Welcome home? Spoiler warnings!
Art games and I have a bit of an unhappy history. We don’t get along, mostly because I don’t consider them to be games. I will make this clear – Gone Home is not, in my opinion, a game. Why? I define a game as something that has a defined ruleset, a goal and a failure state, and an opponent or challenge. In other words, it has actual gameplay. Doom is a game – you have defined rules (stay in the level, 100 health and you die, some doors need keys, etc), a goal (get to end of level or kill boss), a fail state (run out of health) and opposition to that goal (demons, traps, etc). SimCity falls into that uncomfortable territory between game and toy – it has defined rules, and it has a challenge in that you need to balance a budget, but the goals and fail state are problematic. Arguably you can have goals but they’re self-directed, and that’s fine. But can you actually fail at SimCity? You can reach a point where you can’t go any further because you’re in absurd amounts of debt, but is that really a fail state? Compare that with Minecraft’s survival mode, which does have a fail state, although depending on the game it’s largely inconsequential. That’s okay, the consequences of failure are largely irrelevant, but it must be present. Adventure games sometimes fall into this uncomfortable setting because occasionally they don’t have a true fail state – you just get stuck until you can solve a puzzle. But they have a clear challenge in the form of puzzles, so failing to advance could be a form of fail state.
I mention all of this because “art games” like this one are not games. They have rules for movement and maybe have a goal (if “finish the sequence” counts), but they lack fail states and opposition for the most part. Not continuing on due to apathy or disinterest is not a fail state on its own. Finding combination by looking around is not opposition or challenge. These things are more like interactive dioramas or artworks. They’re deliberately made so that you can’t fail to advance. There’s no ‘game’ here. Why is the distinction important? If I accept Gone Home as a game, I have to hold it to the same standards as I would any other game… and it’d be rubbish, because there’s no gameplay. There’s no challenge. There’s no opposition. There’s no room to fail. The ‘goal’ is simply to sit through all of the sequences. Reviewing it like that is missing the point, so I’d rather look at it as a form of interactive art.
Gone Home puts you into the shoes of Katie in 1995, who is returning home to her mother (Jan), father (Terry), and sister (Sam) after screwing around in Europe. On arrival at 0130 in the middle of a massive storm, she finds the house oddly deserted. The lights are on but nobody’s home. The house is in a various state of disorder – are they still moving in or did they leave in a rush? Part of the house is still under renovations, leaving a mess in the kitchen. Where is everyone? Your message notifying them of your arrival sits on the answering machine. Did they get it? This plot point is oddly chilling and also disheartening. It actually grabbed me for a bit – it was a mystery I wanted to solve. The TV displays an emergency alert for a severe storm with risk of flooding in low-lying areas. Was this why they left? Is it just a coincidence? Okay, spoilers are totally unavoidable because I have to note down some major issues I have with the plot, but this initial opening is fantastic. Interacting with Gone Home is a lot like rifling through an abandoned house. Although you ‘play’ as someone who knows the occupants, as the viewer you don’t really know these people. There’s a sense of voyeurism in looking through the debris of a (somewhat) modern family and the life they live. It’s fascinating and (for the most part) well crafted. All the little bits and pieces that surround you now and which you probably take for granted could be fascinating for someone. The bits of paper and books on my desk aren’t something I think about daily, but you’d probably find them fascinating as a glimpse into my life. If you’ve ever watched one of those walkthroughs of an abandoned house on Youtube and wondered what happened, then sitting through Gone Home is a lot like that. You can pick up most things and have a look at them. There are lots of papers to read through, some of them rather depressing, hinting at a family in crisis. Others are just colourful background.
There are a few plot points going on. Terry is a writer of… well, utter bullshit really. Some nonsense about saving JFK’s life. His books are trash, but he keeps trying. He’s made to feel inadequate by his intellectually superior father, who calls him out on his shit books but seems to be encouraging him nonetheless (but apparently Terry doesn’t get on well with him anyway). Jan is a park ranger who is apparently having difficulties with her husband, and might be having an affair with another ranger called Rick. This is revealed through correspondence with a lady named Carol. Sam is Katie’s younger sister, around 17, and is (unfortunately) the central character in the plot. The entire thing revolves around her being the weirdo at school and eventually becoming friendly with a senior named Lorrie. Lorrie is looking forward to a promising career in the US military. A bunch of high school drama happens and Sam discovers she’s a lesbian and falls in love with Lorrie, who then goes off to join the army. But at the last minute she says she can’t go through with it and wants to be with Sam. Sam leaves the house to go off on a road trip with her girlfriend, which explains why she isn’t there to meet Katie. The parents? Oh, they just went out on a trip together to reconnect or some bullshit. Sam apparently forgot to turn all the shit off in the house, and a note outside her bedroom decries this as a regular occurrence.
