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How “Gone Home” Manipulated Us (And Why That’s Awesome)
It is a dark and stormy night. I am alone. I’ve dropped off my waterlogged backpack in a heap and, after rummaging around for the hidden keys to the entrance of my parents’ drafty home, I spot a note scrawled on the door. I instantly recognize my sister Sam’s handwriting, where she hastily apologizes for disappearing, begging to be left unfound.
Our mansion of a home is silent inside. As the lamps struggle to flicker on between violent strikes of lightning, I notice boxes are left strewn about. Nobody appears to be in the house. The answering machine is blinking with the signal of new messages, and I instinctively thump on the playback button as I walk by. I’m greeted by the unsettling audio of a woman’s voice, begging for my sister to pick up through labored gasps and tears.
Floorboards creak as I edge down the hallway. Sounds are coming from the living room, and a quivering static can be seen bleeding from the doorway. The Psycho House, they used to call it, as schoolyard legends of my long-dead uncle haunting the halls used to terrify neighborhood children. Sam used to think she could speak to him with a Ouija board. Whatever happened to that, anyway?
I peer into the living room. The noise was our television set, ominously left on, the room in a shambles of pizza containers and stray cassette tapes. A simultaneous blast of thunder and lightning sent me back a few inches, and my heart skipped a beat.
You’d be forgiven for thinking this game was moments away from turning into a jump-scare horrorfest on par with Amnesia: The Dark Descent. I could not have been more wrong.
(Warning: Big-time spoilers ahead. The game is absolutely worth a playthrough to experience at your own pace, and in your own way.)
As your journey through Gone Home continues, you unravel through your first-person rummaging of your house a very real, very believable, and very emotionally captivating plotline that transforms your house into exactly what it is to your character: a home.
This game entirely caught me off guard with its initially uneasy atmosphere, and I like that. It fits the mentality of the character, the student who has “gone home” from touring abroad and finds her house in a strangely empty limbo. Every detail of the setting is explained with surprisingly logical reasoning. Mom and Dad are on vacation in an attempt to rekindle their romance. The messy, upturned, chaotic kitchen is mid-renovation. And of course, we come to know in the final seconds exactly where our beloved little sister Sam is, and that leaves the player feeling the warmest of all.
But before any of those details are ascertained, we’re thrust into an unfamiliar and disconcerting setting, only amplified by our experiences as gamers. Bioshock is singlehandedly responsible for nurturing my twitch-response reflexes. In fact, any first-person adventure that thrusts you into a series of dark rooms tends to already paint the picture of a survival-horror ghost story. In Gone Home, the only ghosts are the voices and notes of your family members, who I can happily say are all very alive and well.
We’ve been conditioned. We’ve been trained, and we’ve been primed, to enter the videogame experience with our basic human instinct of survival on overdrive. Where’s my shotgun? Where are my medkits? Where’s the wandering monster? In these desires, I was disappointed, and my god, I was happy about that.
But that’s exactly what Gone Home wants to, for lack of a better term, drive home. Welcome, hardcore gaming elite, it calls, beckoning you to enter the house. Welcome veterans of zombie shooters and horror adventures. We’ve got something that looks like it was made just for you. I give developers The Fullbright Company an incredible amount of credit. They recognized the cliches. They recognized the tropes. And they used it, to their incredibly effective advantage.
Tropes are fantastic, but the fact that they do exist has us stuck in a bit of a hole. It’s hard to feel like everything hasn’t been done in some form before, and sure, Gone Home could be drawn as a parallel to classic point-and-click adventure games in the vein of Myst. What the game does do pretty uniquely is take these formulas that have been done and plopped them somewhere else. To wit, Genre Shift.
Storytelling has the freedom to soar when the pillars of creation are challenged. An in-game example that left me chuckling long after my first discovery was the note left near your younger sister’s bedroom. It’s not uncommon in any room-exploration segment of any game to simply wander through, leaving doors open and flicking on lamps with careless abandon. Turns out the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, as your parents demand that your sister stop “leaving every damn light in the house on! You’re as bad as [the player]!”
It’s kind of like when we were little kids, and that weird flash you just saw out of your bedroom window absolutely, beyond a shadow of a doubt, had to be a ghost. Left alone to your own devices, your childhood imagination formed the entire shape, form, gait and purpose of this creature that just came into existence moments ago. In the bright sunlight of morning, though, you realize the flash was the reflection of a vehicle passing by. Atmosphere is everything. Gone Home knows this, and manipulates you with it. The lights will flicker, and then you’ll find the electrician’s note commenting on the faulty wiring of the house. It’s all the elements of a white-knuckle thriller, wrapped up in a coming-of-age socially significant love story.
After finishing my experience, I hopped on Twitter to proclaim that “this is why we let indies do their thing.” But even big-budget titles have been getting on board with the idea of twisting conventions, ever since Andrew Ryan asked us if we would kindly have our minds blown.
And really, at the end of the day, maybe the game is just a highly fleshed out sandwich simulator: