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Gone Home: Fullbright’s masterpiece deserves a place in your house

Monday, 19th August 2013 16:56 GMT By Brenna Hillier

Gone Home perfectly fuses narrative and game in a way that plays up the strengths of the medium rather than battles them. Brenna swoons over this weekend’s indie darling.

GONE HOME

Gone Home developer The Fullbright Company was founded in early 2012 by three former members of 2K: Steve Gaynor, Johnnemann Nordhagen and Karla Zimonja. The trio’s credits include Bioshock 2, Minerva’s Den, Bioshock Infinite and XCOM: Enemy Unknown.

The team’s mission statement was “to make a great game” – one that was memorable, non-violent, non-fantasy, and built “out of techniques that only video games can employ”. (Spoilers: they succeeded.)

The atmospheric first-person adventure is set in the mid 1990′s, and features period-appropriate music from Heavens to Besty and Bratmobile.

Gone Home is available on Steam for $20 on Linux, Mac and PC; 10% off during launch window.

Launched on August 15 and already holds a Metacritic average of 90.

At $20, Gone Home isn’t going to please all of you. It’s quite short, and although it contains puzzles, it’s probably going to bring The Game Police out in force for not containing as much action as it does exploration. It contains quite a lot of feelings and its subject matter – the relationship between a young woman and her family members, and theirs to each other – is not exactly what marketers imagine the 18-24 male demographic is after. But it’s absolutely brilliant, and I have no hesitation in saying it is one of the best games I’ve played this year.

Without giving too much away, the basic premise has our hero, Katie, returning home after a year spent travelling in Europe. In her absence, her family has inherited a mansion on the edge of the woods, and she arrives home, after midnight and in the middle of a storm, to a strange house which still feels not quite lived in. It’s too large for the modestly comfortable family who accepted this luxurious, unexpected windfall; their furniture doesn’t fill the huge spaces, their lights don’t reach the distant corners, and boxes and cartons are present in nearly every room, palpable evidence of a year filled with distractions which kept them from establishing a home.

In other ways, the family are very much present. Scattered throughout the echoing, empty spaces you find small oases of comfort; a chair pulled up under a window, for example, lit by a solitary lamp, surrounded by the detritus of months of work and leisure. Investigating these spots paints a vivid picture of the three family members who occupy this house, both separately and together, and even of Katie herself.

Poking through these remnants feels exactly like being a nosy big sister. Katie rarely intrudes on the player’s experience except to offer context; a gameplay prompt may offer a short explanation – “It’s one of the postcards I sent” – rather than a generic “grab [X]” message. When she does, we get a picture of a well-loved, studious and athletic young woman, a protective sister who is not above poking through everything in the house on the trail of a mystery concerning her family. In this way, her personality perfectly matches with what the player is doing, which is so gosh darned rare in video games that whole books have been written about how badly everyone else does it.

Most players are likely to empathise strongly with Katie throughout the game without even noticing it’s happening. Creeping around the partially-lit home while the storm rages is impressively affecting, as anybody whose even been a little creeped out in a creaky old house will recognise as they scuttle from light switch to light switch. The urge to know more about the mysteries on hand perfectly matches Katie’s increasing concern for her family. What Katie wants to do and what the player wants to do are so rarely at odds that the one time she does exhibit a strong contrary preference, it comes as a shock; but it’s also thought-provoking, deeply in-character, and in my case, immediately made me feel ashamed of the unchecked voyeurism I’d been exhibiting till that moment. I don’t believe a game has ever made me question my own behaviour so effectively, despite all the heavy-handed cutscene hand-wringing over the murder of thousands of enemies (before going off to do it all again in the next level).

This one instance aside, I can’t think of any time when I wanted to do something the game wouldn’t let me do, and made room for in the story (including throw cups around the kitchen in a temper tantrum). The puzzles Katie faces are logical in a real-world sense; although the mansion she explores is large and perhaps unrealistically intricate, her quest to find the keys she needs to progress never seem ridiculous. The very first problem the player must solve is how to get in the front door, and Katie and the player solve it exactly as most of us would if we came home to an unexpectedly empty house in the era before mobile phones were common; no window smashing, no esoteric combination of items, no pixel hunting.

