Welcome back to Freeview, the place to discover if all those games you habitually download every month for free are actually worth your time. Last month on Xbox Live, Gold members were treated to 2013’s breakout indie hit, Gone Home. So, is this slow-paced adventure with minimal gameplay worth devoting an afternoon away from Mario Odyssey? The short answer is yes, if only just to understand this game’s legacy and significance in the history of modern gaming.
A progenitor of the disparagingly named “Walking Sim” genre, Gone Home arguably created the first new genre of video games in over a decade. Similar games like Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, Firewatch and Dear Esther tell their stories through environmental storytelling and other subversive means. To me, these games are more comparable to interactive books where you, as a passive observer, are exploring a lived-in world that you have little control over. This runs counter to the typical video game mindset of creating your own adventure inside of an ongoing story.
This is what makes so-called “Walking Sims” such an exciting exercise of what the video game medium is artistically capable of. It strips away gaming’s demanding, minute-to-minute button inputs in order to highlight the storytelling advantages of getting to observe stories interactively.
Most importantly (for this review), this nontraditional design is what makes Gone Home a perfect free game. Whatever reservations players might have on playing a game with little actual gameplay, now there’s no excuse not to try this intriguing, if divisive, genre.
In Gone Home, you play as Katie Greenbriar, a 21-year-old girl who’s just returned to an empty house after a trip to Europe. At the forefront is the story of Katie’s sister Sam and her relationship with Lonnie, a girl Sam develops complicated feelings for while Katie is away. The narrative stays away from the cliches you might find in your average coming-of-age gay love story, and while I wasn’t moved to tears, it was easy to root for the couple as their relationship blossoms. On top of Sam and Lonnie, there’s also some minor subplots concerning other members of the Greenbriar family, although that extra layer of texture to the story is better left unspoiled.
What’s so extraordinary about Gone Home is how much personality is packed into each of the characters, most of whom you only hear about secondhand through Sam’s diary. Like a great novel, the scenes Sam paints in her journal spring to life inside your mind, and getting to experience the Greenbriars’ story at your own pace gives the player a heightened level of ownership over their impressions of the family.
As you stumble through the unfamiliar house on your first playthrough, Gone Home creates a strange, conflicting tone; the booming thunderstorm outside and the dark corridors keep you on edge with the feeling that at any minute you’re going to run into a dead body, while the touching score that accompanies Sam’s diaries is soothing and reassuring. While a bit incongruent, it keeps the player on their toes, and prevents the pace from dragging between journal entries.
At the end of Gone Home, the arc of Sam and Lonnie feels complete despite its concise, bite-sized length, and you can expect to knock it out in an evening depending on how much you choose to explore. Aside from uncovering the journal entries you may have missed, the story doesn’t benefit from multiple playthroughs. But I would recommend checking the developer commentary that comes with this version of the game, even if just to get a look into the nuanced and needlessly secretive world of game development.
If you have Gone Home downloaded, you ought to check it out. It’s a good fall game, best played while it’s cold out, wrapped inside a blanket in a dimly lit room. And who knows, it might even convert into yet another smug gaming elitist.