This is my biggest problem with Gone Home. What starts out as a promising mystery boils down to bullshit high-school drama and wandering around a house which has a much more interesting back-story. The original owner was Terry’s uncle, who sold off his pharmacy and ended up becoming a recluse, and there’s a much more interesting plot with him and Terry that might explain some of his obsession with JFK that I won’t spoil, except to say that it’s still under-developed (and would have been much more interesting). Sam and Lorrie are convinced his ghost haunts the halls and try to connect with it. There’s also a servants quarters and some old passageways, which just serves as a place for Sam to store more bits and pieces to trigger the teenage love drama which gets old fast. I say it gets old because we’ve seen this a thousand times before. It’s nothing new or unique. Hell, those of you in high school (or who recently left) probably know real stories just like this one. It’s not enthralling, and you can see it coming from a mile away. Compared to the other plots it’s positively pedestrian. I wanted to know more about Terry’s relationship with his father, or whether Jan was having an affair or not. Even more about Katie and how her parents reacted to her absence would be nice! Instead we get a few hints and one long teenage love story and discovery of sexuality, which has all the subtlety of a sledgehammer to the face. It seems like they wanted to take these further, but they never do.
The best part of Gone Home is wandering through the house and looking at how well-crafted it is. It’s a time-capsule of the 90s, it’s perfect. The rooms are all nicely detailed and look like you’d expect they would – Sam’s room is a mess with clothes and crap all over the door, Terry and Jan’s room is… also a bit of a mess but that might be because they’re moving in or because something else happened. This part of the interactive art works exceptionally well, and it’s when you’re looking at it from this perspective that I find it works the best. But the teenage drama is so overbearing and so contrived that it sucks the enjoyment out of the rest of it. It’s the focus of the entire thing, it’s what they wanted to get across, and Sam’s voice-acted journals are slammed into you. They’re well acted, but the storyline is typical teen drama. No doubt someone will get offended and claim that it’s all about accepting homosexual relationships, but here’s the thing – since I don’t have a problem with it, the story doesn’t strike me as odd or shocking. Girl is lesbian, falls in love, has crisis and they get back together. If this is the ‘avant-garde’ standard of the indie ‘art game’ sector, then we’re still miles behind Hollywood.
The sad part is that there was enormous potential here. Right up until this plot point gets forced into your face with the subtly of a decaying fish, it’s captivating. Just rifling through all the papers and piecing together the story on your own is great. That’s all it should have been. Instead we get this terrible plot which ruins the whole lot. Finally, the price. $20 USD? It’s on Steam for a few dollars off right now, but $20? For an ‘art-game’ with about an hour or so of ‘gameplay’? Sorry, but I classify that as overpriced. Although I don’t necessarily regret the decision to buy it because I’d like to see more of this kind of stuff (well, more of the first part at least), it’s way too expensive. A much more reasonable price would have been $10. $20 is madness for an hour of wandering around listening to teenage drama. They should have scrapped the voice acting and told the story through the debris of daily life, just like how the whole thing starts. That was much more compelling than Sam’s journal.
Do I recommend it? Hard to say. While it’s good that these kind of things are being made, and while wandering around the house looking at the papers and ornaments and things that make up someone’s life is oddly compelling, the storyline is complete bullshit in my opinion. Not because it’s implausible, but because it’s boring. It’s just teen drama, and at 25 I couldn’t give less of a shit. It didn’t wrench at my (admittedly cold clinician’s) heart or keep me interested. What did work for me was looking through letters, receipts, and other correspondence. That part was great, can I have more of that please? If you’re intrigued enough and want to support this sort of thing, then it might be worth getting. But for everyone else, I’d wait for it to come on sale.