Gone Home is the first game to come out of The Fullbright Company, an independent game studio in Portland, Oregon made up of alums of mainstream titles such as Bioshock and XCOM. If you’re like me, this doesn’t mean much to you. You’ve probably heard of games like those, and maybe you’ve even watched your friends play them and know they’re impressive, but it’s not really your scene. I’ve personally always preferred movies to games, reading to tabletop, anime to Scrabble. I’m simply not a gamer, and that’s okay.
Although, when I was a kid in the ’90s, there was an amazing company called Purple Moon. Created by sociologist Brenda Laurel, the company aimed to create games intended specifically for girls based on years of research. The games encouraged things like decision-making, making friends and, well, snooping. These visual novel-like games included interactions with classmates and friends, and then allowed a deeper look at those people by giving the player access to things like their diaries and lockers. At any point in many of the company’s Rockett series games, about a redhead who starts junior high in a new town, you could pause the “action” and switch to a hallway screen that let you snoop through the lockers of Rockett’s classmates. The longer you played, more lockers became available and more items in the locker became clickable. You could flip through diaries, look at photos, and read notes the characters wrote one another. For a busybody like me, it was a dream come true.
Enter Gone Home. I don’t remember how I came across this game (I’ll bet you anything it was Tumblr), but the premise immediately made me think of Purple Moon and the Rockett games. In Gone Home, it is June 1995, and you, the eldest daughter of the Greenbriar family, have just returned home after a year in Europe. You come home a little after one in the morning to find your family gone, and without the use of things like cellphones and the internet, their whereabouts are a mystery. You spend the rest of the night exploring the house, trying to find out where your family has gone and why they left.
I won’t spoil anything, because the story is really, really good and should be experienced with as little knowledge of the plot as possible. I suggest not knowing much going in because the world of Gone Home is fully immersive. You start out on the enclosed front porch of your family’s new home, a thunderstorm providing atmosphere outside, and you cannot leave. The player essentially becomes the character of Katie Greenbriar, not just because they are playing as her, but because they have to figure out how to be her to find her family – but this is hardly a challenge. In my experience, not only did the strange place feel immediately familiar, but I started referring to the Greenbriars as my family, calling Jan and Terry “mom” and “dad”, and referring to Sam in the possessive, as in “What has my little sister gone and done this time?”
The real “hero” of the story, though, is Katie’s little sister, Sam. As Katie moves through the house, it is clear her entire family lives there now, but it is Sam who leaves her mark on the place. Sam is also what reminds me the most of the Purple Moon franchise, as exploring her room, and much of the rest of the house, is like riffling through the lockers of fictional classmates. Hell, Sam even has a locker in her room! But between that, the plethora of hastily scribbled notes, the school supplies (including a binder that looks suspiciously like a Lisa Frank Trapper Keeper), and just the sheer ’90s teenaged-ness of it all, it reminds me so much of the games I played as a kid. Gone Home are those games on a grand scale and for adults – a way to look back, tip your hat to nostalgia and not just revel in it, but make and learn something from it.
But what I really cannot get over the way the game makes me feel. Now, I was 7 in 1995, and Sam and Katie would be 12 and 15 years older than me respectively, but that doesn’t stop me from remembering how I felt playing games in the ’90s. As my brother was playing racing and adventure N64 games, and all the computer games my dad played were full of fragging and demonic aliens, I found games I liked and identified with and I thought that was just how games were – that there were tons of different kinds and you could just settle in to the ones you liked and play them, and they would always be available. Purple Moon, sadly, folded into Mattel and stopped creating the games I liked by the late ’90s, and yet male-oriented console and shooter games are still extremely popular. Games marketed directly at girls have mostly moved to hand-held systems, and tend to focus more on traditionally feminine careers, licensed characters, and horses. Not that those sorts of games are bad, but I honestly don’t see the interest in exploration and relationships in those games as I did in those made by Purple Moon and a few select other games from that era. Games like Simon & Schuster’s Let’s Talk About Me and Barbie and her Magical House come to mind, the later of which could have been Gone Home‘s low tech little sister. (Check out these great YouTube videos of a playthrough – kind of eerie, huh?)
Gone Home is a deeply moving game that capture the mid-’90s in a way that makes you feel like you’ve gone back in time, but also hearkens back to games from that era that are clearly its predecessors, whether the creators intended such a thing or not. I would be interested in hearing from the members of The Fullbright Company about the games that inspired Gone Home, or if it’s just a happy coincidence that made my experience all the more fulfilling. Whatever the answer, I’m excited to see what future games are inspired by Gone Home, which is reportedly doing very well, and what this means for the future of alternative gaming.