There's No Place Like Home

Up until not that long ago, video games followed the same dozen scenarios or so. Solve this puzzle. Or kill these enemy soldiers (zombies, monsters). Or win this sports game. Recently, though, there's been an explosion in ideas about the types of things a video game can explore. The lines between gaming and other forms of creative fiction are getting blurrier by the day. It's an exciting trend, and I've stumbled across some great titles that are more like interactive short stories than a traditional game.

I just wrapped up this past summer's release, Gone Home, which is a good example of this wave of games. The game is set in 1995 Oregon, and the player is college-aged Kaitlin Greenbriar, who is arriving back home after a yearlong trip abroad. In Kaitlin's absence, the family (mom, dad, and younger sister Sam) have moved into a big, creepy old house willed to them by a great uncle, so Kaitlin is seeing it for the first time. When she arrives, she finds the place empty, and a cryptic note from Sam begging that Kaitlin not try and find her. For the rest of the game, you/Kaitlin explore the house, tracking down clues that explain where everyone has vanished to.

At first, the game seems like jump-scare horror. A big, empty house. A raging storm outside. Missing people. Flickering lights. As I walked around the ground floor, I kept expecting an undead abomination or crazed psycho killer to leap out and grab me. But no such thing ever occurs. The story unfolds with Kaitlin finding scraps of notes and Sam's journal, which are told in voice-over.

But that main story is only part of the appeal. If there's one thing that this game nails, it's atmosphere. The mid-'90s setting is exemplified not only by the VHS and mix tapes strewn around the place, but by the notes and cartoons and hand-drawn maps Kaitlin collects in the house. This is well before text messages and snapchats, and the game is really enriched by all the tactile remnants of the Greenbriars' lives.

Since this is more of a story than a game, the replay value is not terribly high. Once you discover where Sam and your parents are, is there really much point in going through it again? But replay and big action scenes aren't the point of this game. The point is to immerse you in the deep, complex story of a teen girl's dreams and heartaches, and at that, it succeeds admirably.

Gone Home: B+


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