This is a difficult one to review. Or maybe I should more exactly say it’s a difficult one to review as a game, because I find it rather hard to call it one, and in fact it is listed in the Notgames group on MobyGames, even though I don’t see it in the releases list on the Notgames site. Still, it is a way to use the medium and definitely interactive, in fact containing no cinematics and, according to the developer commentary, one single scripted event, so can’t call it a movie in software form either.
I guess I’ll simply use the name instead of trying to categorize it, so I’ll say Gone Home takes place entirely in one house, but at least the house in question is a sizable mansion with secrets of its own to discover. Also, you can’t deny the attention to detail, including in some little ways which other games pretty much ignore as a rule, though there are of course other things that are implemented in ways which can’t be called as realistic, or even some that are completely missing. You probably won’t notice those though, being used to the approach other games take.
You’ll also be able to interact with just about everything you expect and also plenty of things you wouldn’t typically expect to be able to interact with, even if most of the time it’s merely a matter of being able to pick up items and examine them on all sides. At the very least, that means many objects created well enough to stand such scrutiny even if they don’t actually serve any other purpose than making the house seem like an actual home that people live in, or used to until shortly before your return. Plus, a little bonus point for the “put back” mechanic allowing you to set things back the way they were instead of leaving the place as if a tornado came in your wake.
As for the actual point of Gone Home, the story you uncover, it is an interesting one, albeit at a very mundane level, and the same may go for the largely optional side stories about the other family members. Now, I aim for escapism and fantasy worlds and events, so I wouldn’t normally have too good of an opinion about something which is very realistic and certain to have happened, in various variants and to a lesser or greater extent, many, many times all over the world, yet… This was all right. More than all right, I’d say, and it will definitely move some people deeply. Sure, will also annoy plenty and leave many entirely cold, but it is what it is.
I also want to make a note about the developer commentary, which you can turn on and then access in relevant spots throughout the game. That’s what I did and I definitely recommend it, since I feel that it really adds to the experience. After all, this is not exactly a game, and having that small team of developers behind it explain what you’re seeing and why they chose to do things that way, and perhaps pointing out things you may have missed, adds a more direct method of communication between them and you and, if anything, I’d say that makes the experience even more immersive.
Still, they could have made it more immersive in itself by allowing you to actually do more while interacting with all the objects that may be interacted with. Maybe writing or doodling a little with one of the many writing implements, maybe playing at painting for a moment with the brush, maybe washing hands in a sink, maybe taking a tissue out of one of the many boxes, possibly to wipe something, maybe opening some book or magazine, even if only to a title or dedication page or something of the sort, maybe trying to make a call, even if nobody’d have answered… Sure, that’d have added to the development time and costs, but it doesn’t stop me from saying it would have been a noticeable improvement for something that relies on realism and attention to mundane details.
Also on this note, they could have had a little more content on the TV and more songs on the few tapes you can find and play, especially since they either worked with the artists or used public domain works, so it may have simply been a matter of adding some more sound files and maybe an option to change sides or fast forward or rewind, which would simply result in playing the file from a certain different point. Again, not something one’d typically notice in a game, but it would have made a difference here… Plus, there is something called Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines released almost a decade earlier which I’d say still sets some standards with the included radio and TV broadcasts.
Otherwise, I may have appreciated more if finding the pieces that form the stories wouldn’t be so optional, or at least if you’d be told you missed something and given a chance to go back to find it after reaching the end. As it is, it simply ends, with no other information or chance to go back. Sure, I guess it’s another bit that says this isn’t exactly a game, but it makes for an uncomfortable feeling and I’d think that if the entire point is to uncover the story, or all the stories, the developers should have done more to increase the odds that you actually will.
In the end… It’s very short even with the developer commentary, there are no choices, no actual rewards and no loss states, and the few keys, combinations and secret places to find, some of which not even being mandatory, can’t make this a game. So maybe I could call Gone Home something like independent theater in software form, where the audience doesn’t get to actually influence the play but may leave and come back whenever they want and may pay closer attention or tune out at any moment, and where the actors may explain what they’re doing and why.
Again, there’s a lot of attention to realistic detail and the story is quite all right and some will deeply relate to it, or in some cases to the more general ideas presented. It also definitely makes points that unfortunately still desperately need to be made in this rotten society of ours. Overall, it is a way to use the medium which I’d actually encourage as an alternative for those interested. At the same time, it’s not something I’d personally pay for, so good thing I grabbed it while it was offered for free. You may entirely disagree with this, however… In either direction.