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Hands-on with Gone Home

Katie Greenbriar has returned home from a year in France, only to find her family is gone. She stands stand on the porch of a home in Oregon where she never lived, with a rainstorm lashing the windows, reading a note. In it, her sister, Sam, begs her not to come looking for her.

From its very first moments, Gone Home is both alien and familiar, the way visits home tend to feel after you’ve been gone too long. We don’t know Katie’s family but, as she commences her first-person exploration of their new, empty home, it begins to feel like she didn’t either. Life continued without her, relationships changed, and she is left to puzzle out the mystery of what happened to her family, and who they really are.

Gone Home is the first game from the Fullbright Company, an indie studio founded by 2K Marin veterans Steve Gaynor, programmer Johnneman Nordhagen, and artist / animator Karla Zimonja. Gaynor worked as a level designer for Bioshock 2 and lead designer on the Minerva’s Den DLC. After a brief stint with Irrational in Boston for Bioshock: Infinite, he moved to the Pacific Northwest where he and his partners piled into a house together to start work on Gone Home. It is an experiment in environmental storytelling, with roots in games like System Shock, Thief, and Gaynor’s own Minerva’s Den. One thing it won’t have is combat.

It’s not such a strange idea: first person stealth games and the broader “immersive sim” genre have always been at their most interesting when it comes time to explore. Fighting the guards in Constantine’s Mansion was weak tea next to the thrill of exploring it and making it yield up its secrets, and there were definitely times in Bioshock when I just wanted the splicers to go away so I could take a look around.

What Fullbright have given us, at least so far, is a single house that holds the story of a family. We play detective through the eyes of Katie Greenbriar in this Unity-powered first-person adventure, combing over each room of the house for clues, like a hidden object game or a Tex Murphy adventure.

The evidence is in drawers and cupboards, and the private spaces of each family member. Katie’s father’s office contains his writing desk, where he types up reviews of high-end audio equipment for an audiophile consumer magazine. But in a corner of his office, tucked behind an under-stocked and yet overused bar (he has left a half dozen shotglasses lying around), you find stacks of unsold copies of his second novel: a spy potboiler about the Kennedy Assassination. The cover is hysterical: a frame from the Zapruder film with a set of crosshairs superimposed over JFK’s smiling face. Whether the plot is about saving America from Kennedy, or uncovering the conspiracy to kill him, is left to the imagination.

That bit of humor does not belie the fact that this is a sad space, a monument to disappointment and settling. There is also something else discordant about it: how in the hell does an audio reviewer afford a house this size? You’ve already seen a map your mother drew for herself to a ranger station somewhere in the nearby forest reserve, so it’s not like she’s bringing him a lot of money. And yet, this is a home where the first floor alone is larger than most houses. Your father’s office is more like a suite. In the rolltop desk near the door, you find a letter confirming that the home was willed to your family by... someone seemingly unrelated to you. Why?

There may not be any enemies in Gone Home, but there is nevertheless a palpable menace and dread in that house. It is the proverbial dark and stormy night, with wind, rain, and thunder rattling the house. While I worked my through the first floor, I swear I heard thuds or footsteps coming from other parts of the house, but Gaynor told me afterwards that there are simply some ambient noises that randomly fire at given intervals. I don’t think he’s lying and yet... something about that place bothers me.

Gone Home gets in your head. Maybe it’s the way it made me feel like I was walking through scenes from my own life. Gone Home is a period piece, you see, set in 1995. So I saw things I recognized only too well: stacks of LP records, an SNES in a teenager’s bedroom, a VHS collection with movie and show names scribbled in ink on the labels. Old copies of music magazines herald the greatness of Nirvana from the cover.

In many ways, this could be the house where I grew up, and that’s what makes Gone Home’s mystery so much more compelling. This isn’t just a family of strangers, not really. It’s a voyeuristic glimpse behind the curtain of something familiar and commonplace.

While we play Katie, it’s her sister Sam that’s the star of this game. She hated her new house, and was having trouble at school. She’s a creative kid, too much for her own good at times: we find a stupid high school homework assignment that she decided to turn into a short story. “SEE ME” the teacher has written. Her father gave her a book about making friends, “Thought this might help,” he wrote, a touching gesture made all the more poignant for how much worse it almost certainly made things. There are no hints that she’s in danger, although she does talk about a friend from her old neighborhood turning “creepy”, and she’s finally made a new friend at school: a hipper, more rebellious girl who seems tailor-made to be Sam’s new best friend.

The demo ended before I could start unraveling much of the mystery. I don’t know how dark this story will get. The mood is sinister, but most everything I saw was the stuff of family drama. Gone Home could go anywhere from the situation it lays out in its opening hour.

I came away wondering whether there was a double-meaning in the title, Gone Home. The place where Katie and Sam grew up, and were happy, is a place we never see or visit. It is gone, lost to both of them. What remains is a large, rambling house that seems like it never quite made that phenomenological leap from house to home. A place where everything appeared to be fine, while frustration and disappointment ate away at the family. When Gone Home comes out in late 2013, we may finally see what went wrong.

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