Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Gone Home: A Bonus ACE OF VIDEO GAMES by Kyle Johanessen

In my mind, Gone Home isn’t really a game. It is a 3D Highlights book that you find at the doctor’s office when you were a kid. Only instead of finding shapes in the environment, you find wonderfully crafted bits and pieces of an amazing, heartwarming story. You learn about the inhabitants of this house through the items they left behind and over the course of the four or five hours (if that) you spend in that house, you come to care for all of them.

For the two of you who don’t who don’t know, the game is set in 1995. The time frame feels more like a necessity to the story rather than a conscious choice. You simply could not tell the story if everyone had a cell phone and easy access to email and the internet. You “play” as Katie, a 20 something coming home unexpectedly from a year in Europe. You come home in the middle of the night to find a note from your teenage sister, Sam, and the house seemingly abandoned. There is a huge storm brewing and the note is ominous in nature. Add a creepy message on the answering machine, and some flickering lights, and it seems the game is set to scare the bejeezus out of you ala Slender or one of its clones.

That set up for a creepy/spooky ghost story is cemented in one of Sam’s journal entries. Her narrated Journal entries are the primary way the story is told and the first few prepare you for horrors to come. As you progress through the house and deeper into the story, however, it is revealed that Gone Home is something much different than another Amnesia or similar haunted house games. There are no shadows looming in the corner. No ever present threat. No monsters to hide from. This story is about Sam and her unfolding relationship at her High School. Saying too much would give it away and experiencing the story first hand is just a real treat.

Sam’s journal entries are a delight and beautifully and convincingly narrated. I constantly found myself tearing entire rooms a part for one more piece of the story or one more clue into this family’s lives. It’s unfortunate that the character you play is the least developed. You learn little about her personality (if she even has one) throughout the game and even in the time its set it, I found it odd that she would be so out of touch with the goings on of the family. Some of her reactions to items she finds or Sam’s journal entries are priceless, however.
Another really great aspect is the music. No music plays as you explore the house. The only sound being the thunder outside and the pouring rain, or maybe a TV that was left on. But every so often you come upon a cassette tape player (remember those?) and find one of Sam’s tapes from the local bands that she started frequenting when she moved to town. This bands are just spot on for the kind of garage band acts that they represent, with sound quality matching the absurd lyrics and song structures. They really add something to the time period, and tell you a lot about Sam’s personality. You learn quite a bit about the parents as well. Their relationship isn’t as fleshed out as Sam’s, but it is always nice to find a little extra bit about them as the story progresses. It’s sort of a shame that they turn out to be rather unlikeable, but going into too much detail would once again ruin the story.

What the game does masterfully is begin with a felling of dread, quell any such notions that this is a game full of cheap scares and monsters, but then infuses you with a completely different sense of dread. There is an area of the game that locked from the beginning and the atmosphere and vibe you get from this area is incredibly foreboding. As you progress through the story, as heartwarming as it is, it seems as it is just going to end badly. The stakes for Sam are piled on, sorrow is eloquently expressed, and your fear turns from ghosts and monsters to Sam’s well being as she struggles with being a teenager in the situation that she has found herself in. My heart was beating so fast as I finally was able to unlock this last area. It is truly unique for me to be so emotionally invested in video game characters. Mass Effect 3 and Halo 4 are the only games that have ever truly evoked any sort of strong emotional response for me. But I will never forget how Gone Home made me feel in those final few minutes. I didn’t want to go on, but I had to know what happens next. I imagine it is similar to what any sibling would feel being in that situation.

The game is not entirely without its faults. It is a VERY linear game, though it does try to hide its progression a little. There is also little-to-no game play other than finding the clues. Most of the clues are hidden in plain sight, and the ones that aren’t are likely to be discovered eventually as the story necessitates. It is for these reasons that I have a real hard time defining Gone Home as a game. And even though its story is fantastically told and expressed, I find it difficult to justify the nearly $20 price tag. However, if this is what I have to pay for something so thought provoking and eloquent, then I guess that’s ok.
My last entry talked about how I am considering quitting video games as they are getting in the way of my more creative endeavors. Gone Home has confounded that notion, inspiring me to sit here and try and tell you about an experience that I had through this “game” that has certainly did an excellent job of melting my cold dead heart.

No comments:

Post a Comment