In the Summer of 2015, I picked up Gone Home, a game that was getting a lot of good reviews. It still retails for $15, so my $2.40 purchase was a steal. (Thanks Steam!) Today, Covid-19 has caused governments and state agencies to recommend against traveling for Thanksgiving, and my wife and I find ourselves longing to have gone home for the holiday. So I thought, why not replay a game all about going home!
Gone Home is considered a walking simulator, but it’s much more than that. Over the last week or two, one of my closest friends shared a story he wrote and it got us talking about storytelling in general and how far video games have come specifically. Then, just this week, Roger also wrote a review of one of the anime series he recently enjoyed and he commented that none of the titular superpowers mattered to him; he was in the story for the emotional journey. Gone Home exemplifies the best of these qualities. It’s storytelling, and with a very deep, emotional core.
The story opens with a voicemail that you are leaving your family. You play Kaitlin Greenbriar, who has returned home from an overseas trip. Due to a midnight arrival, Kaitlin’s message tells her mom and dad not to come pick her up from the airport. The first image (after a retro cassette spins the loading screen) is of your front porch and the time: 1:15am, June 6th, 1995. There’s a note on the door from your sister saying she’s not home either. There’s a hint of something ominous as the rain pours down, adding to a creepy atmosphere. Televisions left on and emergency broadcasts just add to the spookiness, and some of the journal entries refer to the “psycho house” that your family moved into. Finding books about poltergeists adds to the sense of unease. As you explore the house, there’s a definite sense of something supernatural, including a Ouija board, secret panels and a passage that has a hand-made cross where, upon picking it up, the light goes out. There’s also some fun genre related items to spot throughout the house. (As a fan of Twin Peaks and The X-Files, I was delighted to see references to those shows in the game!) But the entire exploration of the impressive home opens journal entries from your sister. It’s a slow build but an engrossing one. Often, it’s the subtle things that crop up that give you a hint of who you are and what’s going on. And the realization of why your mom and dad are not home also takes a bit of work. (I thought there was something unhappy going on, but found that there was a very positive reason the parents were away.)
I have to admit: I like action games. Think of games like Mass Effect; I want story, but I want action to propel it forward. This game has minor puzzles, but they are very easy to solve; it’s not an adventure game. Solving puzzles is really about finding the next journal entry that unlocks a direction. There’s actually only one real puzzle and it’s not required to be solved to end the game. (I was pleased to have actually solved it though!) Yet, even without action and mind-bending puzzles, I had become so invested in this very real, earthly story that I couldn’t stop playing. 95 minutes after starting, I had completed it and realized I took part in what was effectively an interactive movie. (In fact, the game only has 2 voice actors!) The main story made me a little sad, because I hate how many people are forced to hide their true selves from others (which I talked about this week in my Torchwood write-up, ironically.) I can’t imagine needing to wear a mask all my life, literally or proverbially! Sam’s story is really what the game is all about; you’re playing to learn where your sister is, and I could not wait to find out.
As much as I love supernatural stuff, the very real feeling of nostalgia is what pulled me into the game. While the “psycho house” is far larger than the one I grew up in, every step of the way I was thinking of the house I grew up in. There’s not a room in that house that I don’t have fond memories of: playing video games in the basement with friends (like Quake II) or pretending my sister and I we were crawling through a tunnel under her trundle-bed when she was a baby or watching the premiere of Star Trek: The Next Generation with my dad in the living room or scaring my mom by pretending to be a shark in our pool (you think I’m kidding…!). This game evokes all of those wonderful emotions, bringing another home to life. And it made me realize that if a house were to pick up the emotions of the owners, ours will be forever laughing.
Some of those items really resonated with me, like seeing print-outs from a dot matix printer. Goodness, do I remember those! The noise they made! And music plays a part in this game too. There are audio cassettes all over the place that you can play anytime you find a tape deck. (I didn’t care of the music, though!) Though you can’t play the video tapes, seeing them was delightful, especially seeing the hand written titles like we used to have. And notebooks pages! Who doesn’t remember that from grade school? There was even one of those tape-punch label machines. (I had to search a bit but they seem to have been cleverly called a “manual label makers”!)
Today is Thanksgiving! It’s a day for going home and being with family. While we won’t be traveling physically, I’ll be there in spirit and I know we’ll be together in our hearts. I wouldn’t trade my home for the home in this game, because as great as this little game is, it can’t come close to the memories I have from my youth. But it can bring some very positive emotions to the forefront of your minds.
To all of our friends and family here at the Junkyard, I wish you all a very Happy Thanksgiving. If you can’t go home, at least be there in spirit. Have a safe and healthy holiday, wherever you end up! ML