Review: Gone Home – Dissonant Horror, Perfect Empathy

Gone Home is a game that you should play.  There you go, that’s my review of it.  There’s really nothing else quite like it right now, it’s a highly refreshing experience.  It doesn’t have any guns, macho military men, explosions, or cutscenes with overblown dramatic plots.  It’s just you in a big old house – uncovering a quietly moving story.

I tried writing a lengthy review of this game but changed my mind, it didn’t really need one.  If you’re undecided as to whether you should play it though, I’ll say this: It has really nice first-person controls with real-world physics that make you feel more immersed in the very detailed, realistic home setting.  I would consider it a nice palate cleanser to all the bombastic triple-A titles today.  It feels like Myst, if Myst wasn’t weird, abstract, didn’t have any puzzles and just a wonderful, surprising playthrough all the time.  Take what you will from that.

There is however one thing I would like to talk about though, but it’s only worthwhile for you to read this after you’ve finished the game.  Not only because there will be spoilers, but also because you wouldn’t understand what I’m talking about anyway.  So go, shoo, play the game, and then come back later!

A very specific type of horror game is making a comeback these days – it started with Amnesia, and then along came titles like Slender and Outlast.  The kind where you’re alone, with nothing more than a flashlight stalking through scary environments, waiting for some unseen monster to jump out at you.

Gone Home’s arrival during this survival horror revival could not be timelier because at the start, the game plays like a horror game.  The house you return to from an extended trip abroad is deserted and in darkness.  It doesn’t help that a stormy night heralds your return.  There is the faint sound of a clock ticking somewhere.  You turn on the answering machine and there’s a woman crying, pleading. Your immediate compulsion with entering rooms for the first time is to find the light switch.  The family portrait looks a bit weird.  And while rummaging through drawers and cabinets for papers and diaries, you’ll peek over your shoulder once in awhile just to make sure there’s nothing hovering right behind you.

Oh man, and what about that one bit where the light bulb in the basement shatters?  I dashed out of there as quickly as I could.  And yet nothing ever happened, no monster ever jumped out at me.

And that’s the point – the fear you feel when you play Gone Home is purely a construction of your mind, a figment of your imagination. Sure, the game doesn’t help lessen that tension, in fact, it exacerbates it by telling you stories about how your sister playfully messes around with an Ouija board (which you find later) trying to conjure up the dead spirit that supposedly haunts the corridors of this great old house.

But because my lizard brain kept thinking of the game as a horror title, I was just expecting a jump scare at every turn.  But none ever came.  Instead, all you’d get is a heartwarming story of a girl’s coming of age.

There was an article written recently about how there were some people who played the game who were unaffected by its horror-like atmosphere, who didn’t see it at all as a scary game.  I think this dissonant-horror element only works for those who’ve been conditioned to play a game about a deserted mystery house and expects something to pop out. Then again, I would feel just as scared walking through a deserted house on a stormy night in real life anyway.

The best thing about this game for me is how the horror gives you a framework through which to view the house at the start, and that perception changes over time.  When you begin the game for the first time, the house appears strange and foreign.  You peer around corners, prick your ears at the slightest sounds of disturbance, and shudder at the possibility of a tormented spirit roaming the hallways.

The more you learn about the family that lived out their lives here, the more your sister’s story unfolds, and the more empathy you feel for her, the less threatening the house becomes.  Soon, that Mexican skull sitting on the shelf doesn’t look very scary, and wandering into your sister’s spirit conjuring circle with the framed picture of your dead gran-uncle isn’t as bad as you expected it to be.  And that red-lit doorway into the attic is not a gateway to hell, it’s the welcomed final chapter to a beautifully told story, with the happy ending you’ve been waiting for this whole time.

Talky talk

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