An agonisingly long month after the North American release, The Fullbright Company’s Gone Home finally gets its EU release on PS4 and Xbox One. Gone Home is a game with no set goals, so it’s up to the individual player to uncover multiple story elements to get the full picture of the events that preceded the beginning of the game.
You play as Kaitlin Greenbriar, a 21 year-old returning to her family’s new home (willed to her father by his uncle) in Arbor Hill, Oregon after spending a year travelling round Europe. Kaitlin arrives in the early hours of a stormy night in June 1995. The game’s brief introduction is an answer-phone message from Kaitlin telling her family she’s coming home early, that she’ll make her own way home from the airport, and how much she’s looking forward to seeing them all.
The game itself begins with Kaitlin arriving on the darkened front porch, to find a cryptic note from her kid sister Sam taped to the locked front door, telling her not to go looking for answers as to where she is. From this point you’re basically on your own, aside from a very brief tutorial that explains movement, environment interaction and how to access the map and inventory.
It doesn’t take long to find the key that gets Kaitlin inside the house proper, only to then discover that her parents have also disappeared. Aside from a few locked doors, which you’ll have to find keys for, you’re free to wander the house and interact with nearly every object within the Greenbriar residence. The map does prompt you from time to time as to what to do next, but only after you’ve uncovered the relevant information.
The house itself is a typically huge (by British standards) American suburban household, with multiple en suite bedrooms, twisting corridors and obligatory basement and attic. The interior is exquisite, with wood panelled and wallpapered walls in every room. Cardboard boxes, evidence of the recent move, occupy most rooms – some with the name of the relevant room written in marker pen.
You’re able to interact with pretty much anything in the house that turns grey when you hover the cursor over it. Tissue boxes, soda cans, pin badges, magazines, the list is endless. Opening and closing doors, cupboards and drawers, literally searching high and low as you try to work out where the other members of the Greenbriar family have gone.
You’re rewarded for taking the time to explore and investigate, as the main story line (Sam’s disappearance) is drip fed through Sam’s journal, triggered at certain points, which Sam narrates as you continue your exploration. These help to build a picture of what happened to the family whilst Kaitlin was travelling.
The plot runs the gambit of emotions, from sadness to joy, and everything in between. There are sub plots involving the whereabouts Kaitlin’s parents and the house’s former occupant. The only drawback is that it gets a little tiresome inspecting a toilet roll or marker pen for what feels like the umpteenth time to glean information.
Fullbright’s attention to detail is amazing. As the game is set in the mid 90’s, you’ll come across plenty of signs of the era, such as recordable VHS tapes, with handwritten titles such as The Dark Crystal and Silence Of The Lambs, magazines featuring Nirvana, and Super Nintendo cartridges (for fictitious games). I even found a handwritten scrap of paper with Chun-Li’s special moves for Streetfigher II.
To give another example on the level of detail, I accidentally threw a book down towards a swivel chair, which then span where the book caught it, until it gradually came to rest. I did something similar later dropping a pencil on a desk, which rolled off due to its momentum before clattering to the floor.
Gone Home’s musical score is incredibly subtle, with soft background music playing – not that you’d notice over the ever present sound of howling wind and driving rain. A brief few chords signal another excerpt from Sam’s journal when a clue is uncovered. The only other source of music comes from finding cassette tapes dotted around the house – luckily there’s always a hi-fi or tape recorder close by. The cassettes are all grunge (the reason for their presence are revealed through Sam’s journal entries), so I didn’t listen to a whole tape as it really isn’t my taste in music.
The general mood of the game is quite sombre, returning to an empty house when fully expecting a warm welcome home, especially after a year away is hardly a joyous occasion. There are some moments that add levity to proceedings, like finding Kaitlin’s parents self-help book for mature couples looking to reignite their sex life (like, ewww!). The overall pace of Kaitlin’s movement is kept deliberately slow, perhaps due to the sense of foreboding.
The puzzles range from specific to quite vague, there were a few moments of frustration, sometimes due to intricate false leads, but then that euphoric moment when you realise you’d seen the clue elsewhere in the house and retracing your steps to the right place to double check your workings (as nothing is written down).
All in all, it’s hard to pin down exactly what Gone Home is – exploration plays a huge part, but even due to being unnerved by present circumstances, it’s certainly not survival horror (although there are a few teases). Playing Gone Home is a more like reading a beautifully written novel, with gradual twists and turns leading to the concluding chapter, where you uncover the big secret to Sam’s disappearance.
If you’re a fan of fast-paced, shoot ‘em up, high octane experiences, Gone Home may not be quite what you’re looking for. If, on the other hand, you like a more leisurely pace and like to put your thinking cap on, Gone Home is well worth investing a few hours in. Bear in mind that the game is short, I completed it in a single sitting, having uncovered the vast majority of the main plot and enough of the sub-plots to get a good idea of what had happened in the Greenbriar household.