Architecture and video games share a lot in common. Buildings and our built environment are designed for their occupants. Doors resemble the proportions of the human body, stair risers are designed to complement the length of the bones in our legs and so on. Similarly, video games are built spaces to be explored, played in, often destroyed by their players. They're both profoundly human experiences.
This power to create entirely new, fantastic environments has preoccupied gaming for generations — both in the demographic and technological sense. Drawing on their experience working on the BioShock franchise — specifically, BioShock 2's lauded expansion, Minerva's Den — the team at The Fullbright Company have reeled in the experience. In place of the massive "world-building" efforts of that series, Gone Home is ... well, just a building. The world already exists. It's ours.
It's 1995, and Kaitlin Greenbriar is returning "home" from traveling abroad. While she was away, her family inherited a mansion from Kaitlin's great-uncle, Oscar. The setup is classic haunted house — it's a dark and stormy night and nobody's home in this large mansion that the kids in school call "the Psycho House." As Kaitlin explores the house for the first time, we're seeing it for the first time, too.
By borrowing the trappings of the haunted house formula, Gone Home sets its audience's expectations before subverting them. The Greenbriar house isn't actually haunted, but it is full of skeletons in the closets.
Perhaps Mr. Greenbriar's obsession with JFK's assassination in 1963 is less about the nation's collective loss of innocence and more about his own loss of innocence, in the very same house, in fact? And after the move to the new house, perhaps Mrs. Greenbriar's romantic interest in a new colleague is really about her own loneliness and a growing detachment from her husband? And then there's Kaitlin's sister, Samantha, whose story is the driving force behind Gone Home — delivered through audio notes deposited throughout the house — and whose absence is a red herring until the game's final moments.
The Greenbriar house isn't actually haunted, but it is full of skeletons in the closets
You never actually "meet" Samantha, or their parents, or dead Uncle Oscar, for that matter. Gone Home is a solitary experience. Kaitlin, like you, is alone while she explores the house. Her discovery is your discovery. Cleverly set in 1995, replete with cassette tapes, notepads and answering machine messages littered about, the period allows a kind of analog prying that would be almost unimaginable in today's smartphone-powered world. Postcards from college friends or letters from a former book publisher, all relics of a recent past.
And it's believable that in the various private spaces in the Greenbriar house, these people have their own interior lives and their own secrets and desires. This is a profoundly simple and deeply human experience, one that we can relate to in a way that video games don't normally allow (or, really, even interest themselves in). That the game also tackles teenage coming of age, the discovery of sexuality, childhood abuse and infidelity, and treats them as staples of the American family identity — an identity that many of us share — is all the more unusual. But it's only unusual in video games.
That's what makes Gone Home so powerful. It's not unusual; it's ordinary. That may sound strange, but in an industry dominated by sci-fi and fantasy tropes, violence and an obsession with heroism, it wasn't a floating city in the sky that took our breath away, but rather a trip back home, and the exploration of a single house, seen through the eyes of a stranger.