Over the Christmas holiday, on impulse I downloaded a $10.00 point and click game called “Gone Home”, by TheFullbrightCompany. I’d heard good things about it, and I’m always up for cheap and novel entertainment. What I got was a deeply immersive and haunting experience that I still think about every day. I’ve talked here before about video games as art, and “Gone Home” is a shining example. It’s also hands-down the best-written video game I’ve ever played. It uses its medium brilliantly to tell a multi-layered story and bring to life deeply complex and tragic characters; characters who are better written and more subtlety portrayed than the ones in a lot of “highbrow” literature I’ve read.
You play the game through the eyes of Kaitlin Greenbriar, a college student just returning from a stint in Europe. Since she’s been away, her father has inherited a run-down mansion from his reclusive uncle, which the Greenbriar family recently moved into. At the opening of the game, you stand on the porch of the mansion and read a letter taped to the door written by your younger sister Samantha, stating that she’s disappeared, and begging you not to try to find her. When you enter the mansion, you realize that the house is abandoned. Your parents are nowhere to be found, and you spend the rest of the game solving the mystery of your family’s disappearance through the exhaustive exploration of documents, papers, calendars, journals and notes strewn throughout the house.
As the game unfolds, its main story is revealed to be about Samantha’s coming of age romance. But the more compelling and subtle story is the one about her parents, and about the house itself. The game is set in 1995, just before home computers and cell phones became ubiquitous, and this allows the story to develop through paper documents. And it develops brilliantly, building layer upon layer until you are as intimate with the Greenbriar family as you are with your own. The experience of discovery as you wander through the mansion to the sounds of a thunderstorm and creaking floors is spooky and addictive. (Thank God most of the lights work!) The developers strike just the right balance between moving the story along and giving the players plenty of space to discover clues and connect the dots themselves. The mansion is the emotional womb of the family, harboring its secrets as well as those of its past owner, the reclusive Oscar Masan. By the end of the game, you come to care for the mansion itself almost as much as its inhabitants.
Videos games don’t have a great track record of portraying female characters realistically, much less as full human beings (although this is improving.) But “Gone Home’s” nuanced portrayal of Samantha, an imaginative budding writer, captures the primal experience of adolescent love and despair. Throughout the game, you come across a number of Samantha’s short stories that are fictional explorations of her sexual self-discovery. The stories reflect the wild mysticism of teenage girls and are heartbreaking in the context of the game’s story. A full picture of Samantha in all of her overwhelmed, scared, rebellious glory emerges. Her relationship with Lonnie is portrayed respectfully but realistically, making the resolution of their love all the more compelling when it’s finally revealed.
But it was the story of the father, Terry Greenbriar, that most intrigued me. A writer obsessed with the Kennedy assassination, Terry has written two poorly-selling novels about the subject, and after being dropped by his publishing company, has resorted to writing reviews of stereo equipment. Hints about a drinking problem, marital issues, and writer’s block are planted throughout the house, but the most unsettling of all the clues are the ones you find deep in the basement. This is where the relationship between Terry, his father, and the mysterious Oscar are revealed with horror-inducing rapidity.
If I have one tiny complaint about “Gone Home”, it’s that the character of Kaitlin, through whose eyes the game is played, is disappointingly bland. Some reviewers would argue that since she’s just a venue to tell the story through, her development as a character isn’t as important, but I don’t agree. I would have liked to see her just a little more fleshed out, with interesting quirks and flaws like the rest of her family. Then again, Kaitlin’s blandness could have been a deliberate choice on the part of the developers to drive home the point that Kaitlin’s role in the family is to be “the good girl.”
In an online discussion of “Gone Home”, one poster sniffed that contrary to what many reviews claim, “Gone Home” is not a revolutionary game. And yes, in terms of point and click game mechanics, “Gone Home” is nothing new. But I would argue that it is revolutionary in the way it tells its story. I’m intrigued to have a found a game that uses literary storytelling, poetry, and sound with such deep intelligence, flawless timing, and fanatical attention to craft. It makes me very excited about the growing opportunities for cross-over in the genre of literary fiction and games.