Gone Home is a first-person “story exploration” game from indie game-maker The Fullbright Company. Where many games put you in the place of the soldier, the warrior, or the hero, Gone Home takes a different tack. In this game, you are the sister.
It’s 1995. You’ve returned from a year abroad to an eerily empty house. It’s pouring down rain. There’s a note on the door from your little sister, Sam—the first of many notes—telling you not to look for her. You push the door open. Where do you go from here?
The beauty of Gone Home is that the game doesn’t often tell you what to do next. There are no puzzles or monsters, only a few locked doors. You can interact with virtually any item in the house, including soda cans, tape players, your dad’s less-than-bestselling book series, and Sam’s letters. You don’t know what happened to your family, but the story becomes clearer as you encounter the items they’ve left behind.
If you’re interested in experiencing the story yourself, stop reading here. Spoilers ahead.
It turns out that your 17-year-old sister has been dealing with some rough issues while you’ve been gone. She’s been bullied at school. She’s dealing with depression and discovering her sexuality. She’s falling in love with a girl named Lonnie who’s got some issues of her own. It slowly comes to light that Sam has been lying, stealing, and sneaking out of the house; her relationship with Lonnie gets more and more serious, but when she confesses to your parents, they ground her and tell her it’s “just a phase.” Sam is totally in love, however, and refuses to back down.
Your parents aren’t doing so well either, it turns out. Dad is languishing in a dead-end music review job, and his book isn’t selling. He can’t seem to write anymore, despite his (grimly humorous) attempts. Mom might be having an affair with an engaged coworker…or perhaps it’s just wishful thinking. Either way, their marriage is on the rocks, and they don’t know what to do with Sam. Eventually you realize that they’ve gone on a marriage counseling retreat and won’t be back till tomorrow.
At one point you find out that Lonnie is planning on joining the army after graduating high school. Sam is devastated, and her letters and tapes to her sister demonstrate the powerful emotions she’s going through: loss, heartbreak, and longing. It hurts you to know what she was going through without you, and as her letters become more and more distant, you start to worry. When you finally find the key to Sam’s attic dark room, you get even more worried.
We’re used to games that increase adrenaline because enemies are coming toward us. We’re used to having to complete a puzzle before the time runs out. We’re not used to games that make our hearts beat faster because we’re not sure if our little sister is okay.
Spoilers: Sam is just fine. It turns out she’s run away with Lonnie, who’s given up on the army. She doesn’t know when she’ll see her sister again, and she’s sorry she had to leave without saying goodbye. But it’s safe to say that Gone Home is an adventure in empathy. For those of us who aren’t, or have never been, a teenage girl, the game does a remarkable job of illustrating the ups and downs of adolescence. Sam’s life is simultaneously banal and vivid. Personally, I found myself transported back to my own high school years, and although it wasn’t entirely comfortable for me, it certainly made an impact. I saw myself in Sam. But more importantly, I saw what my troubled teenage years might have looked like through my parents’ and siblings’ eyes.
Gone Home could be an invaluable resource for parents having trouble connecting with their kids. Not all teens are Sam, of course. She’s one girl with her own story. It’s the intensity of her emotions that make this game so powerful, however, and that intensity is something that many, many teenagers—and their families—must work through.
If your kids are teens themselves, the game could be cathartic. It’s always nice to hear that you’re not alone. If you’re considering playing it with your family, however, I highly suggest having a few talking points ready. Depression, sexuality, love, and loneliness weave a common thread throughout the story, and they are not dealt with lightly.