The greater puzzle of the game is presented by a note on the front door. Katie’s teenage sister Sam is missing, leaving a confusing request not to investigate or tell her parents. As Katie explores the house in search of her family, and some answers, she is periodically rewarded with excerpts from Sam’s journal, which – a very innocent spoiler – is found by the player at the end of the game.

These diary entries are narrated as the player continues their journey, and this is the only instance of us knowing more than Katie. While we hear Sam’s story from start to finish, piece by piece, Katie is putting it together from tiny clues as she progresses. We have an unfair advantage, in one sense, but Katie’s more intimate knowledge of her family is compensation.

Then again, as we progress, we learn things about Katie’s family that it’s hard to believe she ever knew, which is a heart-rending extension of the feeling of coming home all grown up to find life didn’t stop without you. Sam, Terry and Janice are all hiding if not secrets then certainly very personal concerns, and each character is the centre of at least one subplot each, which the player can follow along with by careful examination of objects and documents in the environment. There’s also a sort of red-herring subplot which I’m loathe to spoil, as many players are sure to believe it’s the real one until the closing moments.

What’s most satisfying about Gone Home is the way all these subplots tie together neatly towards the very end of the experience, which is about 90 minutes at most. The pacing is simply spot on, with mysteries building and unravelling on a perfect classical narrative arc, each contributing something to the other so that by the time Katie reaches her final destination, the pieces fall together beautifully. This kind of narrative cohesion is distressingly absent from triple-A games, where the need to deliver at least a 12 hour experience leads to bloated, rambling stories which rarely hang together, let alone satisfy.

What Gone Home does by weaving together these closely inter-related subplots with the main story isn’t new; plenty of books and films have done it, and done it well. Very few games have, though, and in fact I’d say the vast majority of media of any kind fails to achieve it with such skill and panache as Fullbright brings to the table.

In Gone Home, we see an example of a story written for gaming, not just tacked onto it; we see game design in service of story, not sacrificed to it. It is a work not just of art, but of craft; if the veteran team at Fullbright could in any way be described as apprentices, this would be their masterpiece.

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22 Comments

  1. foofly

    This game was so nicely crafted.

    #1 11 months ago
  2. bradk825

    This sounds awesome.

    #2 11 months ago
  3. TheVoiceOfReason

    Got this on Friday and didn’t know what to expect. I found it to be very enjoyable and more involved than Dear Esther, which is the most similar game I can think of.

    #3 11 months ago
  4. TheWulf

    Poop. I kept mixing this up with another game, but now I’ve read about it I’m actually intrigued.

    I never commented on this one because I thought it was that one Slenderman game where the only change was that the protagonist was a young child. I wasn’t so fussy on that one because at its core it was still a Slenderman game. I had no idea that this wasn’t that game.

    Oops. :I

    I think I need to rush out and buy this, now. Thanks! I love games of narrative, exploration, and discovery, as I’ve spoken at length on in the past. Stuff like Uru, To the Moon, and so on. This will be right at home in my games collection.

    Edit: And seeing it I’m reminded so much of one of my past loves — Shenmue. Yes, I need this game. The only thing that would make this better is if they had a capsule machine present. :P But really, I’m thoroughly enthralled by what I’ve seen.

    I wish I’d known that this game wasn’t that game.

    Poop.

    Glad I found out.

    Edit II: Apparently that game was Among the Sleep.

    I really have no idea how I mixed these two up. Possibly the fact that you can open/close drawers in a similar first person way.

    Blargh.

    Welp, bought it. Anyone wondering as to why I wasn’t here praising this one? That’s why.

    #4 11 months ago
  5. YoungZer0

    Gone Home is the story of a young girl who had to leave her home because she left all of her shit in every place of the house. /s

    Although I liked the approach to the storytelling, I did not like Sam, neither her voiceactor, her story or her terrible mixtapes (I made it my mission to throw every single one of them into the trash). I think I knew right after Sam mentioned the name of the other girl what was going to happen.

    Did like the atmosphere and the story of her dad. Would love to see something like this in a detective adventure game. Opening drawers, collecting clues, making up stories in your head, etc.

    #5 11 months ago
  6. salarta

    I’m currently holding out for when it’s cheaper. It seems like an intriguing game, but one that I’m not sure if I want to pay $20 for. Also, someone I chat with online that generally has excellent taste in games recently played and beat the game and reaffirmed my feeling by saying it’d be an excellent purchase at $10. More accurately, he said at least part of it seemed more like politicizing and soapboxing (not his words, best I can use to describe our discussion) than anything else.

