Immersion; a word that gets used a lot in the realm of gaming these days. It would seem that game designers have been voraciously seeking the key to ultimate game-play immersion for a long time. After all, isn't that what games are about? A way to feel removed from your current surroundings, and injected into a new reality? Gone Home takes aim at immersion through a lesser used pathway. It seeks to weave you into the fabric of a story through the use of character development, nuanced nostalgia, and environmental design.
The "gameplay" is non-traditional insofar as your are not tasked with a fight for survival, completing quests, or solving puzzles (except a few lock combinations which are readily apparent ). Instead, Gone Home is a game that asks you, the player, to take the time to notice the details around you and rewards that strategy with a persistent desire to know more about a character, event, or circumstance. The subtlety with which this is done is especially well conceived. For example, there are allusions one of the characters interest in her friend's grunge band early on in the story. As the game progresses, cassette tapes are found which can be played to hear the band play. It is learned later that the character eventually joins the band, and she can be heard singing on some tapes.
Yes, this game takes place in the mid-nineties. Gone Home was clearly made by people who appreciated the cultural and social icons of that decade. The landscape is littered with loving references to grunge music, fashion, and other pop culturestaples. This is an interesting strategy, and calculated no doubt, by the developer. By doing this, the current thirty-something crowd becomes transported back to a familiar and (hopefully) memorable time of their life. The game's reality instantly gains credibility in the mind of the player. The caveat, of course, of taking this approach is that there is a younger demographic of gamers that this immersion device will not affect to the same extent.
The term "interactive fiction" has been used to describe Gone Home, but that moniker is limiting by not recognizing the visual, auditory, and perceptual triggers the game uses to bring you into the tale. The graphics serve a very specific purpose in this game. One of the primary methods of this is through the use of lighting. Most rooms are oppressively dark upon entering, which in a game about details, is a fairly significant barrier. While finding the light source(s) for the room is usually easy, the impact of lighting up a corner of the room and seeing something laying on the floor that was previously not visible, is considerable.
The attention to detail, visually, is exceptional. In a day and age when ultra-high resolutions have become the defining factor in a game's graphical fidelity, Gone Home uses style over substance to deliver its graphical message. The plethora of notes found throughout the game used to deliver the storyline are often scrawled in various handwriting styles with the penmanship of the author often revealing more about their personality than the words. The documents, pictures, and books the player comes across have a realistic quality that speaks to the creativity of the developers.
Auditory cues are just as well placed as the other elements in the game. While the raucous thunder of the "dark and stormy night "outside is cliché without a doubt, it does add the perception of depth to the environment of a game that takes place entirely inside one house. The tones of the game are established through the expected noises one would find in an older mansion style home. However, most importantly, the voice acting of the characters is superb. When the player interacts with a critical object, it triggers a journal entry read by one of the characters. In her reading, the player can hear the emotional state of the character and gets a sense of her identity right from the start. By the end of the story (which is somewhat predictable, but no less satisfying), the player is left with an empathy not often evoked in games.
What Gone Home does, it does very well. Yet, there is also a sense of limited scope within the narrative. The argument could be made that constraining the story to a single character's exploits keeps the experience focused and linear. There do exist side plots involving other characters although none of those get the exposition through journal entries that the "main" character's do. This feels like a missed opportunity, and keeps those characters fairly one dimensional. The strategy of information seeking though detail as it related to these characters becomes inherently less rewarding and detracts from the game's depth.
This is a game that deserves to have the lights turned low, a warm drink in hand, and perhaps even a gaming/life partner sitting beside you while played. Gone Home is an experience that drops the player into a story, and every click of the mouse is akin to turning the page of a book. It achieves a level of immersion that many games strive for, but few accomplish.