Some places tell a story. Homes, especially. For the people who live there, every knickknack on the shelf, every little dent in the wall, every refrigerator magnet or faded photograph or chipped mug can be part of their shared history as a family, part of the tapestry of memories both joyous and painful that binds them together. Gone Home gives you a house to explore, and as you do so, that house slowly reveals to you the story of the people who live there. That story is intimate and honest and beautiful, and the active way in which you piece that story together, coming to understand the Greenbriar family through the things you find as you investigate their house, makes Gone Home one of the most captivating story-driven games in the medium's history.
You play as Kaitlin Greenbriar, the older of Jan and Terry Greenbriar's two daughters. After spending a year gallivanting around Europe, you've come to your family's new home one rainy night in June of 1995, and although you expected your folks to be there, you find the house empty. Making the absence of your family a little more ominous are a scrawled note from your 17-year-old sister, Sam, on the front door, and a few emotional messages on the answering machine from a young woman tearfully asking Sam to pick up the phone. This opening immediately pulls you in and makes you concerned about Sam's whereabouts and well-being.
Kaitlin's personality comes through in a few postcards you find that she sent from Europe and through some funny interaction prompts, but she is mostly just a vehicle through whom you experience the story. That story focuses on Sam, and periodically, items you discover trigger narration from her, as you hear journal entries she has written to Kaitlin. The story of a connection she forms with a classmate is a remarkable one for a number of reasons. Sam's struggles are presented with tremendous insight, making them so relatable that you can't help but understand what she's going through. This is simply one of the most human and grounded stories ever told by a game.
You'll repeatedly find yourself nodding along as she describes her feelings, because the writing precisely and tenderly expresses exactly what those experiences are like. The honesty with which she reveals herself to you through her journal entries, and the excellent voice acting with which these journals are narrated, is deeply moving. By the time you've solved the mystery of what's happened to her, both she and the place you explore as you find out about her will have left a lasting mark on you.
It's easy to get swept up in Gone Home because its environments are so convincing that you feel as if you're exploring a real place, at a very specific point in time. In fact, if you lived through the mid-'90s, Gone Home may feel like something of a time machine, as you find music magazines with the names of important alternative acts of the day on their covers and TV listings that indicate when shows like The X-Files will be on. But you don't need an emotional connection to the era to appreciate just how well Gone Home captures the texture of the time period; it draws you in through the sheer precision and authenticity of its details.
The '90s aren't just a background for Gone Home's story. Instead, the game is believably rooted in that era; the explosive popularity of Street Fighter II factors into Sam's friendships, and the huge Oliver Stone-fueled resurgence in JFK conspiracy theories impacts Terry's literary fortunes. Tapes you can listen to featuring music by riot grrrl acts like Bratmobile and Heavens to Betsy flesh out not just the time period, but your understanding of Sam as a person. Meanwhile, the game's excellent ambient score creates the sense that the entire house is thrumming with energy, despite being empty at the moment.
As you explore the house and find out what the Greenbriars have been going through, there are no puzzles to solve, no enemies to defeat. There's nothing to take you out of your journey of discovery. Instead, everything you find just reinforces the feeling that the place you're exploring is a real one, inhabited by real people. So much of the story is in the details; almost every letter or form or other document you can pick up and examine reveals something about the inner lives of one of the Greenbriars, and it's wonderful how the game respects your intelligence enough to let you piece things together yourself, rather than spelling everything out for you.
A form Jan submits requesting the permanent transfer of a colleague to her office speaks of trouble in the Greenbriars' marriage, for instance, while the notes Sam has exchanged with her classmate Lonnie, packed as they are with humorous doodles and cracks about teachers, portray the developing connection between the two of them in a way that rings incredibly true. These items aren't like the audio logs and journal entries you find in so many games that are clearly left around just to give you, the player, some narrative context. These feel like the authentic products of people going about the business of living their lives, which you just happen to be there to discover.
Gone Home executes on its ambitions flawlessly. The things in the Greenbriars' home take on an emotional heft as you come to understand the stories they tell, and although they're absent, you feel the presence of the Greenbriars all around you. Gone Home is an important game because it does something games rarely do: it tells a believable story, grounded in the real world, that focuses on women and treats all of its characters, women and men alike, as complex individuals. But the reason to play Gone Home is not for its importance. It's for the elegance with which its tale is constructed and communicated, and the captivating way that it makes you an active participant in peeling back the layers of one family's ordinary lives as their home tells you their stories. Like many of our own memories, those stories cut deep.