Gone Home is the greatest video game love story ever told and proof, in case any more were needed, that video games do not require shooting or punching or jumping or action of any kind to create gripping fiction.
The game, the first from the Fullbright Co., employs the familiar first-person perspective that was popularized by the monster-killing games Doom and Quake, and later by Halo and Call of Duty. But there are no guns, no space marines, no future soldiers here, nor any enemies whatsoever, at least that can be seen. There's just a house, a young woman and a mystery.
The player is cast as Kaitlin Greenbriar, a 21-year-old college student who arrives at her family's home in Portland, Ore., in the middle of the night on June 7, 1995. She has returned after a year in Europe to find her parents absent and a note from her missing younger sister, Sam, taped to the front door.
From there, the game is one of almost archaeological exploration. As Kaitlin, the player searches through closets and drawers to find artifacts of family life that explain what happened to everyone. Quickly it emerges that Sam, a high school senior, has a crush on a girl named Lonnie. Their story — told through the technologies of mid-1990s high school life, including crumpled notes passed during classes, photographs that had to be developed to be seen, mixtapes of riot grrrl music, even mimeographed zines — forms the game's spine.
But there are smaller stories and characters to uncover, too, particularly those of Sam and Kaitlin's father, Terry, a onetime novelist who has been reduced to reviewing equipment for a hi-fi magazine, and his uncle Oscar, whose house the family moved into while Kaitlin was away.
There are no people to encounter. The Greenbriars are never seen, except in a family portrait on the first floor. Nor are there scripted videos to break up the game and explain the story, although there is some spoken narration.
The game's commitment to its period setting is considerable. The Greenbriars' house is bedecked with the trappings of 1990s popular culture: Magic Eye images; homemade VHS recordings; posters for rock shows featuring musical acts Weezer, Soul Asylum and Lisa Loeb (as well as obscurities like Veruca Salt); TV listings that include Family Matters, The X-Files and Walker, Texas Ranger.
With Gone Home, the Fullbright Co. — two men and two women, three of whom left jobs making big-budget video games to start their own studio in Portland — has created a confident, resonant, entirely believable world that is interestingly ordinary.
One of the company founders, Steve Gaynor, talked about his philosophy of storytelling in video game level design during a lecture in March at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. Many of the tools he mentioned were taken from theater: staging and blocking, set design, the use of silhouette lighting and spotlighting.
As with the stage, the audience in a game occupies the same three-dimensional space as the fictional inhabitants, Gaynor said. Inside that space, players, like theatergoers, can choose where to focus their attention.
Yet games present particular difficulties to creators. One large difference from a stage play is that video game spaces are much larger than theatrical stages. Even in a short game such as Gone Home — I explored every corner of the Greenbriars' two-story house in about three hours — a dedicated player might miss parts of the narrative, so the story must be flexible enough to accommodate that.
What game designers lose in control, however, they gain in player attention. "Anything the player voluntarily engages with is going to make a much bigger impression than something they have no choice but to look at," Gaynor said during his lecture.
The creators of Gone Home might have learned something from theater, but they surely learned more from playing and working on video games. Gone Home is recognizably a video game, not an imitation of some other form. It's powerful evidence that video games are as flexible a creative form as any other.
Gone Home will not rid the world — nor should it — of games whose pleasure comes from honing the skills necessary to kill a zombie with an artfully placed head shot. But Gaynor and his colleagues have accomplished something significant: the closest thing to literary realism I've encountered in a video game.
VIDEO GAME REVIEW
Platform: PC, Mac
Style: One-player strategy
Developer: Fullbright Co.
ESRB rating: Not rated
Where to buy: Available from the digital store Steam or at Gonehomegame.com.