Review: “Gone Home” (Computer Game)

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….

Surprisingly, despite the gloomy atmosphere, this ISN’T a horror game.

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 🙂

And there’s some awesome 1990s-style lighting too 🙂 Of course, when you turn the lights on, it disappears…

And, I vaguely remember seeing THESE word processors in shops when I was younger too. Nostalgia 🙂

VHS and audio cassettes 🙂 Yes!

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 🙂

The truth is out there!

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).

Another cool thing about this game is that most of the game’s documents are handwritten, which gives everything a lot more personality than typical in-game text 🙂

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.

And then was astonished that I missed an obvious clue like this one!

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.

Not to mention how the location design in this game also adds a lot of extra characterisation and personality too.

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…).

Yes, seriously, this ISN’T a horror game.

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.

Don’t Show Your Audience Everything – A Ramble

Although this is an article about a technique that will make your stories, comics etc.. more intriguing and realistic, I’m going to have to spend the next few paragraphs talking about 1990s videogame nostalgia. There’s a good reason for this that I hope becomes obvious later in the article.

A couple of days before I prepared the first draft of this article, I happened to watch two online videos about the history of videogames. One made me feel old and one made me feel like I’d been part of something special. Both made me feel like I’d only seen part of something important from a distance.

One of them was this video about the fact that a survival horror game called “Resident Evil 2” was 20 years old. 20 years! Needless to say, this fact was surreal to say the least. I remember reading pre-release previews of this game in magazines, for heaven’s sake!

Even though I didn’t play this game until about three years after it was released (due to price, platform etc.. reasons), this game has had a significant role in my life history (eg: in various highly indirect ways, it played a crucial role in my current musical tastes, my tastes in fiction, my decision to be a creative person etc.. If the game hadn’t existed, I’d be a very different person). And the fact that it was 20 years old just made me feel absolutely ancient.

The other video was a retrospective of the history of the first-person shooter genre. This video contained footage from videogames from my childhood (including some SNES and N64 games), in a montage about how games evolved. As I watched this, I was filled with conflicting emotions.

I felt proud that I’d been lucky enough to grow up during a critical part of the emergence a new cultural medium. But then, I realised that my nostalgia about this montage was time-shifted somewhat. When I was playing SNES games during my 1990s childhood, the next consoles had already come out. When I was playing the Nintendo 64, the next consoles had already come out etc.. Likewise, all of the PC games in the montage were things I played at least 1-3 years after they were new.

In both cases, there was a sense that I hadn’t seen everything. That I’d only glimpsed part of something great from a distance. I hadn’t played “Resident Evil 2” when it was a new game (but I’d read about it in magazines at the time). I’d only played a few key games in the history of gaming, a few years after they were new etc.. Yes, I felt glad to have grown up around these things but there was a sense that I hadn’t seen everything.

Although this initially felt depressing, I suddenly realised that it wasn’t a bad thing. It was simply just a part of being human. No-one can see literally everything that happens.

And, if you’re telling a story, it’s important to bear this in mind. Yes, it can be tempting to give the audience an omniscient view of literally everything and to make sure that they are present during literally every significant event in your story. But, this isn’t realistic.

By occasionally leaving a few things at a distance (eg: your characters hear about something happening after it has happened, or only see the after-effects of an important story event) or showing your characters discovering something important later than you would expect, not only do you leave more to your audience’s imaginations but you also add an extra degree of realism to your story. After all, in real life, this happens all of the time. No-one can be everywhere at once, or completely “up to date” with literally everything.

Yes, this probably has to be handled carefully in fiction (eg: yes, you should still show your audience some significant events) but it can be a way to add a bit of interest or “realism” to a story or comic.

For example, in stories, games, film etc… in the fantasy genre, some of the most significant events in a story will often be relegated to the backstory. They will be the “legends” or “myths” of a particular story, which the main characters only encounter many years after they have happened. So, this technique can be used without getting in the way of the main story too much.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Short Story: “A Playlist For Suburbia” By C. A. Brown

The only way to make suburbia interesting is with the right kind of music. For Steve, this was usually American punk music. When the furious guitars kicked in and the singer started whining sarcastically or blurting out elaborate descriptions, it somehow made suburbia ok. It magically turned boring Daily Mail middle England into something out of the kind of rebellious Hollywood comedies that he was always wanted to watch when he was younger.

