This was a great game right up to the very end, which was incredibly disappointing.
This game is of the same genre as Dear Esther, a genre which apparently has no name– Wikipedia simply calls DE “art,” which is not a genre, and describes Gone Home as a “first-person interactive story adventure video game” which is meaningless.
However! I think VNs and these first-person largely-text-based games share a lot of major features– they require little input from the player, are mostly text, are largely linear, and focus on storytelling and character development over puzzles and exploration. The only real difference between them is that GH and DE allow the player to control the protagonist’s movement to explore the set path, while traditional VNs use progressive static images to communicate movement and exploration. I think the differences are comparable to Western RPGs and Japanese RPGs, so my brain has been calling them “Western Visual Novels” for ease-of-use. Take it or leave it, I guess.
The title screen art was really cool, so I was a disappointed to see the game is pretty standard, clean 3D graphics. The wistful feel of the title image doesn’t really relate to the game at all, actually– we literally never see the outside of the house, the game doesn’t take place at dusk on a starry night but at about 2:00am during a crazy thunderstorm, and the only place the font appears in on the menus. The objects in the house are all hyperrealistic and lack the whimsy of the promo art.
So the story. You are 20-year-old Katie Greenbrier, who has come home from a year travelling in Europe to discover an empty, ransacked house. The entirety of the game is you exploring the house for clues as to what happened and where the rest of your family– your parents and 17-year-old sister Sam– have gone, and why.
The strongest part of this game is the actual gameplay.
The entire game takes place as you explore the Greenbrier’s home looking for clues. The story is told primarily via journal entries from Sam that trigger automatically as you explore the house, and ancillary information can be gleaned from tidbits you find laying about.
Whoever designed the actual layout of the house and the progression you’d take through it is a genius. It’s very hard to make a maze feel natural like this, have the doors and locks arranged precisely in a way that opens up areas only when they should be, but also feel like an organic setting and a place people may actually live and work. You begin with access to the main entryway and bathroom and slowly work your way through the house, lights flickering and thunder booming the whole way.
The game is a tonal masterpiece. Like Dear Esther, it’s one of those where you’re just sure there’s a jump scare around each next corner without being able to put your finger on exactly why. There’s a ghost story… or is there? You can never be sure. And the little bits of paper, the book titles, etc. you see as you explore so perfectly flesh out the characters without divulging too much or, as with the setting, feeling like they are part of a setting as opposed to part of a life.
The gameplay is really extraordinary, and if I were to rec this game it would be entirely based on that.
However, the story’s conclusion has some major issues, and unfortunately they left me with a bad taste in my mouth and the inability to really recommend this game.
There are definitely spoilers here, although the story itself was really, really predictable and knowing what happens, to me, doesn’t really detract from the gameplay experience.
It becomes obvious early on that the reason Sam is gone is that she was gay and her parents didn’t really react supportively so she ran away. Actually, to me, this was obvious basically right from the first journal entry, which is why I put the emphasis on gameplay here, not story.
However, despite the fact that this isn’t really original, it’s also not really prevalent, and there’s a need for these kind of representative stories to be out there. Unfortunately, though, I think reviewers latched on to the representation without ever stopping to consider if it was good… and this game ends up having some really, really bad messages.
First of all, there were some weird Chekhov’s Gun issues going on with the parents. You find religious stuff around the house, which seems to imply that the reason Sam is gone is either because she was kicked out or her parents had a Jesus-fueled shitfit and told her she was damned or something. Except… that doesn’t seem to be what happened. In fact, when Sam discusses her parents’ reaction, religion literally doesn’t come up. It’s like the writers were going to go that route, but chickened out of going through with it. Or maybe they just forgot? I really don’t know why all of those hints were there if nothing was going to come of it.
Which brings us to the conflict between Sam and her parents. Her parents… didn’t react that badly. They weren’t supportive, and suggested that maybe it was a phase, but they didn’t get angry and they didn’t attempt to talk her out of it. They just kind of ignored it and continued on.
