Monday, December 23, 2013

Alone in the Dark: Why Gone Home is the Best Entertainment Experience of 2013

   We have all had moments in our lives when we come home to an unexpectedly empty house. The lights are off, everything is quiet save for the mechanical hum of the fridge, your room is dark—few things are as irrationally unsettling or disturbing as an abandoned home, but that is exactly what Gone Home has presented, and that is why it is not just the best videogame of the year, it is one of the most memorable media experiences I have had in a long time. Everyone should play it.
   The premise is simple: you play from the perspective of a college-aged girl who comes home after a trip abroad to find her house completely and utterly abandoned. Not just empty—abandoned. Your little sister has left a note on the front door begging you to not tell Mom and Dad what happened, and the voicemail you left from the airport is still on the machine, presumably unheard. From there, you are free to explore the house however you want, and unravel exactly what has happened while you were gone.
   All you can do as Katie, the older sister, is walk around the house, read papers, and pick up objects to examine them, but that is all you need to do. You see, with this simple premise comes a surprising amount of freedom—you can act exactly how you would in real life. For example, right away I decided to run upstairs and check my little sister’s bedroom, in response to the note she left behind. Of course, to tell you what I found there would ruin the story, but just know that the more you explore the house, the harder it will be to explore the house.
   That is because Gone Home masterfully plays on our own fears, both rational and irrational. A flickering light at the end of the hallway could mean faulty wiring, or it could mean . . . well, something else. At the same time, opening the door to your father’s office could reveal the answer to one of your many questions, but that answer could be something terrifying. It makes for an all-too-tangible feeling of fear and suspense—all of the scares come from your own realm of possibility, and it can turn simple actions into giant feats of willpower. Indeed, the hardest thing I had to do in Gone Home was turning on the light in the basement. The darkness, so often your enemy in videogames, was now my ally, just because it was hiding the secrets I was not sure I wanted to reveal. I can still remember hovering over the switch.
   As further testament to the grounded atmosphere, everything in Gone Home carries an immense feeling of tangibility. It feels like a family lives in this house. Things not meant to be seen by visitors, like the inside of a storage closet, are decidedly less neat and organized than those things out in the open. Additionally, things that carry more history to them, like a favorite book or magazine, look more worn and used than others. Even the hobbies and pastimes of your family members are fully-realized, whether that is evidenced in a crude art studio upstairs, or in the numerous X-Files episodes (recorded on VHS) lying around the television set. This feels like a real family, and as you delve more into each member’s public and private life, it becomes impossible not to care about them.
   And that, ultimately, is what makes Gone Home such a memorable experience. The stories you uncover dare to explore themes about family, love, and belonging that other forms of media (books and movies included) regularly shy away from. It looks at things that we experience in our own lives every day, and as you journey onward through the house, you realize that this could just as easily be your family. These could be your parents or your sister. I can tell you with complete honesty that I cared more about the characters in Gone Home than I have cared about any videogame character before. Simply put, I felt connected to them, and I do not think that is something I have ever been able to say about a game before. As I explored the house, I was simply reminded of my own.
   The final result was something lasting, impactful, and profoundly moving. You might attribute it to the unique way I could relate to the story, but the truth is that Gone Home simply has a way to reach everyone. This is not about some superhuman action hero saving the world; this is about people who seem real, dealing with problems that actually are. Everyone can play it because everyone can connect to it, just as I did. It is a prime example of what videogames can be—a wholly interactive method of meaningful, emotional storytelling. It is not a game for “gamers” or “non-gamers;” it is a game for everyone.
   The story, setting, and characters of Gone Home all combine to make it one of the most memorable personal entertainment experiences I had in 2013. It strikes chords with the player that no game ever has, and it is one of the most essential videogames out there. It is $10 right now on their website—download it. I will remember my journey through the house for the rest of my life, and you will be hard-pressed to forget it as well.

   Deep, poignant, and profound, Gone Home is an incredible feat of storytelling. Without a doubt, piecing together the dark mystery of its host family will stay with me for years to come.