The Fullbright Company
Gone Home is about love and family, and it’s the scariest game of the year
As I rounded a corner at the end of a long hallway on the upper floor of the 1990s Pacific Northwest mansion of Gone Home, I jumped in my seat and yelped a little bit. “Nope, fuck that,” I murmured. I ran back around the corner, and peaked timidly back at what had scared me so badly.
The end of the dark hallway in front of me was adorned with dark red Christmas lights. No monsters, no zombies, no corpses, just red Christmas lights. Terrifying Christmas lights. I am not going down that hallway.
You can probably empathize with this feeling. We've all experienced the weird, nonsensical terror of coming home to a dark, empty house at night, illogically terrified to walk into the next room because obviously there's a murderer just behind the next door.
With Gone Home, the Fullbright Company has taken that illogical fear and turned it into one of the scariest games in years. It accomplishes that by leaving out the usual video game spooks and replacing it with…whatever you imagine. What are you scared of? That's what you'll face in Gone Home.
As you move through each dark room in the house, the terror of your imagination slowly builds. Video games have taught us that if there's nothing behind Door #1 then it's twice as likely that there's something behind Door #2.
The tension builds and builds, and then just when it gets to be too much, you'll find something.
You play as one of the daughters of the family of the home, just returning from a year-long trip to Europe. You spend the game rummaging through the house trying to figure out why nobody is home. It's a first-person adventure game where you look through your family's belongings to try to understand the year of their lives that you've missed.
The game's title, Gone Home, is a brilliant take on what it feels like to do that. It's not “Coming Home” for a reason. Her home is gone.
But it's not all about sadness and terror. There's also joy to be found in learning what her family has been doing for the past year: her father's struggles, her sister's love, her mother's complicated career.
You'll do this by searching through the many rooms of the house for letters (it takes place in the 1990s, remember) notes, and any other kind of artifact that might give you some insight into their activities and personal drama. The joy is in getting to know these loved ones who have become strangers over the past year.
Like any house, this mansion is littered with inconsequential junk. So when you finally find something that has some real emotional weight attached to it, the veil of the game's vague terror lifts for a brief moment. These moments of levity ease the game's considerable tension, but it builds again quickly as you realize you now have to walk down into the scariest location imaginable: a dark basement with no light switch anywhere near the door.
You'll be occasionally pulled out of the experience for a couple of unfortunate reasons though. The dialogue, especially in the early game, isn't particularly graceful. It tends toward info-dumping to the extent that there's actually a note on the front door of the house at the beginning of the game that says “please, please don't go digging around trying to find out where I am.”
Compared to the subtlety of the rest of the game, this felt like the game's designers reaching through the screen to shove the player in the right direction.
The other problem is that Gone Home feels unrealistically sculpted to be the perfect 1990's in retrospect. It feels like a very idealized vision of the time. The main character's sister is into all the best underground all-women punk bands we wish we liked instead of N'Sync. The father has a killer vinyl collection, and the family watches all the movies we wish we would have been watching in retrospect. VHS tapes of films like Andromeda Strain litter the house, rather than films you'd be much more likely to find in a 1990s family's home: Harry and the Hendersons and Stakeout.
It's a small complaint, and it only mattered to me because of how believable and real all of the family members were outside of that. Compared to how interesting, flawed, and lovable each character is, the family's tastes and artifacts left behind felt a bit too sculpted. This is what you wish your family had been like.
Gone Home is like an overstretched rubber band. It's a game about tension. It builds and builds until it feels like the rubber band has to snap back in your face, and then it eases as fear is replaced by the glee of learning something new about your sister's first year in high school.
Gone Home plays the player's brain like a fiddle. It's an exceptional work of psychological terror, and a triumph of video game storytelling. While its character's are rich and detailed, the mansion is not, and it becomes a blank canvas onto which you can superimpose your own fears.
Gone Home is also touching, beautiful, and fun, and it's one of the must-play games of 2013. Be sure to bring headphones, and lose yourself in the subtle terror.