FBT is home alone
During the mid-nineties, Katie Greenbriar returns from an extended EuroTrip to find the house her family recently moved into deserted. As she explores, Kate tries to figure out where the family is, and what’s been happening since she left. And, that’s it.
Gone Home was the game to coin the term ‘walking simulator’ - we do nothing but walk around a house; to me, that’s fine when it’s Stauff or Spencer’s Mansions because they’re creepy or dangerous, but this is just a suburban house in Oregon. I’m just walking about, poking around? Yes, and I’m fascinated. Turns out I’m just really, really nosy.
There’s something compelling about going through other people’s stuff. It’s just so intimate. I didn’t expect it to be fun rifling through my little sister’s drawers, my mum’s bedside cabinet or dad’s study, but here I am, feverishly looking for tit-bits and gossip, trying to discover family secrets. I mean yeah, I’m supposed to figure out where the hell they are and what’s happened, but hey, I wanna know what secrets they kept from me first.
What’s also great is it being set in the 90s. It gets the feel, sounds and look of the era right down to the analogue. The VHS’ and what’s recorded on them, the cassettes with Riot Grrrl on them, the goss mags, festival posters and the stereos, it’s a simulator of my teen years. If Katie’s room had an Elvira calendar and a G n R poster, I’d be home.
Peeking into their lives is engrossing, but I fill in the blanks with intrigue - the TVs are still on, there’s ominous notes, and Katie’s 17 year old sis, Sam, was convinced the house is haunted; like all teens in the 90s, she scared herself with a Ouija board and began detailing strange occurrences; I picked up a crucifix and a light blew. In that classic horror trope, the house – which has a nickname, ‘psycho house’ - was willed to them by a mysterious uncle. That’s it, Uncle Greenbriar is alive and sacrificed them for immortality. Solved.
Alone, I start to imagine all sorts of wild theories; there’s a murderer and he’s still in the house; Sam killed Mum and Dad. Dad killed Mum for the affair I think she’s having … Might not all be my imagination though; I’m sure I can hear footsteps upstairs. I just heard a doorknob rattle, but maybe it was just the storm … It gets to me how I’m all alone. What if I’m that girl at the start of a horror film, the one left home alone who’s chatting on the phone about boys while making popcorn … or maybe the family just missed my message and they’re still waiting for me at the airport.
The house is amazingly well done. It’s detailed just enough to keep you focused - that the family is still unpacking was a stroke of genius; if it’s unpacked, it’s important. Most of the rooms are dark giving it a haunted house feel, but flick on the light and it feels homely. Plus, that’s a subtle way of keeping track of rooms you’ve been in - although I’d swear some turn off again … That’s it! It isn’t a murderer, Dad’s just following me around turning the lights off.
Because it’s a regular home, most rooms are open so you can discover things out of order. I found an answerphone opposite the front door I could have spotted on entering but didn’t, and its messages threw out some of my theories and set me off on others. There’s such subtlety in the writing and plotting; without a doubt I missed clues, notes and recordings, but each is cleverly self-contained until you find a bit more, or a random object suddenly has significance when you make a connection later. It’s just so satisfying to discover a bit more about this average family that’s going through typical stuff; but it means something to them.
The one you really get to know is Sam, whose burgeoning adolescence, struggles in school and slow-burn friendship with the cool girl become a focus. Eventually, I realise I’ve shifted from searching for the salacious reveals or scaring myself and become concerned. I’m worried that Dad has become distant, nervous about finding Mum’s notes about a guy at work, and I’m totally absorbed with Sam and her struggles. I even start to feel guilty for leaving them to go travelling. Still, I'm not giving up on the undead uncle thing.
Surprisingly, Katie has no internal monologue and never expresses any concern about where the family’s gone. I even start to suspect her; she just walks in and starts going through their stuff? Cleaning up evidence are we, Katie? Euro trip just an alibi? But it makes sense gameplay-wise. Her talking to herself would become our hint-guide and we’d lose interest. This way, the pace and urgency is all on us; you could almost just plonk Katie down in front of MTV and chill. It’s the 90s, I bet Bevis and Butthead’s on.
As I unlock the final room, I realise I don’t care how it ends, I just don’t want it to end. I care about this family, and I feel a part of it. The whole house is a puzzle but what you’re deciphering is other people’s private wishes and wants. I’m so involved; I’ve created scenarios, events, supernatural happenings and horrors but now I'm facing the final door. I think I know, and I really hope, but I don’t want to go in there. It’s so tense. I keep Katie staring at the floor, I’m unwilling to turn on the light. When I do, of course, I totally called it … I’m happy to reach the end, but I’m sad to be leaving the Greenbriar family. And the 90s.
Gone Home was developed by the team behind Minvera’s Den, the Bioshock 2 DLC that was better than Bioshock 2 (and Infinite). It was Minvera’s Den that convinced me to give Gone Home a go, and now I’ll play anything Fullbright do. Gone Home provoked a discussion around what constitutes a game and how the medium can be used; I had at least as much fun nosing around Katie’s home as I’ve had in any shooter or free-roamer. Maybe more so because it was so intimate and involving. Fullbright were so aware of what they were doing; that bathtub had me going for a second ... this game messes with you, but not nearly as much as you mess with yourself.
Gone Home was an amazing experience. This isn’t just a walking sim, it’s a walking example of games-as-art, exactly the kind of thing gaming was made for. It’s important to just stop and look around once in a while, even in a game. Just be careful digging through Mom’s bottom drawers.