“The suspense is terrible; I hope it’ll last” –Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
There is a moment in Gone Home which perfectly demonstrates the overall atmosphere and its relevance to the story. The moment occurs when the player discovers the secret passage in the master bedroom’s closet. The closet itself is a small room lit with a single bulb, and opening the secret passage way reveals a dark staircase which leads…somewhere. As you descend the stairs, the darkness is almost too much to see, and with the storm outside and the emptiness of the house, the overall atmosphere is, well, spooky. So when you find a light bulb halfway down the stairs, you immediately activate it, illuminating the intermediary landing halfway down the stairs, revealing that the walls are covered in newspaper clippings and all sorts of strange objects relating to the house and its past, including a small cross. You pick up to examine the object and-CRSH-the stairs are dark again.
Personally, I’m not good with horror, or even suspense, or anything even close, so as this happened to me, the first thing I did was jump back up the stairs and wait. I waited for something that wasn’t there. What happened? The light bulb broke. An old light source finally gave out at an inopportune time. It wasn’t a ghost or someone hiding in the house. It was a perfectly reasonable and logical event given the context. But, being that everything in the game was deliberately coded and placed for the player, what does this add, and, more importantly, what does this have to do with the story. The light bulb was supposed to break as you examined the stairway, so what does it matter for the story? Actually, it doesn’t, but that’s the point.
Gone Home is deliberately set up to tell a story, and the entire setting doesn’t really matter to the story. That is not to say that the setting is irrelevant to the game, as it does affect the player, but the story itself is independent. This is because the story itself is rather lacking in terms of events relative to the player. Not a lot of events occur, and all of them are already in the past. It is the story of the player character’s sister running away from home with her girlfriend. It is could be told in a few paragraphs.
The spooky element of the game helps enforce a red herring which compels the player to learn more, especially as the player develops their own theories and ideas. The designers of this game deliberately set up a situation that fit the definition of “spooky” as cleanly and as clearly as possible, and left many possibilities open to the player. The initial conditions of the game set the player in a questionable mood, and a number of other clues lead player imaginations in a multitude of directions: the note on the door is ambiguous (“Don’t go digging around…”), the lightning has unnatural timing with the player’s actions, there is a hint of a ghost haunting the building, the sister refers to the house as a “psycho house”, and more. There are even some clues that merely connect the player themselves to the horror genre, even if not directly: an authorial magazine found in the opening area is headlined by an article from Stephen King (and the father in the story is a struggling author, obsessed with a murder) and a fictional board game can be found in the closet called “Escape from Ghost Manor”. These don’t directly relate to a spooky situation, but they play on the players preconceived notions of the current setting. Taken rationally, every single item mentioned here is logically dispelled, even in the game (it is an old house with faulty wiring, the father’s struggles have real world roots, etc), but people and players don’t often think logically, and these aspects will still affect the player and how they approach the game.
Relating the spooky element to the player and story, almost all of these aspects are reliant on player actions. Player actions trigger scripted reactions by the game, meaning that the light bulb breaks only when the player gets to that point. Similarly, weather sounds like lightning and light flickers are timed unnaturally to player actions. By enforcing the potential of something far worse occurring through the actions players take, players want to see more, to know the truth about what happened. They want to finish the story, even as the house becomes less creepy as more and more is discovered.
Finally, the story’s end is seen as conclusive and objectively positive at first, as players generally feel relieved that their expectations aren’t met. The story feels complete because the players have some answers: the house is completely explored and is empty, the parents are gone on a trip, and the sister has run away with Lonnie. Even if these answers are not ideal for the situation (is it really a good thing that the sister ran away?), the player feels accomplished and the game can end because the player was set up to expect far worse.
That’s not to say that this is perfect. Not everyone feels the spooky nature of the house and are more compelled out of curiosity, but the designer’s intent is there, and it is effective to some degree, at least for some players. The designers deliberately chose the setting and the objects within the house to influence the player’s actions and alter their perception of the story, and because the player directly experiences the setting instead of through a different character, it means all that much more. This is one reason why Gone Home can’t work as any other form of media.