Gone home isn’t a book, but it is a novel. Sort of. Kind of. It’s a video game, except that it’s not.*
So I’m going to break out of my normal medium and do a video game review. Because I think it’s important. Yes, Gone home has already generated enough blog posts to circumnavigate the globe, but I haven’t done one yet and a blog is nothing if not an inherently self-centered platform.
*I don’t actually buy this argument in the slightest. It’s absolutely a video game. I’ll address this later on.
Brief plot summary
It is, culturally, the height of the 1990s. You play the role of Caitlyn Greenbriar, a new college graduate returning home from their European adventure. Your great-uncle died while you were away your family has inherited his mansion and moved in. So you arrive on the doorstep of your home, where you have never been. But the door is locked. Nobody appears to be home. A note is pinned on the door: from your younger sister Sam, it says not to go looking for her.
So how is it?
It’s amazing and I love it. More than it probably warrants, honestly. I think it’s great and I wish there were more games like it.
I love Gone home because it is smart, touching, and definitely more than the sum of its parts. I don’t think any other game can present the same experience because every tiny element of the game fits so perfectly with everything else that even presenting an identical game with a different story wouldn’t work.
So I’m going to break things down a little more to get into a little more detail and really analyse why I think Gone home is so good.
If you’re not interested in my bloviating feel free to skip to the Recommendation part.
I love Gone home because of the game’s story as much as anything else. It’s pretty common to claim that there’s not a lot of replay value here – that once you’ve “finished” the book, as it were, there’s little else to get from it. I’m the type of person who rereads books constantly, so for me knowing the ending (which is only shocking in that the worst doesn’t actually happen) doesn’t detract from the experience.
Caitlyn is not the main character of the story. Yes, she’s the player character, but the real main character is her younger sister Sam. There are at least three other stories being told here, but Sam’s is the only one that gets the voiceover treatment so it’s the one that has garnered most of the attention and is the one that has also attracted most of the criticism. There’s a story here about each one of the family members, and while there are plenty of intersections and each story does influence the others, but each character does have their own life. The player has to figure out these other stories on their own but they are, nonetheless, powerfully told.
Gone home is a game that firmly understands its limitations. There’s a Cat & Girl strip about how great works of art are frequently great not because they push the boundaries of their form but because they understand the boundaries so well that they create works that feel transcendent because there’s no conflict between the limitation of the form and the intended experience.
Gone home takes place in a single home in the 1990s. In many ways, the Greenbriars live in the Platonic ideal of a “1990s White American Family Home”. Houses, by their very nature, are accretions of the various decades they have lived in. While that’s somewhat evident in Gone home, the vast majority of the details point to the popular conception of what the 1990s were in the Pacific Northwest.* Growing up during that time period there’s so much that’s so familiar, it’s great at evoking a sense of nostalgia. I’ve read comments from people who didn’t grow up during that time, whose childhoods were nothing like those of the Greenbriar children, who claim that the game made them nostalgic as well. (I’ve also read from people saying that their differing experience was an obstacle from totally “getting into” the game.)
To link the above two paragraphs: the way the story is told only works in a believable way because of the setting. If the year was any later the ubiquitous arrival of digital technology would destroy the letters and notes that serve to trigger the story. Without the storm the interactive limitations would start to become too evident. A couple of years later and the various mixtapes scattered around the house would be CDs, and eventually would disappear entirely. It’s one of the reasons I remain somewhat skeptical of moving to digital-only media, as it’s so ephemeral we risk losing huge swathes of our cultural patrimony.
There’s an explanation for everything in the game, and nothing feels like a post-hoc justification. The eccentricities of the house are there for reasons, and part of the joy of the game is figuring out those reasons. What’s especially impressive is that it feels like the house pre-exists the game. The mysteries are there not because they were created for the game, but because the house existed and the game formed around it. It’s one of the most effective explorations of a space, both the physical space of the house and the psychological space of a family that I’ve ever encountered.
I’ve played all the way through Gone home four times now – it’s a relatively quick game (and it’s possible to get to the credits within five minutes – you just miss most of the experience) and I’m looking forward to playing it again.
*There are definitely some important things from the decade that don’t show up. That’s why I qualified it as “White American Family Home” rather than just “1990s Home”. I’ll deal with this issue a little more later.
The “game” (or lack thereof)
Gone home got a lot of criticism for not being a game. I’m not really sure why people seem to think that. You control a character and their interactions with a fictional world. The Ace attorney series isn’t any less linear, and Gone home’s most vocal critics don’t seem to have any issues with Phoenix Wright “not being a game”. That there’s no way to lose doesn’t really matter. In some ways, Gone home is significantly more of a game than the vast majority of games in the visual novel genre – you at least have to move your character around. As a result Gone home got dubbed a “walking simulator” but that’s still more interaction than you get out of a visual novel.
It’s an interesting game partially because of the way it takes the control scheme and POV of a First Person Shooter and uses them in a game that is not only completely nonviolent but where it’s impossible to lose. The first person view is not that uncommon in nonviolent games – see Myst for the most commercially successful example that I can think of – but it is interesting the way that Gone home goes a step further and adopts the control scheme and interactive mechanics of the FPS while eliminating the gun.
What’s especially interesting is that there are puzzles. Even outside the puzzle of figuring out the other family members’ stories, there are safe combinations to find or deduce, doors to unlock, and secret routes to discover. That the puzzles aren’t particularly difficult doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Not every game needs to be mentally taxing. Playing Gone home is a meditative experience.
