If I were to wander through your house while you were out and thumbed through your mail, your medicine cabinet, your closet or your night stand, what story would unfold? What would the notes, the books and the keepsakes scattered throughout say about you, your values, your fears and desires? Few of us would be comfortable allowing someone to do this. Perhaps we feel this way because our possessions tell stories that are often very personal. Gone Home, the first game from the Fullbright Company, sets players loose to explore an old house that a family recently moved into. More than a videogame about voyeurism, Gone Home invites players behind the curtain of a family’s life and in so doing tells one of the most intimate and compelling stories I have experienced.
Gone Home puts us in the shoes of Kaitlyn Greenbriar, a recent high school graduate who returns to her parents’ home after a year long trek through Europe to find the house empty. One of the first things I find is a note from Katie’s sister, Sam, asking Katie not to go snooping around the house trying to figure out where she went. It’s an invitation to be voyeuristic. I’m Katie, and Sam is my sister, so I do what any good sister would and completely disregard Sam’s request. I immediately leap into the role of the voyeur.
Early in the game I discover that the house has a shady past, and that Katie left for Europe before the family inherited the house from a deceased uncle. I also find a frantic, emotional message left for Sam on the family’s answering machine. These discoveries engender an immediate sense of unease, but as I explore what I find is more poignant than any ghost story or murder mystery.
Discovering specific notes, receipts and mementos mysteriously triggers selections from Sam’s diary as I explore the house. “Diary” might not be entirely accurate as Sam’s words are directly addressed to Kaitlyn Greenbriar. These diary entries provide a necessary narrative framework, leaving the player to fill in important gaps in the story through observation of the environment.
Therein lies what makes Gone Home special—it gives us a reason to be curious, and then trusts our curiosity to drive us through the story. The player’s experience is almost entirely self-motivated. There are no objective screens, no prompts telling you what you should do next or warning you that you might be doing it wrong. As Steve Gaynor, co-founder of the Fullbright Company, told Paste during GDC, “if you are playing at all, the only reason is your own inherent curiosity.”
Gone Home‘s world is small but dense and packed with realistic details that immediately endear Sam to me. Found objects and the diary segments tell a very personal story. It reminds me of numerous experiences I had growing up and the more I engage with the environment, the more I learn about Sam, her parents and the history of their house. The more I dig, the more Sam tells us about her struggles trying to make friends at a new school, her strained relationship with her parents, and her new but intense love for punk music and riot grrrl culture. (The game even features full songs from Bratmobile and Heavens to Betsy.) Most importantly though I watch Sam’s romantic interest in a rebellious classmate grow into a first love.
The more I investigate my surroundings the more privy I become not just to Sam’s experience, but also to that of her parents. While Sam is coming of age, her parents are coming to terms with the life they’ve lived and anticipating their home soon becoming an empty nest. The elder Greenbriars’ story shows what time can do to the sort of love that Sam is just now experiencing for the first time.
Gone Home takes great care never to tell me what to think or how to feel about its story. Because Gone Home never tells me what to do or who my enemies are or how to win, I am free to consider and feel for its complicated, flawed, but very relatable characters. While Sam’s parents’ story and the history of the Greenbriar estate are interesting, Sam’s life rightly takes center stage. It serves as a helpful window into the life of someone who is simultaneously very similar and very different from myself. If there is any agenda to this story it is that of empathy—the game merely asks that we hear Sam out. That isn’t difficult to do, as her story is poignant both in its content and the interactive method by which it is delivered. I have read Sam’s mail as it were and I not only feel like I know her, but I have grown to care about her too.
Will Wright, creator of The Sims and Sim City, once said, “games are not the right medium to tell stories…videogames are more about story possibilities.” Gone Home challenges such notions, not only by telling a wonderful story but by setting players free in the game world and trusting them to uncover it. By refusing to tell us what to do in the game, it communicates a self confidence that most games lack. The result is an unforgettable story that’s intensely personal but universally powerful. To play Gone Home is to grow deeply invested in the lives of a family we’ll never know but in which we can all see different aspects of our own families and our own selves.