In 1995, an American college student named Kaitlin Greenbriar returns late one night from a trip to Europe to her family’s new home, only to find that her mother, father, and younger sister have all left. She spends the next few hours exploring every last gable of the unfamiliar mansion, learning through tossed-away notes and thrown-open drawers about the personal struggles of her father (a frustrated writer), her mother (a frustrated wife), and sister (a frustrated teenager). There are no great surprises here, just the pointillist depiction of a strained — that is to say, normal — suburban family at the turn of the century.
No, this is not a description of some Carver-and-Updike besotted MFA thesis, but the premise of Gone Home, the new indie game from the four-person Portland studio The Fullbright Company. In the context of games, which don’t really do small-scale realism, a story about upper-middle-class white people coming to terms with things (other than their impending death by zombie mouth or alien claw) feels legitimately fresh. And it has certainly struck a chord: Chris Suellentrop, writing in The New York Times, called Gone Home “the greatest game love story every told” and “the closest thing to literary realism I’ve encountered in a video game.”
Gone Home is a first-person exploration game in which all the action consists of reading old notes, listening to old music, noticing small details, and solving little puzzles. It’s a clever thing, to turn the little mysteries of a family in 1995 into something like the classic 1993 first-person adventure game Myst, not least because you can almost imagine the game’s Greenbrier clan taking turns at the family Pentium to play, well, Myst. That is, if they had a computer. The storytelling technique that Myst helped pioneer, the evocation of an abandoned place through the written and recorded testimonials of the people who lived there, has become common to the point of cliche in games today. But this structure makes intuitive sense in a year when people still sent letters and the belletristic impulses of a sensitive teenager got spent in the pages of a diary and not in the input prompts of a Tumblr.
That sensitive teenager, Sam Greenbriar, the absent little sister, is ultimately the subject of the game, and her story, which I won’t ruin, is worth the cost of Gone Home itself. It is funny, sad, moving, wonderfully relatable, and also of the moment in a way that I think can probably be described as brave, particularly for a game. As other writers have noted, Gone Home wonderfully conjures the life of a rebellious mid-’90s teenager through the pop culture of the period. This kind of characterization — rounded, subtle, human, dare I say, realistic — is so rare in the medium that it is nearly astonishing when you see it.
But as good a job as Gone Home does of sketching the absent members of the Greenbriar family, it has virtually no way of expressing the interior life of its protagonist, who is almost totally silent. Or more accurately, it has no way of expressing the interior life of its protagonist outside of what can be inferred from the actions of the player. And the things that can be inferred from the actions of the player are incredibly strange. Here’s what I would do if I got home late at night from a trip to Europe: go immediately to bed and sleep for 12 hours. Then I might wake up and wonder where my family was. I would certainly not leave my bags on the porch and spend hours picking up nearly every item in the house, turning on every light, flushing every toilet, testing every wall for secret panels, etc. etc. If this was a short story, based on her actions, Kaitlin would be read as a pathologically obsessive compulsive snoop with major boundary issues, and also kind of an idiot (she cannot, or will not, pick up a phone).
This may feel like I’m picking nits, and for most games, the feeling would be justified. But Gone Home is not most games. If a space warrior fighting space aliens opens every door on his space rocket hunting for space plasma, well, fair enough. But in this kind of small-bore domestic drama, the audience has almost no tolerance for suspending disbelief. I fear that the only people to whom Kaitlin’s actions will not feel jarringly unnatural are people who are already indoctrinated into the current grammar of games. Another way of looking at this problem is in the context of ludonarrative dissonance, the game culture term of art that refers to those conflicts between what the story demands and what the game allows that crack the illusion of the game. In other words, Gone Home keeps forcing you out of its fiction by reminding you that it is a game.
I suppose you could make an argument that this is ultimately a good thing, a way to sneak shaded characters and novelistic themes into game diets dominated by macho archetypes and moral binaries. Maybe gamers, a conservative bunch to be sure, aren’t ready for both thematic and mechanical experimentation at the same time. To revisit Chris Suellentrop’s claim, Gone Home may be the closest thing to literary realism ever managed by a game. But that may not necessarily be a compliment.