The genre tentatively called walking simulators (although that's not considered a respectful name by some) has had a ton of games in the last decade or so. From Firewatch to Dear Esther, plenty of games have shirked off traditional gameplay mechanics to focus instead on exploration and narrative, but one game stands out among the rest as a quintessential example of the genre - Fullbright's Gone Home.
Before we continue, this article contains spoilers for Gone Home, so if you haven't tried it for yourself, then go ahead before you read this!
First released on PC in 2013, Gone Home was a breath of fresh air in the sense that it defied expectations. Of course, first-person narrative-driven games had existed in the past, but this was something fresh and unique, earning critical praise for the way it approached the touching story it weaved.
It starts off unassuming, seeing you walk into the porch of a darkened house after returning from an overseas trip. You fill the shoes of the protagonist Katie, although she acts more as a vessel to experience another story - but we'll get to that later. When you discover none of your family is home, you're forced to use a spare key to get in, and that's when the story really takes off.
We won't spoil everything here, but we will say that Fullbright does an excellent job of pulling the old switcharoo on the player. Walking into the gloom of the seemingly empty, eerie house positions it as more of a horror experience on your first playthrough; the silence of the night punctuated only by the occasional noise. What could be lurking around every corner in the dark? The suspense lies in the mysterious absence of life in this otherwise normal home.
This story isn't really about Katie or the parents that own the house though, but rather her sister Samantha. As you explore the house you discover notes that trigger narrative sequences, telling of Samantha's struggle with life after Katie leaves, as well as her new friendship with a girl called Lonnie. This is the story you follow, and it's the one that keeps you eager to discover more clues as to what happened and how Samantha's life unfurls.
As you explore you discover secrets in the house that allow for hidden areas to be opened, and so despite the seemingly normal space you're in, Fullbright keeps unfolding the game world even more for you. As a result, you're gently guided in the correct direction via necessary clues and key codes, so that you experience the narrative in the logical order you need to.
When the plot progresses the horror coating eventually falls off to reveal a sweet tale of love, youth, loss, and family, one that really moved us. All of this culminates in an incredible final scene in the attic, a satisfying conclusion that makes all the creeping around this empty house seem worth it.
The brilliance of Gone Home lies in its recreation of the real, the banal. This is a lived-in home with real struggles evidenced by environmental storytelling and documents, from a dad who can't sell his books to a sister who struggles to adapt to a new life, and it's from this normality that springs relatability and beauty. Everyone can relate to at least something here, even down to the fact that teenage life can be hard.
When all's said and done Gone Home is a game that is best experienced in its first, surprising playthrough, but has enough environmental detail and care put into every inch of the house to make it worth multiple runs. It's a human tale told through the eyes of regular people, and despite the lack of human life within it, it's perhaps one of the most alive things we've experienced in games.
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