The lights are on
Interactive storytelling has evolved considerably from the text based adventures of the days of yore. More recently, series such as Ace Attorney, Professor Layton, and 999/Virtue's Last Reward have provided gamers a largely text based adventure interspaced with interactive sequences in order to keep the player engaged. Gone Home, created by indie developers, The Fullbright Company, is in many ways, the polar opposite of the aforementioned games. Here, the interaction is put front and center, with the text and audio details coming as a result of that.
When Kaitlin Greenbriar returns home from her year long studies overseas, she finds her house deserted and a cryptic message from her younger sister Sam, instructing Katilin not to come after her, regardless of what she may find. As Kaitlin, you rummage through your house looking for clues of any kind as to determine what happened to your family. The gameplay is just as simple as the premise, you walk around the house and look for clues. Certain clues will trigger audio journal entries from Sam, the sum of which form the game's narrative. There are other storylines present, including those of your Mom, Dad, and the home's previous tenant, your great uncle Oscar.
It's difficult to say anything more about this game due to the nature if its story. What can be said however is how unevenly all the stories are told. Sam is the main focus of the game; most all of the items/clues that you find pertain to her. It's partly because of this that we find out a large quantity of information about Sam very quickly while the other members of the family are put on the back burner. Among the clues you'll find are letters, stories, notes, etc. written to and by the family members, all of which are exceptionally well written as to provide us insight as to who these people are. Sam however has her clues accompanied by audio journals. The voice acting on these is stellar; the performance is all-around emotionally driven and real. But they also spell everything out to where we get the idea of what happened to Sam far too early.
Because we have to piece together much of the information about the rest of the family ourselves, those stories take on a whole new weight and mystery. The fate of these characters and what has happened to them is told in a much subtler fashion, which would be fantastic if they were actually given more time and development. Instead, Sam becomes the focal point and seems to be the only character we're directed to care about.
Given the game's ending, there's a reason for this, but saying anything about it would be ruining the ending and the story. But really, there's not a lot of story here, instead Gone Home ties itself to something incredibly significant to our society. What The Fullbright Company has done though is made the mistake of believing that a powerful social issue can be substituted for a plot. It can't. This is the same mistake that happens time and again in other forms of media where by touching on something controversial or socially/politically relevant, it's believed to suddenly have more weight and meaning. It doesn't work that way. Regardless of how important something is, mining that issue for the sake of an ultimately by the numbers story, does not make said story better. Gone Home is poorly paced, glosses over its side stories, and ultimately does and says very little in far too short a time.
There have been many glowing reviews for this title in which the writers mention how glad they are that this game was made; how happy they are that this story exists. For that matter, I am as well. What this game touches on, what it features, is a story that needs to be told now more than ever. But it also needs to be told well. This is where Gone Home fails. The exploratory nature of the game should've and could've been much better, much more in-depth; it wasn't. For how much the game costs, I could've seen or read a much better version of this story elsewhere, and enjoyed it for a lot longer than two hours. In comparison, I spent over 30 hours with Virtue's Last Reward; it didn't tell the same story that Gone Home did, but it told its story in a much better fashion. Don't let yourself think that this is strong interactive storytelling; it's not and there are far better examples of it out there. Think of it like this; if the social issue wasn't present, would the story or the game still be as strong as the overall rating suggests? I give credit to The Fullbright Company for writing a character like Sam and developing her the way they did, but if you're going to tell her story in the form of an interactive mystery...it needs to be done better than this.
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