Level Up: Gone Home
Modern games, no matter how thought-provoking and emotionally complex, are often limited by the tropes of mainstream gaming. Bioshock Infinite may bend your mind with its multiverse plot, but it doesn’t change the fact that the majority of the game’s fun revolves around mass murder. There’s a certain discordance struck when an otherwise-relatable protagonist spends the majority of his time committing unspeakably violent acts. In this way, games are limited by their own definition. We play “first-person-shooters,” not “first-person-games.” This expectation of violence can be linked back to memory limitations in the earliest video games. Back then destroying an enemy meant freeing up the memory for another to appear. The only feasible way to make a playable video game was to base it on destruction.
Flash forward a few decades. New hardware allows for believable environments, dynamic characters, and persistent online worlds. Yet games largely remain violent power-fantasies. Gone Home defies the expectations of a first-person gaming experience. Set in ’90s suburbia you play as Kaitlin, a 20-something girl who has just returned home from a year abroad. Instead of a warm welcome, you find your family’s large house empty and disheveled.
Having not read anything about Gone Home prior to playing, my immediate impressions told me things might get spooky. You’re roaming around a dark house on a rainy night in a video game; what else could possibly happen? As I shuffled through drawers, reading old mail to try to figure out what happened to Kaitlin’s family I was even baited with notes about her little sister looking for ghosts. The environment is indeed oppressive, but Gone Home sets you up to think it’s a typical video game only to drive home the point that it’s not.
You’re never transported into the realm of phantasms or ultra-violence. Instead you explore the house, finding a host of texts: diaries, notes from school, letters. It’s all stuff that would be found in a typical house, yet it gives a window into each family member’s life and personal trials. Most of what you find centers around your younger sister’s realization that she’s homosexual and the hardships she faces due to this. Depending on how much you explore, you find that your parents’ paper trails have their own stories to tell. The subject matter is handled with an understated realism and never becomes melodramatic. The whole thing is wrapped up in a couple hours without any zombies, government conspiracies or secret cults in the basement.
Gone Home takes a mundane environment and makes it interesting without resorting to cheap thrills. You’re able to pick up and examine just about anything in the house. Little touches — like a recordable VHS tape with “The Dark Crystal” scrawled across it, SNES games, novels, magazines and cassette tapes that you can listen to in the stereo — create a huge nostalgia trip for anyone who grew up in the ’90s. Nothing especially “exciting” happens, but you’ll become immersed in the game’s world nonetheless. In fact, Gone Home became more enjoyable once I was firmly rooted in the world and no longer waiting for it’s gamey-ness to pop out of nowhere.
Gone Home is a game defined as much by what it isn’t as what it is. It speaks volumes about gaming norms that it’s a big deal to create a non-violent game set in the first person perspective. Gone Home is more akin to a realist short-story than the bombastic sci-fi, horror, or action that we expect from games. It’s not mind-blowing, but it’s an experience that gamers should be open to. It’s games like this that will take the medium out of the artistic ghetto and get people of all ages and sexes in on the conversation.