Well, I thought that I’d take a very short break from book reviews to review a computer game that I’d planned to review about two years ago.
Back then, I happened to notice that the game “Gone Home” (2013) was on sale on GOG and since I’d heard that it was set in the 1990s and since it used something that looked like the Source Engine (in reality, the game uses Unity), I decided to get a copy… only to find that the vintage mid-2000s computer I was using at the time didn’t have enough VRAM to run it.
But since, for various reasons, I got a vaguely modern refurbished computer (eg: Core i5-3570, 8gb RAM etc.. Which, by my standards, is practially futuristic) the day before I wrote this review, I suddenly remembered this game and decided to re-download it and take a look at it.
So, let’s take a look at “Gone Home”. Needless to say, this review may contain some PLOT SPOILERS.
“Gone Home” is set in 1995 and begins with university student Kaitlin Greenbriar returning home to her family’s new house in Oregon after a gap year in Europe. However, when she gets back, she finds that no-one is there. So, she has to search the house for clues about what has happened….
One of the first things that I will say about this game is that, whilst it has a few flaws, it’s a really interesting narrative game. If you enjoy exploration, ominous mansions and/or anything 1990s-related, then it’s worth taking a look at this game.
Since this game is the classic example of a “walking simulator”, the main types of gameplay here are exploration, detective work and a small amount of puzzle solving.
In short, the game involves searching the house for clues about what has happened and for audio logs from Kaitlyn’s younger sister, Sam. As an interactive story, it works really well – with the game’s story being this bittersweet tale that will probably make you cry at least once or twice and will linger in your imagination for a while after you’ve finished playing.
The exploration elements of the game are really cool too, with lots of interesting background items to examine, atmospheric lighting, “ordinary” 1990s rooms and even a few secret passages. Seriously, I absolutely love the idea of a game that revolves around exploring somewhere (that isn’t a mostly-empty open world). Seriously, this is a game that is very much about place, atmosphere and subtle retro nostalgia 🙂
Literally the only complaint I have about this element of the game is the movement speed. Yes, it might be because I’m used to older FPS games, but the movement speed here can best be described as “glacial”, which can sometimes make the interesting exploration feel like a bit of a chore and/or a way of padding out the length of the game.
But, this is worth putting up with given the sheer amount of background details, quirky notes, subtle humour, retro technology, 1990s punk music etc… that you’ll find. Seriously, if you’re a fan of 1990s US TV shows/movies, then it’s really cool to see a game that focuses on this period of American history 🙂
Likewise, the fact that the game is set in an ordinary house (albeit a mansion-sized one) allows for a surprising level of realism that will probably evoke a small amount of 1990s nostalgia (even if, like me, you grew up in 1990s Britain rather than America).
Seriously, whilst the game’s “walking simulator” concept is very different to a traditional game, it’s really cool to see a game that focuses so much on subtle, “realistic” 1990s nostalgia 🙂 Even if, as I mentioned, the movement speed is a bit on the slow side.
As mentioned earlier, this game also contains a few *ugh* puzzles too. Since I’m not really a fan of puzzle games (and am terrible at them), I eventually had to resort to a walkthrough for many of them.
Even so, the puzzles are solvable if you are willing to search, think and examine everything. Plus, the 1990s was a decade when even first-person shooter games included puzzles (it was the “crafting system”, “permadeath” etc.. of it’s day), so it’s good to see that they have got this nostalgic element of the game right 🙂
In terms of the story, atmosphere and characters, this game is really brilliant 🙂 Although Kaitlin is the player character, the main character of this game is her sister Sam, whose story the game tells.
This is a surprisingly poignant, bittersweet and emotional tale that is relayed through audio logs, realistic notes/scribbles (social media wasn’t really a thing in the 1990s) and it really adds a level of humanity to the game that you might not expect. For a character who you never actually meet, Sam is one of the most well-written game characters I’ve seen in a while.
Thematically, the game is a story about love, about the grinding conformity of 1990s suburbia, about secrets, about the awesomeness of discovering punk music when you were a kid in the 1990s (in the game, this is “Riot Grrl” style punk. But, it still reminded me of the first time I heard The Offspring, AFI, Sum 41 etc..), about dysfunctional families etc… So, yes, this game is a bit more complex and intelligent than you might think.
In terms of the atmosphere, this game is wonderful. In addition to lots of subtly realistic 1990s background details, there are also quite a few ’90s pop culture references (and a few punk songs too), lots of wonderfully gloomy lighting and some wonderful rain/thunder sound effects too.
Although this game isn’t a horror game, this gloom really goes well with the game’s bittersweet story and helps to add a lot to the game. Not to mention that creeping around gloomy mansions is always fun (and very ’90s too – I mean, just look at “Resident Evil”, “Alone In The Dark”, the ghost house levels in “Super Mario World” etc…).
In terms of length, this is a famously short game. Using a walkthrough for most of the puzzles, I completed it in about two hours and fifteen minutes. But, if you don’t use a walkthrough, then it’ll probably take you a little bit longer.
Even so, this game is about the right length for the story it tells. It’s the computer game equivalent of a novella or a longer short story. But, it’s probably best to wait until this game goes on sale before getting it (since a lot of the anger about this game’s length probably comes from people who paid full price and had full price expectations).
All in all, whilst this game has a few flaws, I really love the concept of it. It’s a 1990s nostalgia game that involves exploring a gloomy mansion 🙂 It’s quirky, bittersweet, atmospheric, poignant, occasionally funny and it has a level of realism and humanity to it that you don’t often see in games.
If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would just about get a four.