Monday, December 9, 2013

Gone Home

I finally sat down with an enormous mug of tea and turned all the lights off to immerse myself in Gone Home. Whenever I took a break for whatever reason, I'd come back to my own little world in the dark. I do recommend playing the game like this--it will involve and, perhaps, slightly unnerve you.

I've heard a lot of good things about Gone Home in the last several months, and while I'm a bit late on the uptake, I'm glad I took the opportunity to play it. Hot on the heels of being awarded Best Indie Game and Best PC Game at the 2013 Spike Video Game Awards, Gone Home is a hot topic among gamers.

There's been a lot of controversy on this game, mostly regarding whether or not it's a game and whether it's designed for "core gamers" or whatever. My advice? Stop trying to put labels on things and just sit back and enjoy the experience. And, if you don't enjoy the experience, don't get so angry about it. It's a waste of energy.

I'll get off my soapbox now to talk a bit about this beautiful game.

You play as Katie, who has just returned home from a year abroad. Your parents have moved into a new home, inherited from your uncle Oscar, and you're going to visit for the first time. As you arrive late at night, you find your parents gone and a note on the door from your little sister, Sam, telling you not to come looking for her. What follows is an exploration of the house to reveal the mysteries within, with your sister Sam narrating the events that have unfolded in their lives over the last year. You make a lot of discoveries about your family. Some are more startling and more quiet than others.

Gone Home is not a horror game. I cannot stress this enough. You will get tricked into thinking it is by watching trailers or even by playing through it yourself. It is not a horror game. You may get a bit unnerved by it in some instances--particularly since Gone Home does play off a lot of classic horror tropes. It was, originally, an Amnesia mod at first, after all. Gone Home subverts the flickering lightbulb trope and actually points the lights out directly as having faulty (but safe) electrical wiring. My personal favourite was walking into a bathroom to find a bathtub stained with red--and a bottle of red hair dye sitting right next to it. It is almost a deconstruction, but it's so innocently and playfully done that it's more a lighthearted play on your expectations than anything. It's not all innocent, though. There is a lot of struggle at the core of this game, including one theory that I will direct you to, but I will urge you not to read it unless you've played through the game at least once. I'll add that game creators The Fullbright Company have confirmed this theory to be true.

This genre subversion could be done for one of many reasons, but I'm of the belief that it was done to put you directly in Katie's shoes. She's in a new house for the first time, both of her parents are gone and her sister has posted an unsettling note on the door.  Of course Katie would assume the worst, and of course the surroundings of this new and decidedly creepy house would send chills down her spine.

Even though you don't ever meet any of the characters, their stories are very human and relatable. You have the younger sister, Sam, who is telling a sort of coming-of-age story. You have Terrence, the father, who appears to be a failing author. Then you have Janice, the mother, a park ranger who is feeling distanced from her husband. Lonnie is a character introduced by Sam, who doesn't have a voice of her own other than the notes she has written to Sam. Oscar is the deceased former owner of the house--your great uncle--who apparently "went psycho" before he passed away and is said to be haunting the house. You, as Katie, are less fleshed-out in comparison. All you know about Katie is that she is a straight-A student, an overachiever with trophies, ribbons and old homework assignments punctuated throughout the house. As you explore the house, you learn more about each character and why they are absent from the house.

Finding little notes, letters and documents throughout the house is made that much more believable when you notice the setting of the game: 1995. Audio cassettes and VHS are littered throughout the Greenbriars' home, as well as handwritten and dot matrix printed letters. Sam and Lonnie run a zine that they print themselves with their own art and label-makers, and Sam's own short fiction can be found throughout her belongings. Lonnie has made a number of mixtapes for Sam to enjoy, and a small part of the gameplay involves you finding these tapes and playing them while you search the house. You won't find burnt CDs, Blu-Ray players or cell phones filled with text messages in this game. You will find a believable and era-specific paper trail.

At its core, Gone Home is an exploration game that shows you pieces of each character's individual story and allows you to draw your own conclusions based on the evidence. The obvious difference to this is Sam's story, which is told explicitly to you by Sam herself as you make your way through the house.

The game has striking, detailed graphics that reveal interesting details about the inhabitants of the house. The music is also very good, reminding me of my own time in the 90's with its angry female-fronted punk rock, and the sound effects and lighting are immersive and moody. Below you'll find a trailer for the game, which keeps in as much of the mystery as is fitting. The voice acting is phenomenal--some of the best voice acting I've heard in an independent title.

The focus on the dark underlying themes in Gone Home is a little blurred, which adds to the realism of the game's story and setting. Reading the article revolving around the Transgression above will reveal just how underlying that theme is. The game is, at its core, a very real and intricately connected series of stories that will make the player wonder what happened after the game's end. While there is room for a sequel, it would, most likely, have to operate under a different engine, and have a different tone.

The story made me cry at the end, but not for the reasons I was expecting. This game was deceptively hopeful and unexpectedly triumphant. I don't want to spoil the love story, so I'll simply say it's a refreshing alternative to your typical boy-meets-girl with some very real struggles--another part of what makes the story so human.

As a little bonus, my name is Katie, so whenever Sam was addressing the playable character in story, I felt as though she was talking to me directly. That just made the game ever-so-slightly more awesome for me.

I will agree with others who say that the price is a little high for the amount of playable time from the game, but it's something I'll get over pretty quickly. I do wish the game was, at least, a little longer, or had a bit more extra content, but hopefully the extra price is paving way for more games from this company in the future.

Congratulations to the Fullbright Company for this achievement. They took away Best Indie Game and Best PC Game for Gone Home at the Spike TV VGAs on December 7, 2013. This is a huge leap for indie gaming, and I'm glad I was finally able to play this worthy game.

If you appreciate an involved, intricate story, I urge you to give this game a play.