I am not normally one to jump in on the hot game of the moment. I don't have the patience for most modern games, they're too long and wind up being predictable (looking at you: Spec Ops The Line!). To appeal to me it had better be unique and not overstay its welcome.
I started hearing rumblings about this game called "Gone Home". First, from a podcast that I follow called Boy Howdy Podcast but then I also started seeing that it had received really good reviews that were totally enthralled with the storytelling.
Beginning to go home
The presentation from the start screen would lead you to think that Gone Home was some sort of spooky, ghost-centered game. There is a certain eeriness to everything, and at times I felt a slight chill or tingle but there are no enemies or apparitions to fight or flee from. All of the "scares" are entirely atmospheric: the perpetual rainstorm outside and the old creaky house that you find essentially abandoned with nothing but the clues that the rest of your family have left behind.
One of the key aspects of the setting is the mid-90s. It's hammered home in all of the dated items you find. Letters, post cards, posters, etc. The dot com bubble has yet to burst. Many middle class families still haven't bought a computer and CD players were not quite ready to replace cassette tapes as the primary medium for music (not that it matters as mixtapes were still in their prime).
By the way, the music selection is excellent and even though I don't really know anything of the "riot grrl" bands of the 90s it is safe to say that the people behind this story are familiar with the scene they incorporated into the game.
Exploration is all there is in Gone Home. The main character has been away for a long time and is now trying to piece together recent events that have led to the house being apparently abandoned.
The father is a frustrated writer, struggling to write another novel and not be relegated to writing stereo reviews. The mother is a satisfied park ranger. As the children have aged, their relationship has started to fade. The younger sister's experience of home is the main lens through which your character deduces what has happened.
How does it handle?
Controls are limited to moving around the house and examining objects. Certain key items will initiate an audio clipof Sam, the protagonist's sister reading a journal entry aloud. The voice acting is top-notch with background music adding the perfect emotional underscores. As one player described it, "when she's speaking, I feel like nothing can hurt me."
Examining as many items as possible can slow down the player's progress significantly but it does add a lot of nuance to the game. One learns loads about the all of the family members and even some more about the town and the history of the house. In this way it feels like a really detailed, intimate version of Fallout 3 or Skyrim.
The lack of controls can be frustrating as there are points where the player simply needs to get from point A to point B but there isn't even the option of running through the house (a setting many parents would likely implement in real life if possible.)
It is also quite easy for players to start to lose track of where they should go next. A good portion of my four hour play was backtracking and upending everything in every room. There were multiple points were I felt like slapping my forehead for having not realized the thing I had needed was right in front of my face or just under foot.
All you need is love
Love is the central focus of Gone Home: familial love, romantic love, nostalgia. The spectrum of feelings for people and places are the core around which the story revolves. It is what makes Gone Home so special as a game. Players not ready to relate and engage their feelings are not going to find much to enjoy in Gone Home.
Gone Home is wonderful. It is a family ghost story. One that I think people will be talking about for months and that will be discovered by new players for years.
The "dollar to game play ratio" is relatively high, spending $20 on a game that can be played through in almost an hour (I took 4 but I am a slow player out of habit). however, the cost isn't much more than a price of a movie ticket and concessions, for a game that easily surpasses the storytelling of most films.
If you happened to have grown up in the 1990s this game will be especially appealing as it does an excellent job of capturing not only teen angst, but what it was like to grow up in an era just on the cusp of being saturated with information and cell phones and accessibility.
I'd turn back if I were you..
As an addendum, I have embedded a Youtube video of a play through of the game by theRadBrad. While he blazes through the game in under an hour, he hits all of they key story points and gives those who aren't able to play it a taste of this very special game.