[GDC 2013] First Impressions: ‘Gone Home’

GoneHome

Written by Hayden Dingman, @haydencd

I went to GDC, I saw some games. Some were horror games. These are games I felt were memorable at the event (Part 2 of 3, read part 1 here).

I’ve actually been looking forward to Gone Home for a while now. I had the chance to play it at GDC, but I knew this was a quiet game that relied a lot on atmosphere—not the best demo to play with Thirty Flights of Loving’s awesome soundtrack in the adjacent booth and dozens of industry figures chattering in the immediate space around you.

Luckily, the kind developers at The Fullbright Company (co-founded by Steve Gaynor, Johnnemann Nordhagen, and Karla Zimonja—veterans of Bioshock 2′s superb Minerva’s Den DLC) provided me with a copy of Gone Home’s GDC build I could play in the darkened, silent confines of my own apartment.

And you know what? Despite the team’s cautions that Gone Home is not a horror game, it’s genuinely unnerving to play.

It’s 1995. You play as Kaitlin Greenbriar, newly returned from a year abroad in Europe. While you were away your family (mom, dad, and sister) moved into a new house. You arrive at the house in the midst of a storm only to find it completely empty. Tacked to the front door is a note from your sister, imploring you not to come looking for her. In fact, the note says, “Please, please don’t go digging around trying to find out where I am.”

Naturally you start digging around trying to found out where she is.

Now, the team at Fullbright is correct—Gone Home is not a traditional horror game. You’re not sprinting away from horrible monsters or hiding in the shadows. This is an adventure game, through and through. You’re tasked with simply exploring the house as it stands, unlocking the secrets of this mansion while learning about your sister Sam.

You’re going to examine a lot of objects. You’re going to open a lot of drawers. You’re going to turn on a lot of lights (something the game teases you for later when you find a note tacked to a bulletin board that says, “Sam, stop leaving every damn light in the house on! You’re as bad as your sister!”). You’re going to read a lot of notes, personal and impersonal.

This is a voyeuristic game about exploring a house. Think about how many items you have scattered around your room. Now imagine while you weren’t home someone came into your place and started piecing together a narrative about your life based solely on those objects. That’s what playing Gone Home is like.

The 1995 setting facilitates the gameplay by presenting a largely pre-digital age. While computers and cell phones certainly existed, they hadn’t quite become omnipresent yet. Nowadays if I need to remind somebody to pick something up from the store I just text them. Need to get in touch with an old friend? Facebook. If you wanted to know almost everything about me, all you’d have to do is sit at my computer desk for a while. There’s not much exploration.

Gone Home is a reminder of life before computers. Notes tacked to bulletin boards and scattered across desks are a primary form of communication for this family. Your mother has been keeping in touch with her old college friend by mailing letters. Your dad is typing his next novel on a typewriter. You find reminders of your trip to Europe strewn about the house—postcards you wrote to your parents during your excursion. Newspaper clippings preserve background information about the town and the house you live in.

Then there are those 90s touches. It all seems a bit quaint, and yet oh-so-familiar to anyone who lived through the era. You’ve got your Lisa Frank binder, the music magazine commemorating Kurt Cobain’s death, the bootleg VHS recordings of films. Gone Home is the 90s (or, at least, the early 90s) summarized in one family’s home.

The more random objects you look at, the more connections you’ll make. You’ll start to follow narrative threads through the house. This is a game that seems, on a surface-level, to have the thinnest of stories. You show up, you see your sister’s note, and that’s it. The more you dig, the more you find. You’ll read a letter from the 90s discussing how your father hates his long-time job, then find the letter from the 70s where an old school buddy convinced him to take on the job in the first place. This house has a story.

And just like any empty house, I started to get freaked out.

If you’ve never gotten that oh-no-was-that-a-person-walking-around-upstairs-or-just-the-wind-blowing paranoia while sitting in a house by yourself, maybe this isn’t the game for you. Gone Home is a game that knows your expectations and manipulates them expertly.

For instance, the lighting in the house flickers on a regular basis. Horror game, right? It must be ghosts or something.

That is, until you find the letter from the electrician complaining the house has faulty wiring. According to the letter, walking around the house causes the circuits to come loose, resulting in the flickering lights.

Still, it’s awfully scary when the lights flicker. Are you sure it’s not ghosts?

That’s the thing about Gone Home—you don’t really know. This is mysterious psychological horror at its finest. Is there really something more to this house, or is it just your mind playing tricks on you? Why is your sister so adamant that you not uncover the mysteries of this house? Why is there a girl’s sobbing message on the answering machine?

And most of all: where the hell is everyone?

I haven’t even gotten into how amazing the game’s art direction is (simplified shapes, but amazingly high-resolution textures on most examinable objects), or how the excellent Chris Remo (composer for Thirty Flights of Loving and co-founder of Idle Thumbs) is attached to do the soundtrack.

I’ll let you know when the game’s released if the rest of the experience lives up to the demo I played, but for now it’s safe to say Gone Home is one of my most anticipated games this year.