Gone Home

by The Fullbright Company, 2013 (PC)

Spoilers

Just a note, in general all of these journals I'm writing are meant to be read once you've played the game, but in this case, in particular, you will be doing yourself a huge disservice if you read this without first finishing the game.

Bathroom

I wonder if the first room most people explore is the main floor bathroom. There are no clues in there (that I can recall) but it serves the purpose of establishing that this house is from another era, because of the push-button light switch and the strangely-shaped toilet. At the same time there are details in the cabinets that you would expect in a normal bathroom, which sets up the whole strangeness of the house contrasting with the (relative) normalcy of the people who live there.

This contrast is one of the strongest devices in the game, used in many many ways but mostly by making it a "haunted" house but in the truest sense of the word, that is a house that seems haunted but is really just old and unsettling.

Haunting

The sense of the house being haunted peaks in the basement, when we encounter the furnace (or possibly in the wood-chopping room, which is a great big NOPE.) After that, the girls notes regarding Oscar start to take on a more playful tone. By the time we reach the "exorcism" scene we can't feel scared anymore.

It's an extremely clever device to create a house that has the feel of being haunted, without resoring to supernatural devices such as ghosts and so forth. Being alone in a house is a very widely shared experience and having the restraint to create such a convincingly scary house, but through ordinary details, is admirable.

A few details that stand out, in particular, to me:

  • The TV room. Completely terrifying the first time you hear another voice in the house.
  • The red dye in the bathroom. When we encounter it, we still can't be certain something awful didn't happen.
  • The furnace room. It's very common for people to be afraid of these kind of furnaces, I'm not sure why but they are quite scary. Maybe because their form suggests a person with arms reaching upwards.
  • The wood chopping room. The only room we can't fully see into, and structurally I think the "deepest" part of the house.
  • Another small detail is how it is hinted at that Oscar was some kind of crazed killer, this is reinforced by the torn letter found in the office, suggesting that what we can't read is somehow so terrible it was ripped out, when in fact it's very possible to decipher the letter to see it is completely innocuous. This is explicitly stated as a rumour in a letter written by another student, but of course it's just a nasty rumour-- again, exactly how a haunted house works in real life.

    Lights

    The game gives a clear warning early on that the electrical system is unstable, but at the same time basically safe. A little later on, a message is found on the bulletin board reminding the player (indirectly) to turn off the lights.

    I anticipated some kind of "the breaker went" scare event at a key moment, and felt quite clever for figuring this out. So I left the lights on in anticipation. This moment never came, and so I think the designers are more clever than me, clever enough to know I will feel clever for figuring this out, and thereforce creating a (self-inflicted) sense of anxiety that at any moment the house could become overloaded by all my turning on of lights.

    I didn't check to see if turning every light in the house on has some effect. I suspect not, but... maybe it does? Having the lights flicker on and off unexpectedly, but with more regularity as you turn more and more lights on would be an obvious mechanic, the decision to leave them on as more or less stable actually makes the house feel more realistic. A super interesting choice. Either way, since the player spends so much time flipping light switches, the designer can be confident that they will have thought about all of this to some degree.

    The actual mechanic of leaving lights on, however, feels quite necessary as a way to know what rooms you have explored. I wonder if very many players bother to heed the warning and turn them off. My guess is not many!

    Finally, the way that as the story resolves itself, we come to rooms where the lights have been left on, feels like a master-stroke. The fact that the state the house has been left in is completely and perfectly explained is one of the most incredible revelations of the game.

    Cups

    The shape of a cup means that there could be something inside it, until you look. You can examine every cup and mug in the game, and as you proceed through there are more and more of them, all essentially the same.

    Finally, we reach the kitchen and realize we could check every cup in the dishwasher and the cupboard, but we already know we don't have to. By now we understand the game is much better than this. This is very playful :)

    Being able to interact with more than just the "key" objects is absolutely crucial. In general, being able to interact with an object means your mental model for it is more sophisticated. As a result the sense of immersion is greater. For objects that can't be interacted with, we quickly develop a model for them that they're only "scenery", or are artificial. This interferes with our ability to feel immersed, in the same way that invisible walls do. A certain school of thought is that a game should have nothing in it that doesn't serve a purpose; this may or may not be true, but if it's true, then it's important to remember that "useless" items can serve an immersive purpose.

    Voyeurism

    Really at it's heart, Gone Home is fun because it is incredibly Voyeuristic. We probably can already guess what's in Sam's locker before we open it, and the game does a great job of showing us that locker long before we'll be able to pry inside.

    At the same time that the game's "scary" dramatic peak occurs (in the basement), it has it's voyeristic peak where we find Sam's steamy erotic note that Kate will refuse to read. Another really playful touch! :)

    If there's any element to the game that feels slightly dissonant, it's the sheer amount of personal notes that are left lying around. Even so, this is mitigated by placing them logically (e.g., a crumpled up detention slip, or a torn note thrown away from a classmate.)

    In a few cases I felt that, wow-- Jan really left a note detailing her affair in the dining room? But then, this one might on second thought have been more misplaced (I think it was left on the floor underneath some furniture.) So really by and large this all holds together.

    Other Thoughts

    Such a brilliant stroke that when we first hear the voice on the answering machine, we likely assume that it's a frantic parent.

    I liked that when we finally see Sam's Dad's handwriting, it's almost like a childs. I felt this character was painted in a way that was maybe a tiny bit cruel, it was hard not to feel sorry for him in spite of everything. But it was also easy to see why Jan had other plans. And yet, clearly Sam gets her sense of adventure and writing from him, another nice detail.

    I am really glad the house was so consistent in design. So much of it hangs on a sense of believability. Apart from the notes, there did seem to be a lot of drawers filled with scraps of paper, this is really only the slightest criticism though.

    The tape covers were wonderfully evoked, another brilliant stroke.

    I feel like I could dig through and figure out so many little secrets and put more together (especially I was never too clear what happened to Oscar, though I feel like it's in there somehow.) But I don't think I will do this, rather I would just like to leave it in my memory as being experienced how I did. My only regret is that I initiated the final narration before checking out the rest of the Attic, I might return there for that.

    Likewise, I wonder about the overall structure and how flexible it is. I definitely did not feel too strongly "herded" in one way or another, thought of course it's guided in terms of what areas are unlocked and when. However I had assumed that the secret panelsetc. could not be opened until you had seen the corresponding notes, but someone on twitter mentioned that they had accidentally stumbled into the end game. I'm curious about this! On my playthrough, I went to the west wing first, then upstairs (I was a tiny bit stuck here because I didn't at first find the guest roomsewing room and thought the locker combination would be in Sam's room somehow.) But I am pretty sure these areas at least could be explored in either order. I wonder if, similar to how the bathroom is on the left when you come in, and the right hand side is locked, most players go into the west wing first. The stairs themselves feel a bit more ominous, perhaps, too which is a deterrent.

    That bicycle in the garage has problems, though... :)

    Personal Status

    I played this in one sitting, at night, during a snowstorm. Really ideal. Played with a PS4 controller. I was almost completely unspoiled to it, thankfully.

    I think I avoided playing Gone Home because I had a sense it would be a bit humbling, which it was. But I don't feel anything but inspired by it, really glad I played it. I could regret not playing it earlier, but maybe this was the right time somehow. As I write this I'm really feeling the same way about The Undertale, but I might try to play that a bit sooner.

    I'm really much more curious about TACOMA now, since I realize that it probably won't be your standard derelict space station story but involve the personal lives of the crew.

    I think Fullbright have really created something that will stand the test of time and have a lasting and wide appeal.

    November 19, 2015


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