Gone Home is a game about what happened while you were gone. Your co-identity in exploration is Kaitlin Greenbriar, the older sister who drops her bags on a Portland porch after a year-long trip to Europe. What you imagine her finding in drawers, on bookshelves and in crumpled notes – the physical counterparts of everything she's missed – is going to be grander and far colder than what develops here so elegantly: a warm, uplifting relationship that outgrows the very place built to enshrine it. Effective world-building, it turns out, can start with a single house and a tender voice inside it.
I've never set foot in this place, but its construction is sound enough to incur thoughtful wandering. At times Gone Home feels like a halfway house for the video game player; that person who can't see the difference between exploration and straight-up ransacking in his blind hunt for power. "Yesh, yesh, this world is fashinating," he says, a health-restoring cake peeling out of his mouth while he rips the doors off a medicine cabinet.
The items in this house are not meant to be consumed for your own gain, but for your edification. The personal imprints left by the occupants suggest a little more decorum is required on your part, at least compared to your insane behavior in a BioShock game. This is someone's house, so I made sure to close every cabinet door (after I peeked in it) and return every object to its rightful place (after I spun it around to find clues). I must also have underestimated the psychological toll of my first encounter with a Combine trooper in Half-Life 2, because I'm still picking up cans and depositing them in the trash. IN A VIDEO GAME.
Perhaps my dutiful cleanup of the Greenbriar home also fueled my mild resentment at their nice, detailed, perfectly rendered, multistory fucking massive house. Even ignoring the financial benefits of 1995, where the house is set, their mortgage is probably less than the rent for my 2013 one-bedroom sliver of San Francisco. Perhaps it all balances out: I get Netflix, and they deal with a meticulously labeled mountain of VHS tapes. Dad is recording every episode of "The X-Files," so you know it's a pain.
I know why he bothers doing it, which is a testament to how effective Gone Home is in its storytelling. It's a simple thing, a snapshot of a time and family gone by in your absence, but one that is expressed in a way that is practical, restrained and unique to the premise of Gone Home. It's even optionally spooky, depending on the simple flick of a light switch. (The game also has a polite option to start the house fully lit, in case you really don't deal well with dark hallways.)
There are moments when the beautifully voiced letters from Kaitlin's younger sister steal the show from your own discoveries, but for the most part it feels like you're filling out a portrait of the family through your own observation. The lack of fanfare alongside your quiet snooping is something to be celebrated.
Gone Home offers its revelations in quietness and purity, and that's why you'll leave it with a spring in your step. Turning the world into a storyteller is nothing new in video games, but I think I've gotten to know it much better here, in its pajamas and inside, without all the noise.
This review is based on the PC version of Gone Home, provided by The Fullbright Company. Gone Home is available through Steam on Mac, PC and Linux.
Joystiq's review scores are based on a scale of whether the game in question is worth your time -- a five-star being a definitive "yes," and a one-star being a definitive "no." Read here for more information on our ratings guidelines.