    I plan to play it eventually, but I have the overall impression based on its trailer and what I heard of the ultimate end discovery that the cause behind the house being abandoned is a little off. More specifically, I get the feeling based on what I’ve heard that the cause isn’t a powerful enough reason for why the house would be so empty, which is pretty important for the idea of sifting through a house and seeing the remains of what a family used to be. I don’t expect a murder or an alien abduction, and anything that extreme would certainly defeat the purpose, but I think it would take something pretty powerful emotionally to clear out a whole house with everything still lying around like that.

    Still, I’m not trying to diminish what the team made. I’m sure they did something absolutely amazing, and something important for the medium because there’s too much emphasis on making video games into big Hollywood productions with pseudo-realistic reimaginings of characters and IPs. I’m betting this is the best game to ever do what Fullbright did, or anything like it. There’s even a very good chance that future games in the same vein will take Gone Home’s lead in terms of approach. I’m just saying, from what I’ve heard, there are a few flaws.

    Now, here’s to hoping that twenty years from now we don’t see Gone Home rebooted to force Hollywood trends and gimmicks on Sam and Katie that get marketed as attempts to make Gone Home more “realistic.” :P

    #6 11 months ago
  7. TheWulf

    I’ve been playing this for a while now and it’s oh so good. I pinned it with Shenmue, to a degree, as you definitely have to pick up and examine things. And it’s all about the investigatin’, you investigate this, you investigate that, and you learn things. I miss games like this.

    I think it’s supposed to be moody, mostly. I haven’t seen any cheap tricks or jump scares, thus far, and nothing too psychologically scary. It’s mostly just the thunder and lightning, which is something that actually does scare me to a degree. So I think they were going for moody, but I’m getting a subtle creepy vibe which may or may not be intentional. If it’s a horror game, if it even is, then it has damned good pacing and a proper build-up — but I don’t think it is, it’s just creepy.

    And you really do learn more the more you explore, it’s a house telling you a story as an interactive medium. Quite clever. It’s definitely special in that regard, the sort of thing that you can only do as a game. It’s not really similar to Dear Esther, I feel, as Dear Esther was just about holding the W key and watching the screen. This requires you to sniff around, it would have you seek out little hidden notes, and it would have you look at everything closely. Plus, there is a degree of non-linearity as to how you explore the house. So Dear Esther as a comparison isn’t fair. Dear Esther would easily have worked as a short film and been better for it, but this? This is something where if you turned it into such, it would become less for it.

    Their art assets are pretty great, too, they’ve definitely got some great talent on board. And their physics engine is pretty great. And the whole aesthetic definitely conveys the feeling of a mansion in the woods in the mid ’90s. Just wait until you see what’s on some of the video cassette tapes.

    So this is a glowing endorsement from me. I couldn’t be happier. Pig in muck and all that.

    #7 11 months ago
  8. Brenna Hillier

    @6 I don’t think there’s anything wrong with holding off. You have to prioritise your spending. I hope you can avoid further spoilers till the first sale.

    Really, really pleased to see a couple of you enjoyed it too.

    #8 11 months ago
  9. TheWulf

    @6

    “[...] it seemed more like politicizing and soapboxing [...]”

    I don’t really think that’s the case? It would be kind of like saying that To the Moon is a person’s treatise on the boons and caveats of memory editing — and whilst it may actually be that to some small degree, if you have played To the Moon then you know that’s not the focus.

    It’s important not to mix up the developer with the character, and reality with a story, as us gamers are supposed to be good at separating these things after all. It’s politicising and soapboxing, yes, but within the context of the story that the game is telling. You can write a book and you can have characters express opinions vehemently that you might not necessarily have, and you can have characters who have your opinions but a slightly different take on them.

    I think these days we’re so laser-focused obsessed with the person that we just go overboard with linking anything a person writes as being an absolute extension of their brain. Even if this is something a person writes for a story, via the medium of a character. Yes, some writers do have agendas and I won’t deny this, but it becomes pretty obvious when a writer has an obviously one-sided agenda that they convey in their works.

