The constant plight of gamers has always been having too many games and so little time to play them in. Games will be partially started or not started at all. Many of them are in various stages of progress, and you’re lucky if you ever actually finish a single one. Completing a video game has always been a cause for celebration for me because I take a really long time to play one. A video game I had the honor of finishing was Gone Home on the Xbox One from The Fullbright Company, and it was one of those games you don’t know what to expect.
Gone Home is a first-person video game where you play as Katie Greenbriar, who comes home from Europe to an empty house and a cryptic letter left behind by her younger sister Sam. You spend the entirety of the game exploring this unfamiliar house, interacting with objects of interest, to find clues to Sam’s whereabouts. Objects that are important or relevant to the story will unlock a new journal entry to gradually piece together what exactly happens to Katie’s sister. The setup of the game is very simple but surprisingly effective in giving you more with less.
While the game is largely focused on Katie’s sister Sam and finding out where she is, the player also has the opportunity to learn more about their parents Janice and Terry Greenbriar through letters, small mementos, and other items scattered around the house. You find out their mom Janice is a wildlife conservationist who recently got a promotion, and their father Terry is a failed published author who inherited the house his family just moved into from his deceased uncle.
Depending on how invested you are in understanding who this family is in your search for answers about your sister, you discover a lot without any human interaction throughout the two hour game. Though Gone Home is an old video game that came out in 2013, I’m thoroughly impressed by what The Fullbright Company achieved in storytelling by subverting your expectations.
If you come into Gone Home without knowing a thing about the game, you would be led to believe it’s a horror walking simulator game. I already knew ahead of time that this game was not a horror story. If it were I wouldn’t be playing it at all. I never had the stomach for the horror genre. Despite knowing no creepy ghosts or blood stained walls will be lurking behind every door I opened, the atmosphere created in the game still leaves you with a sense of dread.
You’re alone in a house with a storm raging outside. There are creaky floorboards and dark rooms you need to flip a light switch to make them feel less scary. This is already a classic setup for a horror type scenario. If it’s a deliberate choice to put the player in this setting, it’s a smart move as it slowly prepares you for the unexpected.
I won’t spoil anything, and it’s better to go into this game with as little knowledge as possible, but the fate of Sam Greenbriar is not what I thought it would be. As I continued to play detective and listened to all the narrated journal entries from Sam, I already thought I knew exactly how this story would end. Instead, I was completely wrong and I was glad my deductions weren’t quite right.
After I finished the video game I sought out reviews and discussions about it. For the most part critics enjoyed the game when it came out at the time, and some hated being duped into playing something that wasn’t what it promised to be. I don’t think Gone Home promised to be anything than what it was—a story about what happened to Sam Greenbriar. It’s easy to presume that with a plot like that it might mean you’ll be playing a video game with plenty of jump scares and grisly sights to behold. Even the game’s art screams horror video game with the old house surrounded by tall and menacing looking trees. But I think the best kind of storytelling are the ones that manage to bend and twist the usual tropes and cliches into something new and different.
Another great thing Gone Home does really well is present a subplot about Katie and Sam’s father Terry. The objects related to Terry and his personal background are really subtle, but revealing once you connect the dots. It’s easy to miss the first time, which is why some people have recommended a second playthrough to catch what emerges about Terry’s past. It was only after I read one article discussing it in depth that certain things I had questions about, but put aside in favor of focusing on Sam, truly clicked. It’s really masterful storytelling, and something aspiring writers who are also gamers can learn from.
My one issue with Gone Home is how slow it feels. I don’t remember when I first started playing this game, but I did put it aside before finally coming back to it one lazy Saturday afternoon. If you stick with it, like I did, you might be blown away with how carefully constructed the whole story comes together.
Gone Home is a video game where you’ll come in with a certain set of expectations, only to come out on the other side of it with a new perspective on how stories can still be told in new and ingenious ways you never thought possible.