Impressions: Gone Home

By Nathan Grayson on November 15th, 2012 at 6:00 pm.

BioShock 2: Minerva’s Den was quite a special thing. It viewed the wildly fantastical world of Rapture through a surprisingly personal, down-to-earth lens, leading to one of the more brilliantly understated conclusions I’ve ever seen in a game. It was, then, with tremendous glee that we collectively squealed when we found out that the main thinkers behind Minerva were forming their own independent studio, The Fullbright Company. But what of their first game, Gone Home, which ups the character-driven mystery drama but throws out the undersea cities and drill arms (there’s not even one!) altogether? Can the seemingly simple act of exploring a house make for a good game? I recently got the chance to take a closer look.

I fear that I’m both the best and worst person who could’ve beamed down from the RPS mothership to investigate The Fullbright Company’s first stab at videogame storytelling bliss. See, while the four-person team largely emerged from the ashes of the utterly fantastic BioShock 2: Minerva’s Den, Gone Home didn’t actually remind me so much of that smartly told tale. I mean, there were certainly elements of it present, but I’ll remember Gone Home first and foremost for doing something to me that simply wasn’t fair.

It activated my prefrontal Fallout 3 cortex.

As soon as I stepped inside the purple-walled mystery mansion, I could feel it. The obsessive need to know what happened. You have to understand: this is how I play these sorts of games. If you give me a location littered with objects and notes and trophies and X-Files tapes and books and plastic ducks I will name Mr Quacks and carry with me for the entire game because I can, I will not stop until I’ve absorbed this place – my brain belching in contentment from a perfectly balanced meal of information. I play Fallout 3 and games of its ilk like some kind of radiation-crazed post-apocalyptic detective. “Shoo, super mutant who’s currently wailing on the back of my head with a traffic sign,” I say. “I must figure out why someone left this coffee cup in a filing drawer. It is my Everest.”

The best thing about Gone Home is that it doesn’t have super mutants. I think that’s what I’m trying to say with all of this. Seriously, though, there isn’t a single physical character in the game aside from Katie Greenbriar – who you’re playing as – and that’s brilliant. It’s a game that dares to ask if raw curiosity is enough to keep players absorbed in its seemingly mundane world, and – based on what I played, at least – the answer is an absolute, unequivocal yes. But again, you have to understand where I’m coming from. I adore this kind of thing. It may not end up being for everyone. I don’t actually know.

The setup – at least, initially – is actually quite simple. Katie returns home from a trip abroad on a Dark And Stormy Night to find that her family’s nowhere to be found. She’s gone home, and they’re just gone. And that’s it. But it was enough. I soon found myself poring over shelves, opening cabinets, digging through trash cans, and interacting with just about every item I could get my hands on. Which was pretty much all of them – with full 3D rotation as I saw fit, no less.

And some of them were entirely worthless. I mean, if every single object in this otherwise startlingly believable mansion was part of some elaborate breadcrumb trail, it’d kill the illusion. That, though, is how Gone Home dug its hooks so deeply into me: it just sort of turned me loose in this tiny slice of mid-90s suburbia, never once held my hand, and let me interpret for myself what it all meant. So sure, a cryptic note from Katie’s sister Samantha begging Katie not to tell their parents where she went might be pretty obviously linked to Gone Home’s central mystery, but other totally optional discoveries enhanced that tremendously.

[SLIGHT SPOILERS] For instance, I found three Bibles in the house – not to mention a very obviously Christian self-help book one of Katie’s parents had presumably purchased in a bid to rekindle the gasping embers of their relationship. In fact, their issues in general were a huge source of both great amusement and optional enrichment of the main plot. Another example: Katie’s father, a once-successful fiction author, had left a box of his old books in the mansion’s library. I picked one up to take a closer look, only to discover something far more sinister underneath: porn magazines. “Oh, dad. Ewwwwwww,” read a brief item description. [END SLIGHT SPOILERS]

[NO WAIT, MAYBE NOT - DEPENDING ON WHAT YOU CONSIDER A SPOILER] So then, what is that main plot, exactly? Well, you play as Katie, but the main character is definitely Samantha. In the game’s “present” (read: 1995), she’s a rebellious teenager, but objects, notes, and small novels – including an ongoing and ever-evolving pirate series penned by Samantha as she grew up – chronicle major events throughout her whole life. Meanwhile, certain objects trigger voice-over narrations of a diary she wrote to Katie while she was away, lending a more personal touch to the proceedings. The gist? She’s always been creative, a loner by virtue of circumstance – not choice – and as a result, fairly lonely. So as she gets older and grows more distant from her parents, she begins to make some rather drastic decisions. And I wish I could tell you more because things quickly get super interesting (far more so than stereotypical teenage “drama”), but that really would be spoiling the best bits. [END SPOILERS UNLESS YOU DIDN'T THINK THEY WERE SPOILERS TO BEGIN WITH]

That’s pretty much the game: playing archaeologist to a dysfunctional ’90s family’s life and unraveling the mysteries surrounding it. And it’s utterly captivating. Admittedly, there’s some light puzzle-solving, but don’t expect to push boxes or platform over a pit of lava that suddenly erupts into the living room. Rather, the focus is on exploring as you please, and puzzle-like scenarios just sort of emerge where it makes sense. The mansion, after all, once belonged to a Greenbriar family member who was considered a recluse and a bit off his rocker, so the place has secrets of its own. But even then, discovery’s the driving factor. Searching for hidden rooms, locker codes, etc. It never felt implausible or out-of-place given the otherwise refreshingly down-to-earth nature of the setting.

