSCL so deftly explored: the frustration and isolation of being seventeen, the confusing pangs of first love, and even “grown up” problems like keeping a marriage alive when both parents have drifted apart, all through an LGBT lens that never would have been okay on network television two decades ago. Gone Home tells a story that feels true as you discover it, one that anyone who grew up in the '90s (and, really, anyone who’s ever been a teenager) will relate to in some way.
Without giving away the nuances that make it so compelling and touching, Gone Home’s basic story is this: Katie Greenbriar, a high school graduate who’s just spent a year backpacking in Europe, returns home after midnight to find her family’s house locked up and apparently empty. An ominous note left by her younger sister, Sam, suggests that something bad has happened and implores Katie not to go looking for answers. Upon entering the house, you soon learn that the Greenbriar family moved here the previous autumn, and you'll begin to uncover notes, receipts, newspaper clippings, and other items “just lying around” that fill in the blanks about the ten months they’ve lived here.
In Gone Home, you don’t solve puzzles. There are no action sequences, no dialogues between characters, no use-this-on-that inventory, no cutscenes. This game’s sole pastime is exploration. You start at the threshold of a huge, empty house and by the time you’ve moved through all of its rooms, you’ll understand the lives of the people who lived here, what happened to them, and where they’ve gone. Because Katie embarked on her trip before the move, she’s never been in this house, so she and the player discover each room together for the first time. But because Katie’s a member of this family, she has full permission to go wherever she wants, read notes left behind, and rifle through dresser drawers. It’s a smart setup that resolves the usual adventure game conceit in which players are expected to embrace being a voyeur, a kleptomaniac, and a stranger without a past.
The exploration-only gameplay may sound passive, but it doesn’t feel that way, because you’re the person initiating the search. Gone Home is largely non-linear and you explore the roughly 25-room house at your own pace, deciding which rooms to enter, which lights to turn on, which drawers to open. Much of the story is told through the environment and the objects you discover, with a basic timeline established through the dates on scribbled notes, discarded school papers, and snail mail. Some items you obviously need to find before the story can progress, but there are actually very few of these. Most of what you do is “optional”, meaning you could finish the game without it, but these optional discoveries have a cumulative effect and the designers have done such a good job of making you care about the characters that you’ll want to keep looking. Interestingly, as I got closer to the big reveal at the end, I became even more meticulous and thorough in my exploration. The more I knew, the more I wanted to know.
Katie and Sam are only three years apart in age, and Fullbright has done a convincing job portraying their relationship as sisters and confidantes. Even though Katie’s alone in the house, Sam communicates with her via audio diaries that narrate key events of the past year. These break the fourth wall, with Sam’s disembodied voice triggered by the discovery of certain objects, but the writing is so good and the story so well told that I had no problem suspending disbelief. Anyone distracted by the diaries’ lack of realism in this otherwise true-to-life game can turn them off in a “modifiers” menu available at the start of a new game, but I don’t know why you’d want to. Sam’s audio diaries are the crux of Gone Home’s story, introducing a conscientious teen coping with the turmoil of adolescence in a very real way and presenting a strong bond between sisters, even if we only ever hear one side of it.
Beyond Sam's occasional voiceover, Gone Home is a quiet game with an unobtrusive soundtrack and ambient audio that supports the realism. Your exploration is accompanied by subtle mood music that's often drowned out by the thunder and rain beating outside the house, but this ramps up during the audio diaries to suit the emotions Sam is reliving. Then there’s licensed music that you have access to throughout the game—tracks from real “riot grrrl” bands Heavens to Betsy and Bratmobile, which you can listen to by inserting tapes into cassette players around the house. This is the music Sam listens to: loud and angry, it’s the perfect representation of her pent-up angst. It’s also appropriate to the time period (the riot grrrl movement was central to the Portland music scene in the early '90s) and it has contextual ties back to the plot. You don’t have to hear it at all if you choose not to, but popping in those tapes gives a little more insight into Sam’s life, and it’s this sort of carefully placed detail that makes the game so believable. I did experience a couple of crashes that seemed related to playing these tapes, however, so I urge players to save the game first just in case (a process that, unfortunately, requires quitting to the main menu and reloading).Continued on the next page...