Something of a cross between The 7th Guest and Dear Esther, without the pointless puzzles of the former or the stretched-out symbolism of the latter, Gone Home is the tale of Kaitlin’s return from a year-long pre-college trip through Europe, and the much-changed home she finds waiting for her on a dark and stormy night. (Her family moved into her uncle’s mansion while she was away.) Set in 1995, as much for the achingly nostalgic effect on its target demographic as for storytelling purposes that cannot be explained without spoiling the game itself, Gone Home drops you at the Front Porch and leaves it to you to figure out how to proceed—and how to interpret the various letters and correspondences scattered throughout the various rooms.
Is your father a conspiracy nut, or is he simply researching material for his latest science-fiction thriller? Read the Post-it notes at his desk and try to ignore the bottle of whiskey hidden atop his bookshelf. Is your mother having an affair with a fellow conservationist, or is she trying to reconnect through couples bowling? Examine the watercolor paintings she’s taken up as a hobby. Most critically, why has your little sister, Sam, left an ominous note on the front door, explaining that “it is impossible” for her to see you ever again?
Despite Kaitlin’s family’s conspicuous absence and the haunting atmosphere, there’s no pressure to rush through the game. Instead, Gone Home provokes a sense of jamais vu, hoping that the uncanny presentation of the real, intimate, and nostalgic will encourage you to examine the countless mundane objects—tissue boxes, high school trophies, dirty dishes, a condom in your parents’ dresser drawer—that tell a story both familiar and not.
Not that impatient players have to dig through the digital detritus of this fictional family’s life to progress. While the game appears open at first, a series of confessional audio recordings from Sam soon focus your attention on key areas and provide an emotional impetus to proceed. As she unburdens herself to you about the trouble she’s had fitting in at school, the connection she feels with a rebellious punk rocker, and the injustices heaped on her by less-than-understanding parents and teachers, the sense that something has gone terribly wrong only grows. The girl with the Magic Eye and X-Files posters on the wall, who has a brilliant mind for fiction (she subverts a boilerplate health-education assignment by comparing the marvels of the uterus to the terrors of the Nazi occupation of Poland) and keeps a log of possible ghost sightings is lost, perhaps for good.
Gone Home plays as if it’s a novel. Each room, from the Music Room to the TV Room to the Greenhouse, tells its own chapter of the story, one that stays, well, close to home. If you’ve ever passed a note in school or listened to a mixtape, you’ll instantly connect with certain characters; if you’ve struggled to find passion in a dead-end job or relationship, you’ll understand others. By the end of this two-to-three-hour journey, it isn’t just the house that’ll seem lived-in, as the characters are equally realized and relatable.
A message found in Kaitlin’s father’s office insists “You can do better,” but despite—or perhaps because of—the brevity of Gone Home, it’s hard to imagine anything more the Fullbright Company could have done without padding the game with puzzles or suspending the tension and mood (see Phantasmagoria). The finale is both predictable and unexpected, jamais vu all over again, and if it doesn’t provoke at least a few goosebumps, perhaps it’s time to put down the controller and see what the real world’s all about.