The integration of player behavior into that characterization
One thing that goes overlooked is that Caitlyn Greenbriar is NOT a blank slate. Every action the player takes is explained in-game. It’s a cute trick but it’s one I wish I saw more often. Things that you don’t normally think about in the context of a video game – turning off the lights when you leave a room, for example, are contextualized as things that Caitlyn does normally. In fact, there’s a jarring moment that I keep seeing people complain about where Caitlyn actively puts an item down and refuses to pick it up again. Every other item in the house, from cushions to pens, you can pick up and examine. This one item the game will only let you pick up once – and it doesn’t even let you examine it for long. It’s a cute way of playing with the player – they think that their in-game avatar is obeying them when they discover that it’s actually the other way around.
Other games do this too, but it virtually always ends up being in the context of violence. “You were shooting all those people and you thought it was just because that’s the way the gameplay works but your character was actually [an unrepentant murderer|being mind controlled|trapped in their own fantasies]!” Gone home removes that and as a result it’s a more interesting statement, to my mind.
The sense of unease
People keep claiming that Gone home was marketed as a horror game – I certainly never saw any of that. But it’s undeniable that there’s a metagame going on here. It’s a game that actively draws on horror tropes and plays into the player’s knowledge of those tropes. Someone who had never seen a scary movie or played a scary game probably wouldn’t notice, but the way the game plays with player’s perceptions to create a sense of unease helps to put the player in Caitlyn’s shoes. There are so many moments of mystery, where it’s not really clear what is going on, that even up to the final moments of the game you’re never quite comfortable.
It’s made all the stronger by the fact that the explanations are all there. If you pay attention you can find out why the lights are flickering (is it the ghost of uncle Oskar or is there a mundane explanation?). That doesn’t make it less creepy and the first time through there were times where I was actively frightened.
Gone home is great. I love it and I recommend it widely. It’s a great game for fans of visual novels and interactive storytelling. I frequently go back to the idea of recommending “gateway” genre novels to non-genre fans. Gone home can serve the same purpose with video games. It’s not a visual novel, it’s definitely a game, but the story is a novel one.*
*Sometimes I enjoy my own jokes a little too much.
On the legitimate criticism
By “legitimate criticism” I mean criticism that doesn’t center around whether Gone home got unfairly high review scores despite being “not a real game” because of the elaborate left-wing conspiracy between game journalists and feminists. Also, criticism that doesn’t center around a story that is trying to “push [thematic material that certain politico-religious groups find objectionable]”.
Much of this criticism ends up becoming meta-criticism (i.e. “Gone home is not a perfect recreation of the 90s like [critic] stated because it’s yet another story about an upper-middle class white family). I’ve seen some of this criticism levelled against the game itself – and it’s true. For all that the Greenbriar house attempts to be the Platonic ideal of a 90s home there’s no sign of Biggie or Tupac. I can understand those critics and I think they do have a valid point but I think that runs pretty close to criticizing a game for not being something that it’s not trying to be. Gone home has a very tightly focused story. It’s definitely worthwhile to criticize games for being underinclusive but that’s really a criticism of the genre or the industry as a whole. Not every story has to be everything for everyone. That being said in the case of Gone home there’s an argument that it’s tacitly whitewashing the frequently highly visible racism of the riot grrl movement. It’s not an argument I find particularly damning of Gone home but it’s a nit that one could pick.
The other major “real” criticism is the way the plot develops. As a result anyone not wanting to know how the plot resolves should avoid reading the rest of the post after the asterisks.
I’ve seen a lot of people decry how “neatly” everything wraps up – that all of the stories have happy endings and that in the “real world” things would not have ended as well as they did. Putting aside that Uncle Masan’s story does not, in fact, end happily and that it’s pretty clear that Sam’s life is definitely not going to be easy going forward, the majority of the plot threads (and indeed, Sam’s especially) resolve on a highly sentimental note. I don’t think there’s a problem with that. The same thing happens in The right mistake, a book about racism, urban poverty, and attempting to break free of the cycle of violence and overcome a dark past – but nobody argues that Walter Mosely thinks that that’s how easy it is in the “real world”. Once again, Gone home is a meditative experience and a more “realistic” ending would almost certainly have required some sort of violence (not on the part of the player, but as it stands there’s not any violence in the narrative at all). While I was constantly worried I was going to come across the aftermath of shinjuu and the game played with those expectations very well that kind of an ending would have ruined the experience for me. So while I can understand the desire not to be overly optimistic about the fate of a survivor of child sexual abuse^ or a Queer teen in the 1990s that’s not the kind of story this is.
If you think a happy ending is somehow “lying” to the player then this will probably bother you but for me (and for plenty of other Queer and non-Queer people who have commented on this aspect of the came) it’s refreshing to see a game deal with these themes that doesn’t end tragically. It’s not that dissimilar from what Simon Callow had to say about why he liked his character in Four weddings and a funeral – at the time all of the gay characters in movies ended up dying of AIDS, and he enjoyed that Gareth was a gay character in a movie who died of Scottish dancing.
^If you haven’t played the game and are concerned: this is never mentioned and it’s not even heavily implied. It’s something you have to piece together from several very vague pieces of information so it shouldn’t be upsetting for people who are sensitive to that sort of thing (and I know I am). The developers have confirmed that is the correct interpretation of those clues.