That does, however, feed into my main concern about Gone Home: dead ends. Obviously, The Fullbright Company has put enormous amounts of work into creating a story flow that makes sense regardless of how players approach it, but I still reached a point toward the end of my time with the demo where I didn’t really know where to head next. I’d collected half a locker code and followed haphazardly discarded notes to a fever pitch of intrigue, but I felt like I’d exhausted most of my options. I mean, I knew roughly where my “main” goal was hidden, but accessing it was a far more nebulous story. In that moment, the lack of direction became glaringly apparent. Who knows, though? I also might have been nearly nose-to-nose with a much-needed “eureka!” moment. It’s tough to say, given that I’d only just hit a wall my brain couldn’t soar over – in a majestic, eagle-like fashion – when Fullbright co-founder Steve Gaynor gave me the “time’s up” signal.

But I suppose what matters most in this case is the feeling I had as Gaynor dragged me out of his exceedingly purple virtual lair. Put simply, I wanted back in. I wasn’t exasperated or frustrated. Just really, really curious. I was right on the cusp of assembling all the puzzle pieces. I know I was. I just needed a little more time. Because obviously, [SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER] and [SPOILER SPOILER] but also [SPOILER], you [SPOILER]?

Check back tomorrow for the first part of a massive interview with Gaynor and co, wherein we discuss everything from the inspirations behind Gone Home to BioShock to crafting actual female characters for games – not just gender-neutral stand-ins. Also, ’90s teen dramas, because… videogames? 

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34 Comments »

  1. Wang Tang says:

    Whoa, I got a real flashback of cs_estate when I saw those pictures.

  2. Roz says:

    Looks good, reminds me of Dear Esther.

    • DJ Madeira says:

      Except Dear Esther was about as interactive as a stone tablet, while this promises to be a little more tangible.

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      ffordesoon says:

      Dear Esther was basically a really amazing iPhoto slideshow with an audiobook playing over it instead of an insipid pop song. Except, you know, it’s an audiobook you can only pause and play, and you have to hold down the W key and move the mouse around to keep it going, and the tape’s really effed up, so you have to wait for a long period of boring silence before you can hear the next paragraph.

      I’m glad it exists, as it’s a useful experiment, but it was an awful game.

      This sounds like Dear Esther if Dear Esther was actually good.

      • fitzroy_doll says:

        Dear Esther is the game that all other narrative/non-combat games will be compared to for some time, as it had the virtue of being first of this type for many people. The utility of DE now is that it showed how far a game can go from actually being a game while still being set within a game. Everyone now needs to work their way back, and Gone Home looks like a good start.

      • Jeroen D Stout says:

        My alternative opinion is that Dear Esther is a brilliant game.

        • luukdeman111 says:

          Dear Esther was unique, innovative and fairly interesting but I wouldn’t call it good…

          • Jeroen D Stout says:

            My parents and grandmother beg to differ – plus, the game ideal for grabbing one’s lover and ‘walking an island together with crackers and cream cheese’.

            For me it never quite gets old, like a good painting one can keep re-visiting.

            I think the subjective element is is that for people like me, Dear Esther is very well made and rarely equalled. I am very pleased games like Gone Home explore the ‘domestic’ side (as opposed to Dear Esther’s ‘exalted’ side) while keeping in the same territory as Dear Esther.

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    Faldrath says:

    This looks like it could be quite special, and I’m glad it’s nothing like Bioshock (which bored me to tears – although I never played Bioshock 2). Thanks for the article!

    • Jamesworkshop says:

      Minervas den was bioshock that didn’t over stay it’s welcome

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        Stellar Duck says:

        Haven’t played Minervas Den (I can’t be assed to by it through GFWL) but I genuinely enjoyed Bioshock 2. I think it was far better than the first one.

        • Marik Bentusi says:

          Agreed! It didn’t have *that one plot twist*, but also not the tons of plot holes required to set it up, and I genuinely enjoyed the character-driven story much more than BS1′s tale of snobs engineering their own demise. Plus they put Ryan in a much more human light and got rid of the original’s mustache-twirling Saturday morning cartoon super-villain trying to take over the world with science.

          Twisting BS1′s Good Ending into BS2′s villain’s brainwashing campaign was a particular strike of genius in my opinion. Tho I also very much appreciated playing a character with an actual place in this world instead of some Afghan Cap.

          Still had its faults of course, but the good bits are what I’ll remember ten years from now.

