Games for a very long time have been about fun, enjoyment, a leisurly pass time that people use to escape the harshness of reality, or to acheive something great and experience something unique to them. Recently, though, a lot of game journalists and critics have started to talk about the need for less violent, less action-heavy, and more original games focusing on things we've never seen in games. As a result, games like Gone Home were created to fill the niche people have been looking for. What should have been (and would have been) bottom-of-the-bin indie story games have since become critically acclaimed classics. I'm not one to bash any game, since the creation of more unique games is never a bad thing, but to praise this game among others in the same genre who did it better, is ridiculous.
This game was basically the almagamation of the perfect parts to create a game that appeals to exactly everything critics were looking for at the time; 2 parts visual novel, 1 part taboo story, and 99 parts contrived. The phrase "oscar-bait" really comes to mind when I think of Gone Home, almost as if it were a paint-by-numbers on how to create a game critics will love for that year. It delivers nothing we haven't seen already, while delivering it in a way that we've seen more than a handful of times, but it was released at just the right time and played by just the right people to get it major acclaim from journalists and critics, something alot of the other games in this genre didn't get.
Gone Home is an interesting beast in that it delivers all of it's gameplay in a way that we've seen before, and is still not interesting in this format either. There is no gameplay other than picking up letters, cassette tapes, random household items, and keys (to name a few) and observing them or adding them to your inventory to advance the plot. While observing these objects, you can read the text on a note, or rotate the objects to observe all sides a la L.A. Noire, and sometimes find information like lock combinations and secret locations on the map. In that respect, the game does the minimal investigation very well, but then it faulters over it by placing a million objects in the game that serve no purpose. Since the game has no direct way of really determining what is important, it's just as likely that a three ring binder could have valuable information than a book with some information on it. You could spend a lot of time picking things up hoping to get something important only to find out that everything is pointless to interact with, and only a few key elements are there for any real reason.
Ultimately, it's a game that lacks any real interaction, and real mechanical substance, and leaves the player feeling as though they're not being engaged and have 0 agency in the game world they're a part of. All of these facts can be a great way to present an interesting story to the player, one they have no control over and have to experience no matter what decisions they make. Sadly, though, the game doesn't take that opportunity and just creates a bunch of hoops the player has to jump through to experience the rest of the narrative. You have to work for the narrative by way of abitrary hoops, but the game hands you the solutions, then you can continue and "experience" the rest of the narrative. Had they simply added some challenge, some actual thought, something like piecing together clues instead of just having the clues handed to you, there would be a very interesting mechanic in the game that would have really pushed this closer to being a game than a "jump through the hoop to advance the plot" story.
Atmosphere and Story
Gone Home is something that got stuck between being a movie and being a book. As a movie, it would've been terrible since it has nothing of substance for the person to experience other than seeing the character experience something. As a book, it has very little build up and is nothing more than just reading about someone reading some notes with very little internal dialogue and character devleopment outside of the few audio/text logs given by the sister. It delivers it's narrative in a way very few games have before, but is in such a way that no game (or any narrative) should ever
be delievered. The story is presented entirely through narrative set pieces, naration by the sister of the main character, and notes scattered through-out the game. As far as I'm aware, story writing 101 is to not give the entirety of your exposition by way of indirect narrative (i.e. something the audience can't actually see occuring). If the game was you playing as the lesbian sister and seeing all of the consequences and making the choices and experiencing the hardships, this could have been a perfect story, and something we truly had never seen in video game format before.
In terms of atmosphere, this is barely at "visual novel" levels. It has set pieces and locations that can be interpreted as showing off the mood and personality of different characters. Other than the maybe two or three set pieces that really evoke this emotion, there is very
little to help visually tell the story other than creating a set-piece to something mentioned in a note or audio log. Something that really broke the immersion (or lack there of) for me, was the fact that there were a million notes scattered through this house that's supposed to be somewhat realistic. No one has that many notes in their house
. It's almost as if the house is just a big collection of "ooo look, something from a classic movie that realistically makes no sense"! There's trap doors, walls that just seemingly open up for no reason, and a totally stable cavern under the house that also makes little to no sense in reality. The atmosphere of the game is completely broken when you take the few poorly implemented "gamey" elements that the game tries to include, and apply them to the serious narrative the game tries to put across.
My biggest gripe with this whole game, and the biggest flaw in it, is the fact that it sets up so many possible scenarios and gives a really tense, almost horror-like feeling. A lot of people have attested the feeling of constant tenseness to the feeling the character has when they arrive home to see a life they know very little about anymore. That would be acceptable if the game was invoking a sense of anything other than tenseness/anxiety. Creating a constant tenseness or minor anxiety for the sake of making a narrative point is just annoying, and results in the player feeling mentally exhausted and getting little payoff for it. Ultimately, the game taking an approach that was the exact ending it seemed to be setting out the whole time seems lazy since it doesn't match up with the eery atmosphere the game was evoking the entire time
What it all boils down to is a game that, if it were released any other time, would've been extremely niche, and avoided by a lot of people. It's passable at best, and presents nothing we haven't already seen done better. The atmosphere is confused, the narrative is boring and presented in an extremely unengaging way, and the lack of gameplay leaves the player in an empty "jump-through-the-hoop" scenario to just advance the plot to see if anything interesting ever happens. If you're looking for a game that is a visual novel, I'd aim more towards a game like Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons or any Telltale game since they deliver in all of the aspects this game fails to (plot progession by more than arguous tasks, real character connection, a feeling of agency, and a real plot that is more than just some "cute" dialogue between characters). If you can guess the plot of a story game because you've seen the exact same elements in other mediums, then there is something inherently wrong with calling it the game of the year.