In some 16-plus years of gaming, there have been very few games that have reduced me to tears, partially due to the fact that my model was not programmed have feelings. I recall a preteen version of myself bawling over Shadow’s plunge down to earth in Sonic Adventure 2‘s final moments, and yes, I’m man enough to admit it.The ending of Skies of Arcadia and certain moments in Valkyria Chronicles always get me a bit worked up, and more recently one of the route endings in Virtue’s Last Reward had me glassy-eyed and dazed for the rest of the night. I may have even shed a red-white-and-blue tear when world-hero and 50-mission Ironman vet Andrei “Atlas” Kusnetsov saved humanity in XCOM. He’s Russian, so that’s doubly impressive.
Gone Home is not one of those games.
While Sam was feeling her way though the grungy riot grrl counterculture of the 90s, I was still waddling around in diapers, smearing cake on my face and fracturing my leg jumping off of a bunk bed. That decade existed behind a glass window for me: I could observe as a spectator, but I could never reach out and interact with it in any meaningful way. In fact, the glass window was very much a real physical object: the television set that beamed Nickelodeon into my room for hours on end every night. All That, Keenan and Kel, Rugrats, Rocket Power, Hey Arnold — that was my 90s. A spectator sport. For those that lived and breathed beyond that window, I can understand the added significance Gone Home can take on in reflecting personal experiences, however uncomfortable they may have been. More accurately still, I can’t understand. Never will. Is this a good thing? I don’t know.
Nor could I tell you how such a connection would impact my assessment of a game; I’ve always played to indulge in the lives and adventures and struggles and victories of others. I have absolutely zero interest in ever playing a game that sticks a mirror in my face and tells me to look, thinking that alone to be meritorious. Not out of internalized hatred or anything of the sort, but because it would make for a really shitty game, a game where you get to look through that glass window — catching your own face in the reflection — but never being given the power to reach out and express yourself.
Gone Home is one of those games.
Where it attempts to feel genuine and personal, it instead often comes off as voyeuristic and distant. Every moment that felt real and resonant was quickly washed away by the ever-present reminder that I was literally snooping my way through a spooky house steeped in darkness and thunder, frantically clicking on every spare piece of paper within reach to trigger the next bit of voices-in-my-head exposition, a profound disappointment in a game that is otherwise hugely impressive in its ability to organically convey the Greenbriar family’s rocky existence. Why on earth choose the most cliched of horror ambiances if you have no intention of trading on it? Once the plot began to move, and Sam’s story began to grip me, the tension transformed into distraction. There is an innate sense of dread whenever you return to an empty home, especially one where the accouterments are seemingly out of order. The horror contrivances are cheap, and unnecessarily cheapening. Strange that a game so grounded and low-key in conception still manages to come off as, at times, wholly artificial.
The Amnesia-style examination gimmick wore thin before I even set foot upstairs — a gimmick as it’s the only gear spinning away inside Gone Home, and the nature of gears makes that a problem. There are those that will scoff and turn nose skyward, but let them: this game desperately needed some sort of player engagement — puzzles come to mind first — to ratchet the interactivity level past “comotose”. Brendan Keogh wrote that “a space to move through and things to look at…alone will carry a game far.” Is he right? Again, I don’t know, and thinking anything in this wonderful medium to be impossible would be foolish. But what I do know is this: not a single game I’ve ever played in my life was carried simply by providing “a space to move through and things to look at.” Not even close.
Like a movie that is little more than a slideshow of scored text, a game that ignores mechanics is a game that ignores a large part of what makes gaming gaming. Gone Home itself is a breathing example — without the interactive element that allows players to piece together the plot on their own, it would be a truly execrable game. Can mechanical reliance be overcome? Who is to say it can’t be? But it hasn’t been done more than a handful of times yet — fewer still outside the realm of visual novels — and we’ve had a good bit of time to try. Perhaps instead we should stop treating interactivity and “gameplay” as a trope to be subverted and start treating it like the painter’s canvas: a foundation on which everything else should be built. Strong foundation, strong game. Weak foundation, compromised game.
Ironically enough, that interactivity, routinely vilified by those who describe more mechanically focused fare with such base reductionism as “games about dudes shooting other dudes in the face” while heaping lavish praise upon utterly abominable trash like Dear Esther or dys4ia because they had the spunk and creative flair to cast aside the established rules?
That interactivity is Gone Home’s only saving grace.