For a game whose reputation for shifting the conversations on what a video game can and cannot do can never be overstated, it’s fascinating to come back to Gone Home, two years later, and remember just how small it actually is. Even a meticulous playthrough can be a done deal in less time than most movies. And yet there’s incredible density in those scant hours. In that small fraction of time, Gone Home accomplishes storytelling miracles.
The game achieves the magic trick that the best stories do, shifting and tweaking our perceptions of the real world and the people living within it. You look around your home, or someone else’s home, and try to piece together a tale of years, of love, failures, and regrets. One is instantly impressed by the realization that these particular lives had to be handcrafted, with enough painstaking attention to detail to feel believable, and with just enough gentle guidance to encourage discovery, to usher players along the narrative in something resembling an order without feeling like the game is on rails.
When Kaitlin Greenbriar returns to her family’s home, having moved and settled down after she went off to see Europe, the conceit is that she ultimately knows just as little about her own family as we do, but players are compelled and beckoned to change that by every little secret the house itself holds just by nature of the fact that it exists, and that it was lived in.
Kaitlin’s life is rather easily explained, but her dawning ignorance about the people her parents and sister truly are is its own plot development. Regardless, only one of those plots is given a voice in the narrative, and that’s Kaitlin’s sister, Sam. It’s her warning message taped to the front door stating that she’s run away and won’t be returning any time soon that grants the game’s early stretch a striking sense of urgency, as the player is pressed to discover why Kaitlin has come home to an empty house.
It’s here that the game’s pedigree as the product of a group of BioShock veterans reveals itself. Audio diaries were strewn around BioShock’s underwater city of Rapture, but so much more of what happened to the city had to be gleaned from walking its streets and observing the state of how homes, hovels, and storefronts were abandoned by denizens; there was a tale to unfold through all the torn photographs, waterlogged newspapers, and, of course, the trail of unfathomably mutilated corpses. Learning what’s happened to the family at the center of Gone Home similarly depends on processing the pieces of a creepy, though smaller-scale, aftermath.
We hear the voice of Kaitlin’s sister, Sam, at various points as she narrates her own journal, but otherwise everything else we learn about their family must be parsed out from what they left behind: elaborate, sarcastic notes on the family bulletin board, letters between friends, old sports trophies, rejection letters, company memos from work, long-buried legal documents. Most of what’s here is useless, random cups and books that can be picked up and examined, adding nothing to the world except to clue the player in that they can and should search everything. Even then, an obsessive searcher can wander through the Greenbriar house several times and find something they missed on the next playthrough that colors in who these people were.
The Greenbriars aren’t special, really, but it’s in the tiny human moments that they become extraordinary: a wife having faith in her husband achieving his dreams, even at the brink of estrangement; a girl discovering who she is and where in the world she belongs. The game’s grace lies in what these people do and don’t share with each other, in how they express the fears and urges that inhabit most people. It’s in this family’s simple humanity and the ability to immerse oneself in that humanity that Gone Home achieves greatness. It’s one of the finest, most relatable examples of the instant, incredible empathy that video games are capable of inspiring when the people making games in it remember how many worthwhile stories happen every day, to people who aren’t carrying automatic weapons into a warzone. It’s a testament to how capable the medium can be at letting players experience them to their fullest.