Gone Home Valentine’s Day

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.

Seriously, shit is scary.

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.

I felt like I needed another image.

-Bryan Korab

 

4 comments

  1. I’m interested that you seem to have been just confused by the way that the atmosphere and story were not one in the same. See, I think that one of the most genius things they did was to create expectation and then subvert it. I think that is one of the things that makes this game such a wonderful experience. One of the most memorable moments I have is the ending of the game. I was TERRIFIED that I would walk up into the attic and find my little sister with slit writs. I honestly was picturing that the entire time I walked down the hallway to the red attic door… I was so pleasantly surprised by the romantic ending that I was crying. Literally. And it wouldn’t have been remotely possible if they hadn’t created the tense and spooky atmosphere.

    I think looking back on my playthrough experience, the tension I had for NO reason was amazing. I kept expecting ghosts or demons or undead, rapey uncles. The coolest thing about this game is that it felt like I was jumping in and committing to scaring myself. It felt like I was a kid at camp listening to and telling ghost stories. Or maybe a better example (for us) would be that it felt like I was on a Deerdog hunt. I reveled in its mysterious atmosphere and was deeply moved by its story.

    As to your initial ponderings on why she didn’t just drop her shit and go to her room, this is a house that Kaitlin has never been to. She was away when they moved. So it is supposed to feel like not ‘her’ house. I’m kinda sad that you had that initial barrier to entry and I sincerely hope that didn’t impede you from enjoying the game.

    I do think you hit on the biggest thing this game had: soul. This is the single greatest example of environmental storytelling and it is truly amazing how much soul can be represented just by things in the world. All of the VHS tapes with things recorded and then recorded over, the father’s many copies of books he never sold and his porn (the same that Sam reads apparently). There is so much character development and it is done with all of the cast missing!!

    One thing that really excites me about this game is that it is a sort of message about how many facets of game design there are, and how rich of an experience dev’s can craft if they focus their attention in the correct spots. I’m really hoping that Cyan World’s next game, Obduciton takes a leaf out of Fullbright’s book.

    1. I grabbed a beer before heading into the attic! I felt as nervous and scared as anyone “going home” to a home that isn’t theirs.

    2. I knew Katie was coming home to a house that she had never been to but I feel like my first instinct would have never been to explore the whole house in the middle of a thunderstorm. It would have been find my room then wait. It was a thought that crossed my mind when I first went rummaging through everything in the foyer. It didn’t really detract too much.

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