Just a heads up: this is going to be a weird review. Gone Home is an unusual game, and there's so much I want to say about it, but most of it will just spoil the experience for everyone.
The take-home message of the review is this: know as little as possible. Go in fresh. Ideally, you should just stop reading now and go play it - particularly if you enjoyed Dear Esther. But if you aren't a leap of faith kinda person, read on, and I'll try to strike the right balance between vague and informative.
So, you are Kaitlin Greenbriar, who returns home after spending a year backpacking through Europe to find you've missed quite a lot of domestic drama. No one is home when you arrive at the new house your family moved into during your trip, but you let yourself in and have a look around. Through the intimate mess of the family living spaces, you'll slowly piece together the events of the previous year.
Any more details would lessen the impact of the story. I don't even want to hint at the tone, because it will change as you gather more information.
And that's essentially the whole game: gathering information. If you're the kind of person who sinks extra hours into games like Doom or Mass Effect (or anything, really) to hunt down every last audio log and written document to fill in the backstory, well, Gone Home isn't all that different.
Gone Home tests a player's ability to find non-linear information and arrange it mentally. And it's incredibly satisfying.
It's a regular trope of video games, and one that I personally find the most enjoyable part of many. This is that, refined: there's no needless combat or puzzles to pad out the time between the story. Unless you call the story itself a puzzle, which is an apt analogy, actually. The pieces are scattered around the house, and it's up to you to find them and figure out what connects to what.
While the structure may be more familiar to gamers than it first appears, it's the content of the story that makes it stand out. Not because it's completely out there, but because it's far more mundane than the subject of most games. Well, "mundane" carries negative connotations, but it really makes for a nice change of pace. And you'll come to care for the characters far more than you expect.
That's particularly the case with your younger sister, Samantha, who narrates much of the game through her journal entries. She starts off with standard teenage problems like adjusting to a new school, but it grows into a deeper personal journey than most games afford.
By the end of the two or three hour experience, you'll know Sam far more intimately than any other video game character I can recall - an impressive feat for such a small-scale operation. But this pleasure seems to be lost on a lot of gamers, who are inexplicably raging at its existence.
Those who are have totally missed the point. Gone Home is an experiment in interactive fiction: it's not meant to be a test of your dexterity or reflexes or skill. If every game was, the medium would stagnate. Arguably, it already is. And besides, it could be suggested that Gone Home tests a player's ability to find non-linear information and arrange it mentally. And in that, it's incredibly satisfying.
There's far more depth to it than you might think. Trivial details connect to each other in ways that elevate them above the importance you'd initially attached to them. It doesn't spell out absolutely everything, leaving some room for speculation. One of the most entertaining parts of the whole experience is to hear how other players have interpreted different things, which ensures the story lingers in your mind long after it's "resolved".
The Final Verdict
Like a lot of indie games, Gone Home definitely won't be everyone's idea of a good time. But the way it strips off the unnecessary layers and presents a pure narrative experience should appeal to chronic backstory-gatherers. And as you rummage through the personal belongings of this achingly 90s family, the story that unfolds is an entertaining, emotional and rewarding one.