    I haven’t seen anything thus far that makes me feel that this game is just a dressed up agenda of someone who wants to convey a set of opinions through the medium of a game. I get the feeling instead that a story is being told and that the character we’re learning about (Sam) is actually a believable person with actual motivations and reasoning, rather than the cardboard, one-dimensional cutouts that we’ve become accustomed to.

    It is a little sad that I have to explain this, but there are so many characters in gaming who’re po-faced, one-dimensional, and completely lack any semblance of raison d’etre, character, or personal worth that when we see something like this, it’s easy to think that it’s the person projecting themselves into the game.

    It may or may not be the case, but I’m actually happy to have a game that does focus around a character for a change. It’s nice.

    I don’t know what else to say, really.

    #9 11 months ago
  10. TheWulf

    @5

    I don’t think you’re supposed to like Sam, which is actually quite incredibly really when you think about it. How many times do we have a game which contains a character who’s not entirely likeable for real reasons? You know, instead of being a moustache-twirling villain or an ancient, one-dimensional Cthulhu-esque evil.

    I think it’s a testament to how well they’re actually telling the story. Sam’s not a superhero, Sam’s a human, and humans are actually prone to having flaws. We don’t see many videogame characters with flaws. It’s not that we think Sam is badly written, but simply that we find Sam a disagreeable person, because at least Sam is a person. A well written, constructed, and realised character.

    I’d like to see more games without a binary divide of one-dimensional characters where an obvious line is drawn regarding whom you’re supposed to like, and whom you’re supposed to dislike.

    #10 11 months ago
  11. absolutezero

    Theres a little detective work to be done in the game, mainly surrounding the year 1964 and the events that took place. Its the best part of the game because its in the background. Sure theres this nice American teen movie romance going on in the foreground but behind that, hidden away is something alot darker and alot more interesting.

    Having to work out correlating dates, and using intuition to work out what actually happened is pretty Goddamn refreshing.

    RIGHT now go play Dream.

    and as much as I dislike doing this, Gone Home did a brilliant job of setting everyone up for both a creepy, horror style adventure game and its neither. Its testament to the quality of the story telling and the simple tale it tells that its hooked alot of people expecting the Slendyman and jump scares. Everything about the game screamed horror Unity game like “Solve the mystery of your missing family” and pouring with rain, hidden passages and the like. Almost perfect display of rug-pulling.

    Theres no Slendy-man in Amoung the Sleep either, I think you might have been thinking of Baby Blues another Unity horror game from the viewpoint of a baby which is basically Slender but even darker.

    Its funny that I took an almost instant liking to Sam and over the course of the game began to dislike the player Sister more and more.

    http://www.vg247.com/forum/topic.php?id=37401 No replies ;_;

    #11 11 months ago
  12. TheWulf

    @11

    No, it was Among the Sleep. They had a Kickstarter with a demo of it, and I checked my log of games I was considering kickstarting to be sure. There were many cases of outlines of a Slenderman-style creature in it. They may have changed it from the Kickstarter version, but it was enough to make me not fund it.

    http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/krillbite/among-the-sleep <- That. Note the playable alpha.

    #12 11 months ago
  13. absolutezero

    Yeah I played it. I funded it. Its not a Slendy game don’t worry about it.

    I’m also not going to decry the rest of the industry for not being like this, theres more than enough room for games like this to exist alongside everything else thats out nowadays.

    Also amazingly I can enjoy both, I can even dislike game from the same style, I fucking hate To the Moon. I can also criticize Gone Home while still loving it, it has some shamelessly easy emotional manipulation and the inspirational music is so over the top as to become distracting, quite the opposite of Dear Esther where both the narrative and the music told the story togethor.

    #13 11 months ago
  14. TheWulf

    @13

    It’s amusing though that you talk about all games co-existing as a criticism, and then you go onto saying how much you fucking hate To the Moon.

    Just an observation. People are often hypocrites so it is okay. I choose not to be, I am who I am and I’m honest if I’m anything else. Even when I’m wrong, I’ll admit it, and I’m always willing to second guess myself.

    Speaking of, I’ll give Among the Sleep another look.

    #14 11 months ago
  15. absolutezero

    It was not a criticism.

    #15 11 months ago
  16. TheWulf

    It read like a criticism. Sorry. Strike that from the record, then. I’m just used to people telling me that I’m not allowed to be fed up of stuff being shallow and the same old.