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            Stellar Duck says:

            Sure, it wasn’t a perfect game by no means. It had the same issues I found in the first one: I don’t actually like the combat very much and there’s a lot of it.

            But the story seems more… measured and thoughtful compared to the, as you put it, mustache twirling, of the first one. I’d say it’s a more mature game in the sense that it knows what it is.

        • MadTinkerer says:

          I too WISH THEY WOULD PUT IT ON SOMETHING BESIDES GFWL. It’s quite simple: every download service that has the game should have all the DLC available as well. Because otherwise it’s just madness.

          I might break down eventually, though. How many years has it been now?

          • fitzroy_doll says:

            It’s worth it – there will never be more underwater Bioshock, so you should soak up what’s already out there.

  4. Paul says:

    Scoops is my favourite idle thumber despite not actually being one,I have been reading his blog since his FEAR days..I am glad the write-up was so positive, I am very hopeful for this studio. Looking forward to the interview.

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    Stellar Duck says:

    This game will be instantly bought by me. If for nothing else, to throw some money at Scoops and his guys.

    But really, I think games in general can do great things when it comes to exploring spaces and I’m glad to see someone taking up the challenge. I want to support and reward that.

  6. kyrieee says:

    Nice, you got the reference in there at the last possible moment

  7. Koozer says:

    Does the game end with the front door opening? “Oh hey Kate, welcome home! Could you give us a hand with the shopping?”

  8. Doomsayer says:

    Anyone else think this could be the X of video games?

    • Shuck says:

      I dunno, I’m not getting much of an Exene Cervenka/John Doe punk vibe from it.

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      Stellar Duck says:

      I think it’ll be the Killzone 2 of videogames.

    • JBantha says:

      Perhaps, but it has a lot to do if it want to become the X on the Blue Blood era. Especially since the tema lacks a true Pata.

  9. The Random One says:

    This sounds very, very interesting. I’ll be paying a lot of attention to how this develops.

  10. DXN says:

    Just that postcard alone is some of the best writing I’ve ever seen in videogames. Not because there’s anything flashy or spectacular about it. In fact, probably exactly because there isn’t.

    If anyone isn’t aware, Steve Gaynor is a frequent co-host on the recently-ish restarted, and still excellent, Idle Thumbs podcast: http://www.idlethumbs.net/

  11. Premium User Badge

    Stellar Duck says:

    Incidentally, in case anyone is interested Steve Gaynor recently played Minervas Den with Idle Thumbs. The video can be found here: http://www.twitch.tv/idlethumbs/b/339126396

  12. JBantha says:

    I wish they could waste a bunch of money so we all could play it on our native language. A bad translation or even “not so common english words” can kill a game like this in a market overseas (I’m talking Spanish)
    Love.

  13. kupocake says:

    This article totally just reminded me that Minerva’s Den was a thing, specifically a thing that I hadn’t yet purchased and played despite moaning loudly when 2K wouldn’t release it on the PC. It’s under £4 at the moment, and I was looking for something quick to play, so instant purchase.

    I may one day thank you for reminding me that Minerva’s Den exists. But I cannot thank you for the half an hour I just spent with Games For Windows Marketplace. My favourite bit was when it wouldn’t let me log in, because of an error, then it sent me to a 404 page with a humourous and totally useful and not irritating “Tee-hee whoops” message. A hiccup at every turn, a masterclass in poor user experience after all these years.

  14. kwyjibo says:

    “It’s a game that dares to ask if raw curiosity is enough to keep players absorbed”

    Is it as absorbing as Peter Molyneux’s Curiosity? Is it going to change my life?

  15. Wedge says:

    This interests me. Any game where you can go rummaging through people’s houses, I always enjoy looking for any hints they’ve put in as to what kind of people live(d) there. It’s one of my favourite parts of Deus Ex: HR, where they made slight variations on the otherwise identical apartments, that were tuned to the type of person living there, usually based on what you could gleam from the e-mails on their computer.

  16. Bacillus says:

    For me one of the most favourite gaming experiences ever was the DuClare Chateau in Deus Ex. There’s something quite amazing in putting the player into a house filled with mysteries and clues and letting him figure it out from there.

    • eroticfishcake says:

      Yeah I’m getting that same vibe from this also (the music in that one level also helped) but yeah I think there’s some really good fun to be had in exploring someone’s house specifically. I think it’s because it’s so personal to the owners that you can sort of get a glimpse of what people are like if you examine all the stuff strewn about the place.

      Also I stopped reading to a point in the article because potential spoilers but have they mentioned anything on a release date? I’ve been keeping an eye on this for a while and I haven’t heard much since.

  17. Junkie says:

    I guess it doesn’t help obtain the Minerva’s Den DLC, but I do have a coupon code from Gamefly for Bioshock 2 for $5. If you use it, please just write “taken” below. Expires 28 Nov. 2012.

    Gamefly code: GFDHPGTM3HJ66FKK

  18. Charles de Goal says:

    Wearing a béret hasn’t been a Parisian thing for decades!