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?