It doesn't take much to fall under Gone Home's spell, presuming you play it correctly. Yes, it's one of those games. The kind of game that will let you fall in love with it given you provide the means.
Clear a solid couple-hour block from your life and give the four-person Fullbright Company's debut the benefit of a quiet night, a darkened room, and your nicest pair of cans. In return, you'll walk away with something special: A multilayered and surprisingly mature, succinct and satisfying story about family and discovery, both literal and figurative.
Indeed, Gone Home is not your average first-person experience. The entrance to an empty house on a stormy hill, a concerning phone message, and your uncanny ability to examine your incredibly detailed surroundings greet this nostalgic, oft spooky, journey. What begins as a mystery to discover what happened in the empty Greenbriar household soon evolves into something both surprising and refreshing.
Since only two button-presses are all you have to worry about – left click to grab stuff, right click to zoom and interact with said grabbed stuff – Fullbright wagered narrative and atmospheric strength over that of its mechanics. This proved mostly successful, though I admit it took a while to see why. A few minutes spent aimlessly rummaging through the Greenbriar household felt jarring at first. Do something, I thought while sifting through the house.
This is where the pacing bogs down and the painfully slow character movement sometimes makes moving across the house a chore, but that’s all at the mercy of human error.
Eventually, though, I found that “something.”
That’s the moment the Fullbright is waiting for; the moment you need patience to find. From there, narrative progression comes steady.
The amount of careful detail packed within every inch of the house means much enjoyment hinges on the player’s inherent curiosity. Not everything is important, nor is every nook and cranny worth exploring, and sometimes you’ll feel caught up in the need to open every drawer like a burglar out for every dime. But once FullBright’s design intentions became clear, I started approaching Gone Home’s world less like a video game and more like a real house. A house with its fair share of secrets, sure, but a house all the same.
As you tumble through the different rooms looking for direction, you’ll examine personalized mix tapes, their similarly decorated cassette cases, sticky notes, journal entries, and a living-room full of sharpie-marked VHS tapings of your favorite sci-fi classics circa 1995. These feel almost too appropriate considering the setting, as the stormy night and whining doors, windows, and pipes mingle to make the empty house feel an awful lot like an X-Files cold open sans a title-card stinger.
It’s in this mood and attention to detail that Fullbright finds the most success as they establish a proper sense of tension to keep you moving throughout.
There is no easy way to speak about Gone Home because it is so different than what’s currently on the market. Its closest relatives in terms of design and atmosphere – Myst or Riven – reside in a bygone era.
On one hand, Gone Home is a $20 investment in a short game that likely won’t compel a second play through, won’t keep you going for hours throughout the night, and might put a strain on the lower-end computers. On the other, the initial journey is good enough to largely recoup those shortcomings.
It’s a game best played completely blind, but for the sake of the review, I will say this: what Gone Home offers is not readily apparent until after the first hour. Between then and the start, relatively scant mechanics and an intense focus on reading handwritten notes hidden around the house may draw those hungry for points, quick thrills, or Amnesia-esque scares away from what is otherwise a thoughtful story with a huge heart.
Those willing to take in what Fullbright is selling will find one of the most unique experiences in video games to date and a strong example for gaming’s capacity as a storytelling device.
You might only return to the Fullbright Company’s home once, but you’ll be thankful you did.