Gone Home is a beautiful game for many amazing, complex reasons. For all the things it does right, it needs to be praised for the things it doesn’t do. Its blend of an unrelenting drive, pushing you through walls and barriers like a bulldozer, and measured, deliberate restraint stands head and shoulders above its forest of giant sequoias, each towering figure already a testament to Gone Home‘s excellence.
First and foremost, it tells a story. If the original design doc started out with nothing more than “craft a story and give the player no choice to become invested in it,” then Steve Gaynor and the rest of his Portland-based fellows at The Fullbright Company succeeded. More than that, they succeeded where so many others have failed. Even games that weave great tales of betrayal, thievery, and deception often can be foiled by the simple act of not playing.
Gone Home doesn’t give you that choice. Or at least it didn’t give me that choice. I must have had bacon in my pocket because this tender, raw, violent, sweet dog wouldn’t let go once it sank its teeth in me. As soon as you step into that broken flickering porch light, it begins. A cup, a Christmas duck, a bag, and a note. Such a simple chemical equation for a bright, vivid reaction.
It’s a tempered catalyst. So much of what makes Gone Home is what doesn’t stick in your face and what it doesn’t allow you to do. Many games can be lumped into a zeitgeist; this one tells ancillary stories through audio logs, this one puts you behind cover with a gun, and this one throws XP at you like it’s confetti. But Gone Home doesn’t do that. It is wholly comfortable in being what it is and nothing else.
This is a game that doesn’t let you run. You can’t jump. At no point is there anything leading you into or throwing you at combat. All you do is walk and look at things. And yet it inspires moments of genuine horror. It gives you chills from the little sparks of “what if” it shoots into your mind. It gins up action through emotion, through will and desire, through an impossibly heartfelt love for someone that doesn’t even exist.
The game’s restraint enables you to more readily accept its spell, its charm. Rather than spread you thin like too little jam on too much toast, you seep slowly and steadily deeper and deeper into what it does give you. Like a gaseous form, humans will take the volume it’s given. Gone Home gives a taut little house of two hopeful heroines for you to fill with your heart, choosing to make your emotional journey a potent one instead of a broad one.
It focuses on feeling real rather than expansive like a Greek epic. What 90s family didn’t have a bunch of store-bought VHS tapes haphazardly labeled for their pirated content? What child didn’t have glow in the dark stars stuck to her ceiling? And who wouldn’t turn on the lights and turn them off again just to see them light up?
And who wouldn’t fall deeply, madly for Lonnie. Who wouldn’t be pleading—praying—no no no no no as they ran up to the attic. Few games make me emotional just at the mention of their name, but Gone Home does it. It goes deep and rattles the rusted cage of feelings, hardened after years of heartbreak and forlorn passing, and softens it with a rebel. It brushes off the cobwebs with a sister, a father treading water, a mother hearing a siren song, and a house hiding more than you’d ever know. It’s what makes Gone Home my absolutely unrivaled game of the year.