Gone Home Review
Note: This article originally ran on 12/20/2013 at Subtle Blend. In (dis)honor of Gone Home’s console release and inclusion as one of June’s free Playstation Plus games, we rerun it here for the edification of all who see it.
Summary: 2013’s over-hyped sacred cow: Production values from 1999 married to an interactive walk through of a high school lesbians Livejournal posts (with far less eroticism than said premise would suggest).
It is impossible to do the job at hand to really tear down this over-hyped, steaming pile without diving deep into spoiler territory. If you’re truly of the mind to waste good currency and two hours of your life on this thing, stop reading now. And don’t forget: We told you so.
For those who remain: Gone Home was introduced and marketed as a first-person exploration title (this is certainly not a game) set in the 1990s where the user would come home to find their family missing. The user would then be required to traverse the halls of the empty house to piece together what happened to them. It was strongly implied to consumers that this was a paranormal tale, a horror story.
Fullbright Company was more than happy to play into that, as its far less likely the product they actually delivered would have tracked well in pre-orders or hype. And here, reader, is where we offer our last warning of spoilers, because the big twist in Gone Home is that there is no paranormal element to its story, not unless you count a couple of teenage girls fooling around with a Ouija board.
Yes, you read that correctly. Yes, this remains a title (again: with no skill element or meaningful mechanics, this is not a game) in which you walk through the halls of your family home. Yes, all your interaction with the environment involves turning on lights and picking up slips of paper or other mementos. But at regular intervals, one of these items will trigger a voiceover from the user characters sister, Sam, in which she tells a chunk of the games primary narrative re: how she discovered she was a lesbian, and she has a girlfriend, and shes so totally in looooooove she cant stand it. (Oh but what if mom and dad find out? Such drama!)
At long last, here we have one of those new and different perspectives the niche press is so quick to insist we need to be exposed to. Mechanics, production values, and stable coding be damned (Gone Home fails on all these fronts); what gamers really need is to be confronted with the perspective of a fucking high school girl making googly eyes at another fucking high school girl. Now, we have been. How refreshing Game of the Year.
To be serious for a moment, nobody should be surprised that Gone Home is pulling in such undeserved accolades. The games press has been ceaselessly, tirelessly beating this drum for a while now; grading smaller, indie titles on a curve, particularly those that mask their lack of mechanics, polish, or outright competence with an on-the-nose celebration of a marginalized class or non-traditional gaming audience. Whereas some of the most amazing virtual worlds to ever exist get dismissed as generic because there are just too many amazing virtual worlds on the market, slop like Gone Home gets heralded as profound, despite a clear drought of redeeming qualities. Lets call this phenomenon what it is: intentional, systematic grade inflation for game software that lines up with the political views of a given writer/outlet.
But how did we get here? How is a title with flimsy mechanics, zero skill element, zilch replay potential, and production values from last century (thing runs worse than Half Life 2 on my rig) being fellated to the point where some outlets are actively considering it for Game of the Year? The answer, of course, is that there exists a small but vocal group of individuals who are obsessed to the point of borderline mental illness with the idea of games as sexual politics. It bothers them to no end that ours is a medium that makes more money than the US box office, primarily through catering to the whims of men via multi-million dollar productions. This sickens their fragile little snowflake hearts, and so through their caustic, grating public personas, they position themselves as champions and arbiters for all minorities (particularly sexual ones, these people are obsessed with sex and gender identity) who have been oppressed, misrepresented, and stigmatized for far too long by pieces of wholly optional $60 consumer entertainment (that said oppressed blocs never really bought in any financially tenable volume to begin with).
