There’s something about Gone Home that still feels revelatory. In 2013, a game steeped in 1990s riot grrrl culture, whose major characters were women, and required investigation to piece together a story of love and hurt seemed unlikely to penetrate the mainstream.
But that’s exactly what Gone Home did — not only did it earn praise from those enthralled by its unique storytelling, but also it stoked the ire of people resistant to this combat-less, tone poem-like game. As we celebrate its fifth anniversary, and new Nintendo Switch version, we remain enamored of how much Gone Home did for the future of indie games.
Even five years later, producer Steve Gaynor told Polygon that Gone Home’s reception, both positive and negative, continues to surprise him.
“The degree of very, very shockingly positive response to it and also the backlash of, ‘This isn’t even a game’ and all that — that scale of how people connected with it or didn’t was not something we predicted,” Gaynor said.
With a team of just four people, including veterans of BioShock expansion Minerva’s Den, newcomers The Fullbright Company already kept their critical and commercial expectations at a low bar. The game had a small-scale premise compared to larger adventure games: Katie Greenbriar comes home to her family’s new house, only to find it completely empty. Yet her younger sister Sam leaves a note for Katie behind: Don’t go looking for where any of them are, she warns. Set in 1995, the mystery is steeped in cultural artifacts from the time and emotional reveals that prove Gone Home isn’t the horror game some took it to be, but a touching, interactive story.
To their surprise, Gone Home won widespread acclaim from major outlets. (Polygon named it our 2013 Game of the Year, for example.) One commonly cited part of that praise was the game’s core LGBT themes; Fullbright even garnered early press when it pulled out of PAX Prime due to policies the studio interpreted as insensitive and exclusive of marginalized and minority groups.
“We are a four-person team. Two of us are women and one of us is gay. Gone Home deals in part with LGBT issues. This stuff is important to us, on a lot of different levels. And Penny Arcade is not an entity that we feel welcomed by or comfortable operating alongside,” the team wrote in June 2013.
This certainly won them as much praise as it did criticism. In the years since, Gaynor attributes any aggressive dismissal more to the “tribalism” of some players, who rejected the idea of a game where you mostly read letters, listen to great music and explore rooms, than Fullbright’s openness about their social stances.
“I think there’s a certain kind of tribalism to when a game like Gone Home gets ten-out-of-ten reviews and GOTY nominations — that people that it’s not their thing can kinda be protective and say, ‘This kinda game isn’t supposed to be on these end-of-year lists and get this kind of recognition.’”
The debate led to Gaynor hosting a panel at Game Developers Conference the following March, entitled, “Why is Gone Home a Game?” And the conversation of what constitutes a game versus interactive media ran straight into Gamergate, ostensibly a media watchdog that instead justifies the harassment of dissenters and marginalized persons with the claim they’re bettering games journalism. Gone Home became embroiled in the controversy, with Gamergate adherents crying foul over its positive reception.
In 2018, this seems like an outdated debate. While Gamergate continues to evolve and insinuate itself into other issues, Gone Home stands more as a vanguard for combat-empty, story-heavy games to come, ones that now easily scoop up critics’ awards each year. The puzzled looks that Gone Home first got have mostly faded away.
“You look at Firewatch or [The Vanishing of Ethan Carter] — kind of take your pick from games that sort of live in that space that have come since — and I think people are a little more used to, ‘Oh, this is a kind of game now [...] But I think people way less bat an eye now when [a game about] ‘You go to this place and a story happens’ gets announced.”
The announcement that 2016’s fantastic Firewatch was coming to Switch, for example, was met with cheering. And now that Gone Home is finding yet another life on the console/portable hybrid, perhaps a new set of players will experience this intimate, considered journey through the memory banks of an unseen girl; a teenager who is far easier to relate to and fall for than players may expect.
“We’re really fortunate that I think we landed at a place a lot of people could identify and keep identifying with and go back and visit fie years later,” Gaynor said. “I’m excited — there are definitely games that I have played a lot of times that I have bought on four different platforms.
“But the fact that Gone Home fits into that category for some people is really kinda surreal, but it’s really cool, and I’m really happy that there are people who want to spend time with the Greenbriar family.”
Gone Home is out now on Nintendo Switch eShop for $14.99.