In a time where the gaming universe is dominated by large scale worlds across all platforms — Azeroth in World of Warcraft, Skyrim as the latest Elder Scrolls installment, and the galaxy in the next generation blockbuster Destiny — a setting as simple as a three-story house is jam packed with nostalgia, life lessons, and secrets in PC indie game Gone Home.
While the game itself expands on events taking place outside of the house, the player is not able to leave it. Instead through the use of secret passages and false panels, the house and its contents grow more and more as you investigate further. As we discussed in class, not only is the house the setting for the story, it is in its own way a character.
A moment in the game that this is especially prevalent is when Sam and Lonnie are doing their own investigative research on the house by ghost hunting. During this process they create their own maps, marking the secret passages and hidden storage compartments. They also use an Ouija board, which supposedly contacts them to Sam’s great uncle Oscar. This leads the player to the basement to unravel even more of the story.
The fascinating part about Gone Home and its house is that so much of it can never be explored and it wouldn’t affect the main storyline. You still get the gist about Sam’s motives for running away from home and her internal struggle with all that she goes through. But underneath all of this is the story of Great Uncle Oscar and his house, and that is what makes this game stand out.
Notes and letters around the house explain to us that it was in fact his house before he passed away, and that in his will gave it to the father of the girls, Terrence. We also know that the house was often referred to as the “Psycho House” by many children at the school when talking about it to Sam after she moved in. Continue to dig into Oscar’s past and even more speculation comes about, specifically regarding a negative, and possibly abusive, relationship with his nephew.
So much more can be discovered by reading crumpled pieces of paper, or checking for a false bottom in a desk drawer all over the house.
That is what impresses me most about Gone Home. It doesn’t need different landscapes or planets or territories to create a complex story. Instead by breaking the mold and keeping everything isolated to one building, especially one so familiar to its players, the narrative can pack a bigger punch by creating an identifiable atmosphere and by giving each piece of the story a greater impact as it takes work to find out more and more about the family and their past and present.
Alongside Dear Esther and The Stanley Parable, three very different environments are experienced when playing these games. Each requires specific interaction with the setting rather than with other characters. And by doing this, you have to put yourself in their worlds directly, making the narratives of each one that much more of a special experience.