The dirty little secret in the room and the one that Gone Home drags into the light is that these people are perhaps less qualified to write strong female characters than Archie Bunker. Consider: the press loves to drone on about Sam as a prime example of a well-developed character, but is she really? After all, what do we really know of Sam by the conclusion of the piece? That shes a high school girl who likes shitty riot-grrl rock music, writes shitty stories that lead her to apply for a creative writing program (because of course she does) and has a girlfriend who is about to join the Army? And, oh yeah, she feels sooooo hard, you guys. All the feels. Her hea-aart hurts. Yes, Virginia, once you get over the fact that Sam likes to do it with chicks (a fact the games press hipsters are eternally incapable of getting over), you’re left with about as much depth as this 20 second monologue by Lumpy Space Princess.
The truth is, most gay people do not resemble the flamboyant, well-paid personalities you see on television. That is to say, the vast majority of gays and lesbians have more going on in their lives than the simple act of being gay. Samantha Greenbriar does not, and that goes double for her girlfriend, Lonnie. If the hipsters truly wish for more representation of any given real-world minority group in games, then perhaps a great place to start would be to stop applauding on-the-nose trash like Gone Home, and start advocating for such characters to have interests and traits outside of their sexual attractions. Because, we don’t get that here: Every last aspect of Sam’s personality if that’s what were going to call the scraps of clumsy exposition found throughout the house is defined by the fact that she likes girls. This isn’t just a hater spewing hyperbole: Its all she talks about in every audio clip. If this weren’t bad enough, the pandering done by Gone Home to its audience is worse than every impossibly huge rack to ever grace a shooter or RPG combined: You will find homemade zines entitled Kicking Against The Patriarchy. You will absolutely find a fictional LGBT magazine cover trumpeting an article on The Male Gaze: How to Subvert It. Oh yes, folks, this is that special kind of bullshit; a social justice Tumblr masquerading as a sluggish, barely functioning, retail video game product.
The thing the social justice crusaders always and completely fail to recognize is that the key word in strong (gay/female/black/etc.) character is never the second one. In the same year as Gone Home’s release, The Last of Us gave us a well-written side character (Bill) who happened to be gay. And by happened, I mean its an element of his personality that is brought up with subtlety, to the point where one could perhaps miss it entirely. This is because Bill is living in the aftermath of an apocalypse he has more pressing issues to discuss at length than how fucking gay he is. Naturally, the games press failed to give Bill much ink, because The Last of Us was a fun game with great, crunchy mechanics; not a piece of self-congratulatory arthouse wank. To steal examples from another medium, let us consider Omar Little from The Wire, or Gustavo Fring from Breaking Bad. Respectively, it is outright stated or heavily implied that these men were homosexuals. And yet, it was not their defining trait, simply one in a complex patchwork of nuance that made these characters two of the most engrossing men to ever grace the small screen. Characters like Sam Greenbriar will never match up to the Gus Fring’s or Omar Little’s of fiction; they’re not even on the same level as poor Bill. At the end of the day, Sam Greenbriar is a clunky, poorly-formed cipher through which Fullbright Company lectures the user for the running time of Gone Home.
The other characters aren’t much better: The user character is a well-travelled child of Portland privilege (shes coming home to the city after a year backpacking in Europe) whose father is a once-prominent writer who now seeks solace in the bottle as his career fades and his wife engages in line-crossing emotional infidelity with her coworker. Imagine! A boozy writer and a unfulfilled housewife! Truly, such developed, revolutionary characters will help gaming blossom into the beautiful flower (or maybe firework, lol) it was always meant to be. God, this is a terrible piece of software (not a game).
Dear reader, don’t believe the hype: Gone Home is an unpolished mess lacking any sort of skill element whatsoever, and its narrative is too precious by half. Gone Home lacks anything close to compelling mechanics, art direction, or technical merit. It does have a section where Sam talks about how much it sucks that her girlfriend is going to have to deal with Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell in the military; all while notes of sappy, generic coffeehouse acoustics strum in the background. Indeed, Gone Home is 2+ hours of this sort of drivel, handled with all the emotional subtlety of an after-school special produced by Lifetime and written by Tumblr social justice zealots. Spend your time and money on something (almost anything) else.