Review: Gone Home
“Walking simulator” is probably one of the least appealing names of all the video game genres (though nothing beats “shmup”). That hasn’t stopped people from getting pretty excited about them, though. Gone Home is both one of the first games to earn the title and one of the most well-received. That’s why I chose it to finally see what the genre is all about.
You play as Katie, a young woman returning to her parents’ home after a yearlong trip abroad. The game opens as you arrive in an empty house, and you spend the two-hour playing time learning why it’s vacant.
As you might expect, there’s not much in the way of gameplay here. Walking around and inspecting items will be familiar to anyone who’s played an adventure game, but there’s very little puzzle solving. There is one nice touch, though: items are influenced by gravity as you inspect them, and this sometimes influences what you can see. It was a pleasant surprise to accidentally open an audio cassette case by flipping it upside-down and to find more detail inside. That said, the “gameplay” was mostly walking, opening doors, and turning on lights.
The game’s atmosphere has a lot of potential. It’s a creaky old house, and it’s raining outside. That may sound like a recipe for horror (and there are some creepy parts to it), but the overall feeling is more cozy than scary. Katie is returning home on June 6, 1995, and that era is apparent all over the place. Thanks to Katie’s kid sister (who is, of course, also absent), this comes through a teenaged lens: home-made X-Files VHS recordings, earmarked TV Guides, and grunge rock magazines. This struck all sorts of pleasure centers for a child of the nineties like me.
Unfortunately, the execution is a little rough. Lighting can be wonky, where some sources project through doors and some objects fail to cast shadows. Physical interaction, though limited, sometimes feels clunky. I somehow managed to permanently jam a dishwasher open (why I was messing with the dishwasher is beyond me), and I almost lost an item when it dropped through the floorboards. Audio spatializing is occasionally too severe (you might not be able to hear a radio at all unless you’re looking at it directly).
None of these problems are deal breakers–suspension of disbelief has always helped smooth over technical deficiencies in video games–but they put more stress on other aspects of the game to provide immersion. With gameplay being largely non-existent, that stress falls on the storytelling. Sorry to say: it’s not quite up to the task.
To reiterate, the premise of Gone Home is that you learn about a family by looking through their stuff. The effectiveness of that premise varies depending on the family member.
It doesn’t work at all for Katie’s mother, Janice. Her story is a one-dimensional narrative of a recent indiscretion. Her home has little evidence of her values, her strengths, or her flaws beyond this one conflict. And that evidence is arranged in a suspiciously-coherent (not to mention unbelievably indiscreet) sequence along your path through the house. I never once felt like Janice was a real person.
The premise works slightly better for the father, Terry. His conflict concerns his career. The game’s format is far better-suited to convey a years-long struggle, and filling in his backstory feels more organic. I did develop some empathy for this character.
Gone Home’s format works the best for Katie’s sister, Sam. For one, her story has far more depth than those of her parents. Just as important, much of her story is told through messages that she has specifically left for you/Katie to find. As an overt storytelling mechanism, these messages cover much more ground than the odds and ends scattered throughout the house. And by addressing Katie directly, Sam is the only character who gives you permission to get to know her.
You’re still encouraged to violate her privacy, though. My personal gameplay journal includes the disturbing note, “Need to find the four-digit combination to Sam’s locker.” The game’s success was in gradually getting me out of “puzzle-solving” mode and into a place where I would think twice about opening the locker.
…except you have to open the locker, and this is Gone Home’s fundamental flaw. The more you empathize with the absent characters, the less you want to continue down the only available path.
A more subtle design could have incorporated that ambiguity. Maybe if advancement wasn’t so closely tied to item discovery, or if the critical “notes to Katie” were easily distinguishable from private possessions. Changes like that could have allowed the player to weigh their sense of curiosity against their sense of respect, and it could have even challenged the player to reconsider that balance over time.
Instead, the game’s opening moments teach you to rifle through the property indiscriminately. Before you’re done, you will have literally searched through everyone’s dirty laundry. In some games, the gameplay may be awkward or unrelated to the narrative. The gameplay in Gone Home is at odds with the storytelling. That’s a rare kind of failure for a video game.
Having said that, I have to admit that my heart caught in my throat for the emotional climax. That’s thanks to the game’s saving grace: the voice acting. Sam’s notes to Katie are fully voiced and completely believable. They complimented the game’s other strengths and helped the experience feel immersive despite the flaws.
Even though I personally found some satisfaction in Gome Home, the path was too inconsistent for me to recommend the game generally. There have got to be better walking simulators out there. At the moment, my money’s on Virgina.