I'm not out to start an academic debate on what makes a game a game, but I'd hope you'd at least agree that games don't need reflex-based mechanics to be entertaining. You won't need reflexes of any kind to enjoy Gone Home.
Despite having no action, conflict, or even visible characters, Gone Home manages to be one of the most enjoyable and emotional gaming experiences I've had in 2013. Narrative wins out in a big way.
Gone Home (PC)
Developer: The Fullbright Company
Publisher: The Fullbright Company
Released: August 15, 2013
Gone Home lets you uncover its story for yourself, at your own pace. But that's not to say that there's a lack of pacing; Gone Home has some of the best pacing I've ever experienced in a videogame. It's just that you have to find that pace first.
In Gone Home you play as Kaitlin, a student returning home from world travels to see her family. Too bad nobody is home. Walking around your empty home, first-person exploration style, you'll find objects that uncover bits of your family's past. Scrawled memos, pictures, old pop quizzes from school, maps, worn magazines -- all would be mundane things you'd pay no attention to in any other game, but in Gone Home they're the sole focus.
But that's it as far as gameplay goes. You can walk around (don't bother putting your pinky on the shift button as there's no way to run), pick up objects, examine them, and put them down. No jumping or shooting, and certainly no loadouts or stats. Just walking, reading, and the occasional mix-tape listening.
What's neat about coming home to find that nobody's there is that it ties in beautifully with the story The Fullbright Company has set out to tell. At first, you're not going to have any idea what you're looking at when you find it. The game offers nothing in the way of introductions, and outside some found photographs, you'll never actually see your family members. Patience is required. You just have to continue to be curious, knowing that your exploration of the Greenbriar house will eventually pay off.
If you have it, patience is paid off many times over. You could run through Gone Home and 'finish' it in an hour or a little more. But you'd probably miss out on a lot of the experience, and definitely miss out on the little details that make this world and story so interesting. You'd miss out on the strangely voyeuristic pull that has you digging through drawers and cupboards to find anything to pour over. You'd miss out on just how much care and detail they've packed into this world.
Those that have patience will uncover a nice love story through these objects, notes, and clues. These things you come across aren't necessarily photorealistic, but with the way they're laid out in this home they somehow feel real. Familiar. They gradually work to make you feel like you once lived and belonged in this home.
Those with even more time will go back into the world again to find that every object they encountered the first time now has so much more meaning. They'll find that every note has new depth, and that there's even more of an underlying story behind the main one. In this way, Gone Home is just as rewarding as any game built around skill-based mechanics out there.
Surprisingly, the game's story has little to do with the player. It's more about her sister, Samantha. I'd like to steer clear of details so that players can uncover them for themselves, but I will say that you'll see how Samantha grows up and falls in love. That said, you will learn a bit more about yourself as well as your parents. And you'll learn why no one is there when you return home from your world travels, too.
For me, the icing on the cake is that Gone Home has so many calls and references to the 1990s. There are countless references to our childhoods in the game, assuming that you're about my age. Things you'll remember, like VHS tapes, SNES carts, used Playboy magazines, and more work alongside the excellent writing and dialogue to make you feel like you're experiencing something you should be remembering. I don't know if The Fullbright Company set out to do that, but if they did, I'll take my hat off to their work here. Even though I stopped playing Gone Home weeks ago, that familiar feeling I felt playing it still lingers.
While Gone Home won me over, I don't think it's for everyone. Those who lack the aforementioned patience requirement will not enjoy having to look at every item in the house to uncover story elements and meet flag requirements. Likewise, those that would plow through a game to discover its story resolution are going to find Gone Home lacking as there really isn't one. Finally, gamers needing some kind of action in their games will not find it here.
Gone Home is incredibly short, and has no action to speak of. You'll never see a character's face, and you'll never earn a score on a leaderboard. No online, no multiplayer, no DLC. And in the end, the story isn't even as mysterious as it initially sounds to be. There's a couple of scares, a few laughs, and a fair bit of sexiness, but nothing in the way of conflict.
It's just a wonderfully crafted, well-paced story about a family. And that's really it. There's not much else out there like it. It may not sound like much on paper, but Gone Home had such an impact on me that I'll be thinking about this game for years to come.