    #16 11 months ago
  17. TheWulf

    But one thing I think everyone will be able to agree on is that Gone Home is something quite special. I do hope enough people play it for the developer to actually want to make more games, even if not even remotely the same kind of game.

    But I felt that way about To the Moon, too.

    #17 11 months ago
  18. Old MacDonald

    5: Oh yes, the mixtapes are so bad. So, so, so amazingly bad.

    I liked the game, in general, but my main problem with it is that everything feels so fake. The house doesn’t feel like a real house, and following the trail around feels just like that; following a game designer’s trail in a game. At no point does it ever feel like I’m digging around in a real house trying to figure out a real mystery.

    That’s a shame. I believe they wanted to tell a natural story in a natural way, but while the story itself might be natural enough, they failed completely with the way they told it. If you forget the actual story they’re telling (which is basically the kind of story you’d find in a cheap paperback, but whatever – it’s not a typical game story, and for that it deserves some applause), the game doesn’t do anything that we haven’t seen in a bunch of games since the likes of System Shock. All the notes, the breadcrumb trail: it’s traditional and it’s cheap.

    Still, a decent game. By all means. And while the story didn’t move me that much, I was kinda glad when I completed the game and found that one of the suspicions I had about what I would find at the end was wrong.

    Edit: Oh, and as for the discussion in this thread; I’m absolutely glad this game exists, and I want more games that explore similar themes. That’s also why I’m disappointed with Gone Home. I wish it was a better game because I like what it’s trying to do.

    #18 11 months ago
  19. TheWulf

    Just thought I’d pop back in here to point out that my reaction was in part due to my last comment on this article. I have serious copy & paste plot fatigue, and for all one might say against To the Moon, it did not have Copypasta Plot Syndrome.

    I don’t want to see the kinds of games that people like disappear off the face of the earth, I just find them cloyingly and overwhelmingly omnipresent, and games which are different to be damned and hated upon. For example, if a series takes a diversion from saving the world to do something more local, more invested, and more personal? People often hate it, because they’re so used to Save the World™ brand Brainfood Paste.

    Sigh.

    I love Gone Home for not being that, but I do wish there was more of this and less of the Save the World stuff. I don’t want that to go extinct, I don’t want anything to. But I’d love to see more of a balance.

    #19 11 months ago
  20. absolutezero

    I can see both sides, a little bit of searching and you’ll find alot more games like Gone Home, To the Moon and Dear Esther. Dream is one, its on Steam early access right now, its charmingly British.

    To be honest I have seen very little hate aimed towards Gone Home, far far less than say Dear Esther for example. In fact I have seen Gone Home to go on to become the darling of the forward thinking video game press. A 10 from Polygon for example and this very article, its one of many. These experiments in narrative are not going to go away, just like the other side is not going to vanish.

    In fact I think over-flowing florid text full of hyperbole and buzzwords does more to put people off trying out titles like these rather than getting them interested. Theres a knee-jerk reaction to games like this from the majority of normal game players, not the CoD boogeymen of Wulf’s nightmares, but normal players with average interests, its never black and white.

    #20 11 months ago
  21. TheAncientWolf

    A “video game” about walking around an abandoned house, reading letters and whatnot, while a narration explains everything to you, doesn’t sound all that remarkable. The plot seems to be getting a lot of praise, but I found it utterly vapid and a complete waste when compared to the game’s atmosphere. It astounds me as to how this “game” is receiving perfect scores. I think a lot of the approbation being dumped on Gone Home is merely because of the homosexual subject matter.

    #21 11 months ago
  22. salarta

    @8: Yeah, and my purchases are particularly extravagant this month. I got Tales of Xillia and beat Milla’s side last week (she’s a badass and I place her up there with Chell in badassness, enough said, but I should’ve started with Jude), my Saints Row 4 just shipped, and Killer is Dead comes at the end of the month.

    I’m never too worried about spoilers, I figure if it’s good then whether or not I’ve seen spoilers should make absolutely no difference in whether or not I enjoy it. In fact, recently there was an issue of a comic book that a person’s spoilers made the issue out to be a travesty, I went into reading it with negative expectations (on top of past negative expectations from that issue’s writer), and ended up very pleased with what I read.

    #22 11 months ago

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