Even the dreariest of playing fields and most forgettably ordinary rows of houses could be transformed into something from an edgy late-1990s comedy horror movie when he listened to the beginning of Bad Religion’s “Suffer” on his MP3 player. But, only the beginning. Somehow, the crashing, stabbing waves of angry guitars and the singer’s first frantic question made even the most leisurely of strolls feel like a dramatic tracking shot from some film he’d always wanted to watch when he was a teenager. For the ten seconds that it lasted, the world seemed more interesting than ever before.

Then, of course, there was Green Day’s “Tight Wad Hill”. Steve had never bothered to learn the lyrics to it, but it didn’t matter. Whenever he saw the old houses from the ’80s that were covered with faded white plastic and looked like something from a low-budget horror movie, he listened to this song. It had something to do with the singer’s slightly sarcastic, slightly slurred voice. Something to do with the cynical bitterness that drips from every word of the song. It made him feel like he was living in the beautifully run-down world of some corner of rural America, some horror novel town where strange things happen on an alarmingly regular basis.

And, for the brightest of cold summer Saturdays, there was always The Offspring. On those hellish days where everyone wears pastel clothes, where the air is polluted with the noise of twenty garden parties filled with crackly radios, the indecipherable shouting of noisy kids and the buzzing of lawnmowers, Steve listened to The Offspring. Not their edgier early stuff or even their mature modern stuff, but the really commercial stuff they put out in the late 1990s when, for a little while, they were mainstream.

The instant the first lines of “Pretty Fly” bounced through his headphones, he remembered when that song was playing on the crackly radios, he remembered when he was an annoyingly noisy kid and he remembered when pretending that the noises of distant lawnmowers were actually horror movie chainsaws felt like a really cool and edgy thing to do.

But, for grey weekdays, there was no choice other than No Use For A Name’s “Making Friends” album. If you actually listen to the lyrics, you’ll realise that they’re considerably less cheerful than the accompanying music. But, for a Monday when Steve had to trudge through the same suburban streets again, it gave him the gift of schadenfreude. At least, he thought, I’m living somewhere different to the nightmare world in the lyrics.

And then, for Sunday mornings, there was NOFX. When he went to the corner shop for snacks – and the rustling of Daily Mails and faint grumbles of queuing shoppers got too much, he’d listen to NOFX songs from the early-mid 2000s. They were the only punk band who were mercilessly sarcastic enough to make him smile. To make him feel just the slightest thrill of rebellion even when the topical satire in each song had long since passed it’s sell-by-date.

Then there was Blink 182’s “All The Small Things”. This was one of those songs Steve put on whenever a nearby car started broadcasting pop music through their open windows at top volume. “All The Small Things” was a whiny song, a commercial song and a generic love song of the worst kind. But, compared to the stuff on the radio these days, it was practically a work of art. Steve smiled. This was, of course, the only way to appreciate this song.

But, when Steve got home, he turned his MP3 player off and opened his laptop. A second later, the soothing tones of “One Foul Step From The Abyss” by Cradle Of Filth sailed gracefully through the air. He sat back and smiled. Punk music might be useful for getting through suburbia. But, he thought, to really relax, you need something else.

Short Story: “Wave” By C. A. Brown

It had started at the car boot sale where Jack had spotted a box of old VHS tapes going cheap for a fiver. Rachel hadn’t planned to go along, but Roy and Sue were still on holiday and anything seemed better than sitting in her rented room, staring at a blank screen and wondering what the hell she was going to write her dissertation proposal about. There were two days left on the deadline and, so far, the only thing she’d been able to come up with was a recycle bin filled with stupid questions.

When they’d arrived, she’d turned to Jack and said: ‘I haven’t been to one of these in bloody ages.‘ Followed shortly by ‘Oh my god, is that a tube of POGs? No way!‘ Since the next student loan instalment didn’t arrive for three days, she knew that she’d have to ration herself. Even so, the translucent green tube of cardboard discs was only 25p. It even included a couple of gnarly-looking slammers too. As she handed over the coins, she told herself that the POGs would be worth hundreds in another decade’s time.