And while I am not in any way saying this isn’t a hurtful or realistic reaction– your parents just ignoring an integral part of your identity is horrible and miserable– the fact is that it doesn’t make for a particularly interesting drama. Of all the realistic negative reactions they could have had, it was the most boring and kind of an emotional letdown for the audience, especially after all the religious implications that seemed to be leading to a huge blowup.
I’m not really sure why this decision was made. Possibly they thought the huge blowup would be too over-the-top, and/or they wanted to show that no reaction could be just as hurtful as a negative one.
As far as we’re told, all they did was say she and her girlfriend couldn’t be in her room alone with the door closed. Which… is the same rule every girl I know had with her significant other, male or female.
That’s literally the only change we hear about– you could kind of fanwank Sam becoming more distant from her parents, but she never says so, and on top of that you also find out her parents are having marital troubles, so there’s nothing to support them actively distancing themselves from her because of her orientation, and Sam doesn’t really seem affected by it in her journal entries anyway. Everyone involved just kind of drops the whole thing, which is really, really weird because to me, that should have been the climax of the story.
So you have this dramatic buildup that I honestly figured would result in them throwing her out, this bizarre letdown where no one reacts and everyone just kind of forgets about it, and then you have… the ending.
Early on, you find out Sam’s girlfriend is in the army, and she’s heading out-of-state to base after she graduates. She’s spent her whole life wanting to be a soldier and she’s very proud.
Meanwhile, Sam goes from being a bit of a problem student to really excelling when a teacher takes an interest in her writing, and gets into a super-prestigious pre-college creative writing program. I figured we’d find out Sam had just left for school or something, or to see her girlfriend off one last time.
Sam’s story has been us watching her struggle, realize who she is, own it, and succeed and be happy.
So of course, she throws it all away for high-school romance.
I was flabbergasted by this ending. I genuinely thought it was going to end with Sam and her girlfriend parting ways, each having learned about who they really are, finding power in that, and going on to succeed. That’s what we were being set up for.
Instead, the day after Girlfriend graduates, she calls Sam in tears and says she’s gone AWOL from army training and they need to run away together. Sam is totally behind this, and abandons all of her life plans to trounce around the Pacific Northwest with another teenager without telling anyone where they are. And this is the happy ending.
It’s not even the usual story of a young girl throwing away her life for ~love~, it manages to be the story of TWO young girls destroying their lives!
Why? Why did the game do this? The best I can figure, it’s that That’s What Girls Do. Girls give up their hopes and dreams for others. Two girls do it twice as much.
Because unlike the standard het romance where one person (ie, the female person) gives up everything, the writers somehow thought it’d be totally not awful to make them both give up everything, because they’re both women and what’s a story without all of the women involved making sacrifices always no matter what?
It would have been quite a bit more understandable, however, if Sam’s parents had flipped a shit at her. This goes back to the weirdness about the anticlimax of the story, and is why I brought it up– because that is what needed to happen to make her running away work. If her environment was so hostile she saw no other choice but to leave, the message could have been about lack of acceptance forcing young people to give up their dreams.
But it’s not, and I know it’s not, because Sam is fucking thrilled about the whole thing. This is the good ending to her. She hasn’t considered at all what she’s giving up and she never talks about having a real plan, just that she’s ~in love~ and following that impulse. She tells Katie to keep it all a secret because she’s running off to her happy ending now.
What is your income going to be, Sam? Where are you going to live? You’re a minor; you will be reported as a missing person. Are you planning to spend your life dodging the police? What happens if you want to break up with this girl? You’re aware of the success rate for high school relationships and the divorce rate, right?
But neither of them have thought about any of that, and this is because this isn’t a story about two marginalized people finding each other and finding power in acceptance, it’s a story about dippy highschool girls who make a terrible decision but it’s okay! It was for love!
As if we needed more of those.
In my head, Katie got done reading Sam’s journal, heaved a huge sigh, called the police, and wrote a long note to her sister about responsibility and how it really is possible to get over your first relationship.