I have owned Gone Home for a long time and never really sat down to play it. Since I heard it was a narrative experience I wanted to beat it in one burst to maximize immersion. As with many other Valentine’s Days, I was sitting at home not really doing anything. I was more bored than I usually am for some reason and decided to open up my steam library. I saw Gone Home and figured now was as good of time as any. I turned off all the lights in my room, put on my headphones, and launched the game.
Before I go into my experience with the game I should mention my expectations of it. I knew pretty much nothing about the story going in other than you are returning home to the house your family moved into while you were abroad for a year. That and a series of adjectives such as amazing, atmospheric, eerie, and Game of the Year. Going in I was expecting it to be a creepy game with a haunting story. I don’t know where I got that idea but I was wrong…ish. Oh and you probably shouldn’t read this before playing the game.
The game started straightforward enough. It opened with some voice over dialogue and I was standing on the porch with rain pounding on the roof. I got immersed pretty quickly. I went into the house and I was actually creeped out just by the foyer. It was large and felt imposing. If this were me coming home I would have grabbed my bags and went straight to a room and stayed there till my parents came home. But I knew that if I wanted to get anything done in the game I would have to rummage through everything. This isn’t really a criticism of the game but I had some ludo-narrative dissidence were I didn’t make sense for me to look through everything when I feel that isn’t what my avatar nor myself would do in this situation despite it being the only way to advance in the game. Regardless, I started to just explore everything.
Still not knowing what direction the game would go I kept assuming the worst when it came to the creep factor. When walking around sounds of footsteps would patter about making me super uneasy. I kept actually looking behind me in real life to make sure I was still alone in my room. Even when I figured nothing was there and there never was going to be I still didn’t feel comfortable and that is brilliant. I hate it when my house creaks and get scared by it when I am home alone. The game was made real in my mind the minute my heart rate went up. Pretty soon I was putting the pieces together. My parents were on running into issues and my sister was developing a friendship with a girl named Lonnie. It all felt alive. This could have well be a real life story.
It was around this time the game’s direction didn’t match my expectations. I was expecting creepy in both atmosphere and story but I wasn’t getting that. I was getting spooky mystery atmosphere with family drama story but I came to grips with it. I retrospect the disparity between story and atmosphere almost doesn’t make sense. Why frame something one way when the actual story that is being revealed doesn’t match it in the slightest? I can’t answer the question but I am fine with it. They don’t have to match up in order to feel real, in fact the flawed nature makes it feel more human.
My sister and Lonnie’s story kept taking a lot of turns and I found myself audibly responding to them. I let out an “Awwwwwwww,” when Sam mentioned how Lonnie and her kissed. My heart fell when my parents didn’t accept Sam’s lesbianism. In the end, I was happy when she drove to pick Lonnie up when she decided not to go to the military. It was simple but effective. I could go into the other individual stories of the other family members but they mostly provided fleshing out of the world to me. The real bread and butter was Sam’s story. It gave the game soul. On the topic of soul, I think this game found it. When I looked back and realized all I was actually doing for the last few hours was move around and picked things up, I wondered how this even had an effect on me. The game has the simplest of interactions but manages to make the deepest of impact. It transcends the limited player agency by crafting something so experiential and personal. It’s the soul in the machine.
The narrative/level design is something that stuck me on how well crafted it is. For the most part you can travel freely around the whole house with only a few key parts locked off but somehow the game manages to deliver the narrative so at no point does nothing feel spoiled. The plot plays out so well that it always feels in order no matter where you go. That is quite some achievement. I don’t know how they made it. On paper the game sounds rather bland but somehow it delivers one of the most human experiences I have ever played. Somehow I ended up experiencing one of the most well crafted love stories on a Valentine’s Day I was spending alone in my room.