I knew we should have kept hold of that shopping trolley.‘ Jack grinned as he leaned against a tree and rolled a cigarette. Rachel put her bulging carrier bag down on the ground and leaned next to him. His lighter clicked. They stood in silence for a minute, until Rachel stared up at the grey sky and said: ‘Looks like it’s going to rain. We should probably head back.’

You’ve never been to one of these things before, have you?‘ Jack exhaled and flashed her another grin. She raised an eyebrow. He continued: ‘The rain is half the fun. Since everyone wants to get out of it, the prices usually go down quickly. It’s nature’s clearance sale.

For a second, Rachel had looked puzzled. Then the heavens opened. Under the shelter of the tree, she watched everyone begin to scatter. As she knotted the handles of her bag, Jack finished his roll-up and gestured towards the cars. ‘We’ve got maybe ten minutes until they leave. Let’s make it count.

When they stopped in front of a grimy grey Astra with an old guy in an even older trenchcoat standing next to it, Jack had pointed at a cardboard box. Rachel leaned over and stared at it. It was full of old video tapes. They were only a fiver. How could she refuse?

After they’d got back to the flat and changed into dry clothes, they sat around drinking coffee in the lounge for a few minutes until Rachel spotted the old video player below the TV. It had come with the flat. Jack smiled at her: ‘I’d always wondered if it actually works. Guess it’s time to find out.

So that’s why you spotted the videos.‘ Rachel could have been angry at him. After all, she was the one who had paid a fiver. She’d thought about taking the tapes home at the end of term and using them for quirky Christmas presents. She didn’t realise that Jack had an ulterior motive. Still, she was too curious to really feel angry.

Kneeling next to the damp cardboard box, she found the newest-looking tape. It was Terry Gilliam’s 1998 adaptation of “Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas”. And, to both of their surprise, the chunky tape not only worked – but the machine didn’t even think about chewing it up.

About halfway through the film, there was a scene where the stoned journalist sat at a typewriter in a dingy 1970s hotel room and gave this melancholy speech about the sixties. About how everything had seemed to be going well back then. How it seemed like the world could only get better. Of course, he lamented, it hadn’t lasted. The ’70s had shown up and hippies had gone out of fashion.

Oh my god, it’s just like the 1990s‘ Rachel muttered. Jack raised an eyebrow. She continued: ‘Think about it, everything was… brighter… in the ’90s. Everything was so cheerful back then. Surely you remember how… optimistic… it was. And then it all went to hell. Just like in the movie. It’s ahead of it’s time.

Jack had just looked puzzled. Rachel shrugged and walked into the kitchen to get a packet of crisps. They crunched through them in silence. When the credits rolled, Rachel pressed the rewind button. As the VCR rumbled and chuntered like a freight train, she said: ‘Another tape?

Nothing better to do.‘ Jack shrugged as he searched the kitchen for a can of cider. Rachel’s eyes settled on a blank tape. Holding it up, she laughed and said: ‘Mystery tape?

You know, more than one horror movie has started with something like that.‘ Jack cracked open a can and proffered one to Rachel. Sitting back, he said: ‘If a ghost pops out of the screen to snatch our souls, I’m telling her that it was your fault.

Deal.‘ Rachel laughed as she put the tape into the machine. After a few seconds of static, an old BBC logo had appeared on the TV before a mid-1990s episode of “Lois & Clark” began. There were two episodes on the tape. By the end, Rachel just gawped at the screen. Jack finished his second can of cider and began rolling another cigarette.

Beside him, Rachel said: ‘Oh my god! Not only did this predict the ridiculous modern obsession with the superhero genre, but it predicted so much more too! That episode where the re-animated Nazis march through the streets of Metropolis and no-one sees it coming until it’s too late. It’s just like that scary thing in America last year.

Barely pausing for breath, she continued: ‘Then there was that other episode where that supervillain runs for president and he parrots Trump’s slogan about making America great. And, Lois and Clark make sarcastic comments about it. It’s a really topical joke…. that was made over twenty years ago.

Jack just looked at her blankly: ‘It’s a stupid superhero rom-com. Ninety minutes of my life I’ll never get back. Please tell me we’re picking a horror movie next.

Smiling, Rachel got to her feet. ‘There are a couple in there. You’ll have to start without me though. I’ve finally thought of an idea for my dissertation proposal!