You can count the number of great video game love stories on one hand. ICO is the first that springs to mind; The Last of Us: Left Behind is another. Gone Home, the 2013 indie hit from The Fullbright Company, may just be the best yet, though. This exploratory adventure is devastatingly real, which makes its expertly executed payoff so brilliantly bittersweet. Homecomings don't get much better than this.
The title's taken an eternity to come to the PlayStation 4, of course, so if you've already seen the two hour story through, then you'll know what we're referring to. If you haven't, then we'll remain as vague as possible, because this really is an experience that's best enjoyed fresh. You've made it this far, after all.
For those of you clamouring for a little more information, however, the foray follows the story of Katie Greenbriar, a twenty-something woman who's just returned home after a year away in Europe. During her time out of the country, the Greenbriars have moved house, and the game deals with the very personal stories that unfurl as she becomes acquainted with her family's new quarters.
Sam, Katie's younger sister, carries the main plot thread through journal entries, but there's much more for you to uncover simply by observing the objects strewn around the unkempt house: marriage difficulties, loneliness, and a lack of self-belief. The game's true brilliance, though, is pulling all of these threads together in a believable manner; the Greenbriars feel like people that you may have met.
And the game design actually plays a part in that, guiding you around the Victorian-esque house without ever really telling you where to go. Clever gating means that the story keeps you guessing from start-to-finish, even though you can technically skip everything if you know where to look. True, there's little in the way of interactivity, but the title still leverages the medium to its strengths.
No more is this true than the way in which it subverts your expectations. The opening moments – which are defined by dark corridors and creaky floorboards – wouldn't feel out of place in a horror game, but as you cautiously flip light switches and gradually unfold the fiction, the title leads you to different assumptions. Unlike the recent Firewatch, however, the plot's practically watertight – it never tricks you once.
And when the reveals come, the audio helps shape your emotional response. Chris Remo uses everything from airy synths to powerful pads and acoustic guitar riffs to put you in Katie's shoes, while a collection of optional cassette tapes capture the rebellious tone of the time. If you grew up during the 90s playing Street Fighter while listening to Sonic Youth, then the nostalgia will hit you hard here.
But that all leads us back to our original point: Gone Home feels very real. Whether it's the labels hastily attached to VHS tapes revealing the kind of movies that the Greenbriars watched, or the distinct writing style that each character employs, you can tell that The Fullbright Company has plotted every single detail of this game with immaculate intricacy.
And that gives it staying power beyond its running time: you'll remember Katie, Sam, and family for years to come – an impressive achievement, considering you're only given the briefest of glimpses into their everyday lives. If there were ever any doubts about whether games could tell truly human stories, then the Greenbriars dispel them with ease.
Thoughtful, clever, and articulately composed, Gone Home is the sweet sort of story that games typically tend to shun. Katie's homecoming is emotionally charged, expertly plotted, and impressively authentic. And while it may not quench the thirst of those anxious for action, it tells a tale that practically everyone will be able to identify with – as long as you give it the chance.