Welcome to Games For All Humans, a new series of articles on the games we consider to be essential works. Between the copies of Candy Crush installed on millions of iPhones and pandemic-induced console purchases, more people are playing games than ever before. But what about people who’ve never played a game? People who don’t understand what all the fuss is about? In Games For All Humans, we’ll be talking about the games we think everybody should play before they die, whether or not they consider themselves a gamer.
We don’t always find the works of art we need the most; sometimes, they find us. I have a vivid memory of the first time I played Gone Home, the same way I remember where I was when I first heard my favourite songs. In August 2016 I was midway through a period of crushing depression, a yearlong assault on my mental wellbeing. Sitting listless and alone in my flat one evening, I downloaded Gone Home on a whim; I vaguely remembered positive buzz around its release in 2013 and figured, why not?
As the credits rolled three hours later, I slowly realised that sun had long since set. My empty stomach was growling at me. Tears were streaming down my face, tears had that I hardly noticed beginning to form. Once I noticed them, though, they didn’t stop. I sat and cried alone in the dark, deeply touched by the emotional journey I had just been on.
And after I cried, of course, I felt better.
Gone Home isn’t the greatest game ever made, and it doesn’t tell the greatest story ever told in a game. What it does do is convey its story in such a way that only an interactive experience could. If you’re someone who has never picked up a controller before but has any level of curiosity as to what they can do, I think you should try Gone Home.
You play from the perspective of Katie Greenbriar, a young woman who has arrived at her family’s new house in July 1995 after a year travelling in Europe. Nobody is home. The lights are off, belongings still sit unpacked in boxes, and there’s a note on the front door from your younger sister Sam. She says that she’s sorry, that she has to go away, and she doesn’t want anyone to find her. What the hell happened?
There’s no shooting in Gone Home, no sword fights, no enemies at all. There are no real puzzles to solve, and there’s no ticking clock. You interact with the game simply by moving around the Greenbriars’ sprawling Oregon house and searching for clues as to where your sister has gone. You’ll probably discover some of these hints out of chronological order, and that’s okay! There’s no right way to play Gone Home, no correct order in which to explore its rooms. All that matters is discovering the truth.
That truth is often uncomfortable; the spectres of failed careers, frayed relationships, and teenage angst loom large within the house’s walls. Katie has been off seeing the world but life has gone on without her, and the hints you find as to the events of the past year are tinged with poignancy and regret. By the time you finish the game, you’ll discover more than you ever bargained for. You’ll have learned not only what happened to Sam, but also the dark history of the house and how the Greenbriars came to live there.
None of the objects you find mean much in isolation, but each of them invites new questions. Who is the distraught young woman who left a pleading answer phone message for Sam? Why is your father obsessed with JFK’s assassination? Who gifted your mother a copy of Leaves of Grass, hidden under her bed? Every seemingly insignificant photograph or receipt or tape cassette you find all serve as single brushstrokes, coming together to paint a full picture of what led Sam to flee.
The story the game tells is ultimately quite simple, and might be seen as well-worn territory if presented as a novel or film. But in this format, as an interactive experience, you’re not ushered through the story so much as you piece it together for yourself. Gone Home is a first-person game, meaning that you literally see through Katie’s eyes. Stepping into her shoes creates an immediate sense of empathy, quickly shortening the distance between player and protagonist. By the end of the game I was Katie, and Katie was me, and her concern and heartbreak for Sam were mine too.
The game’s artistry is matched by its accessibility. Gone Home is available on PC, Mac, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch and even iOS; if you have a digital device in your home, there’s a good chance it can play Gone Home. Controlling a first-person game requires using your left thumb to move, and your right to look around. This may well feel completely alien to you, but Gone Home’s absence of combat or enemies creates a forgiving environment in which to pick it up. Feel free to stumble around clumsily as you figure out the controls; there are no points to be docked, no penalty for learning as you go.
Gone Home received critical acclaim upon release but its legacy has sadly become somewhat more complicated as of late. Steve Gaynor, Fullbright’s co-founder and the game’s writer, publicly stepped down from his leadership role after a troubling Polygon exposé emerged with him as its subject. The report describes Gaynor’s pattern of bullying and belittling his collaborators, with 15 employees leaving Fullbright since 2019. Gaynor targeted much of his toxic behaviour at women, continuing a depressing trend of male artists treating the women in their lives with little of the empathy or respect they show to their female characters.
But Gaynor is not an island; Karla Zimonja, Johnneman Nordhagen, and Kate Craig all co-founded Fullbright alongside him. They and many other talented artists share equal credit for Gone Home with its disgraced producer. You might not feel comfortable supporting Gone Home if a man like Gaynor stands to profit, and that’s entirely valid. That’s a decision we all must make for ourselves more and more, it seems. Personally, I think it would be a great shame to discard the hard work of Gaynor’s coworkers due to the failings of their leader.
All of these people came together to create a modest masterpiece, a shining example of what their artform is capable of. The gaming industry can be brash and crass at times, its biggest releases revolving almost invariably around gunfire and explosions. Those games are fun, but smaller titles like Gone Home offer glimpses of how much more is possible; how games, like music or film or literature, can connect us. I needed Gone Home when it came into my life. I needed the catharsis that it provided me, those moments of connection it gave me with its creators. If you’ve never played a game, I think you should start with Gone Home. Maybe you’ll find that you needed it, too.