Monday, October 30, 2017

REVIEW: Gone Home (game)

Warning: this review includes one very spoiler-filled paragraph. I provide another warning just before you get to it.

Like Tacoma, Fullbright’s newest game, Gone Home isn’t so much an adventure game as it is an interactive story, although the story is even slimmer here than it was in Tacoma.

You play as Katie, who has just arrived home in the very early AM after a trip abroad. The family just moved to this home and I’m pretty sure Katie has never been there. At any rate, the house is empty - no one else is home, and you don’t know why. There are a few cryptic notes from your younger sister indicating that something has happened and that you shouldn’t tell your parents anything. There are also a couple phone messages, one of which is particularly worrisome. In order to find out what happened, you have to explore the house, reading any notes you find and picking up keys and combination lock codes so that you can open new doors and learn more secrets. Touching certain items triggers voiceover narration from your sister, explaining a little of what happened to her while you were gone and how things got to the point they are now.

The game’s atmosphere is top-notch. It’s dark outside, and there’s a storm going on, so your exploration is occasionally interrupted by thunder. Meanwhile, almost every room you enter is dark. When I first started playing, I turned off lights after leaving a room, but it wasn’t long before I got in the habit of turning on every single light and just leaving them on. Not only did it help make exploring slightly less scary, it helped me keep track of which rooms I’d been in and which hadn’t. However, the house’s electrical wiring was a bit wonky, so occasionally the lights flickered. And for some reason everyone left their TVs on.

Thankfully for those like me who scare easily, the flickering lights, thunder, TVs, and Katie’s sister’s notes about potential ghosts were as bad as the “horror” got. There really wasn’t anything to be afraid of. No jump scares, no monsters, literally nothing in the house but you. The house became a lot less creepy once I realized that, although there was one room I refused to explore because it didn’t seem to have a working light.

As you explore the house, you learn more about what happened to Katie’s sister, but you also learn a bit about what’s been going on with Katie’s parents. Since I’d read spoilery reviews of the game, I already knew most of what was going on with Katie’s sister, but I had no clue about what was going on with her parents. I wanted to know what they knew about what was going on, and where they were.

The final revelations were...kind of disappointing. Maybe I’d have enjoyed them more if I hadn’t come across those spoilery reviews? Or maybe not, since several things were obvious well before the game’s ending. One of the things Fullbright seems to have trouble with is story pacing. This one spread things out almost too much, while Tacoma waited until the very end of the game for almost all of its most interesting moments. Gone Home's setup also felt more contrived. Would Katie's sister really have forced her to learn literally all of the house's secrets (and at 1 or 2 AM!) before finally letting her know what had happened? That seemed...pretty awful.

Of the two games, I definitely enjoyed Tacoma more, although Gone Home was still pretty decent. Part of that might have been that I’m more of a sci-fi fan - I really enjoyed Tacoma’s world-building, the AI, and getting to explore the station. Gone Home’s benefits were its creepy atmosphere and the cassette tapes strewn about the house...which I hated. It would have been nice if the cassette players had had some kind of volume control, but even if they had, I seriously disliked Katie’s sister’s taste in music, which was a bit of a bummer since she mentioned and gushed over the music so much in her voiceovers and notes. I wasn’t really a fan of the music in Tacoma either, but at least it didn’t feel as important there.

Oh, also: although Gone Home still made me feel a bit nauseous, I found that I did better with it than I did with Tacoma. So that was something.

I don’t regret playing Gone Home, but it’s one of those games I’d be cautious about recommending. It’s very short - I finished the entire thing in slightly less than 2 hours - and the story is very, very slim. As in “I can’t say much more about it than I already have, or I’d give everything away.”

I do have one other thing I’d like to say, but it’s very spoilery. You’ve been warned.

Okay, so the one other thing I wanted to say was that it kind of bugged me that I’ve now played two interactive stories with heavy LGBT themes and the exact same setup (not saying the title of the other one, because spoilers). There’s a person, you don’t know what happened to them and you want to find out, you do a bit of invasive exploration, and in the end you learn the person is LGBT (in this case a lesbian), has run off, and you’re supposed to leave them be and trust that everything is going just fine for them. This bugged me in the other game I played, but it particularly bothered me here. If I were Katie, you can bet I’d want to know where my little sister is. I’d want to keep in touch with her in order to make sure that she’s doing okay, and I’d want her to have more people she could depend on than some girl I don’t know who might be dependable but who also might not. It also kind of sucks that both of these games were set up in such a way that the LGBT aspects are major spoilers - they are very nearly the entire story. Tacoma was better in that respect too. One gay character and two lesbians, and you could actually talk about characters' sexuality without spoiling even a little of the story.

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