Where Is Sam?

The understated indie video game Gone Home looks like a typical first-person horror story. But it’s a lot more surprising—and moving—than that.

Family portrait
Family portrait in Gone Home

Image courtesy of the Fullbright Company

When e-book sales surpassed hardcover sales for the first time last year, it seemed like just the latest piece of evidence that in the future, all books will be e-books. But playing the video game Gone Home, an “interactive story” you can download onto your computer, I started to wonder if, in fact, in the future all books will be games.

Short and sweet—at $20, it’s about 10 bucks per hour of play—Gone Home isn’t really a book, and it isn’t really a video game; it occupies a middle ground, a narrative territory not much charted. There’s no introductory movie setting the stage, as is standard in modern video games. Instead, the game starts with an answering-machine message establishing you as Kaitlin Greenbriar, a 21-year-old returning to your house in Portland, Ore., after a year studying abroad in Europe. Your parents didn’t pick you up at the airport, and when you arrive home, the inside lights are off and there’s a note on the front door from your high-school-age sister, Sam, warning you not to try to find her.

Oh, did I mention it’s a dark and stormy night? Gone Home pulls you in with a mystery, with the appearance of horror—that this will be a game where things jump out at you from dark rooms—and leaves you with a far different, and far more moving, experience than you were expecting. The game is played in first person, like shooters Doom and Call of Duty, but as a game it’s more notable for what it doesn’t do than what it does. There’s no shooting, there’s no running, there’s no jumping. (You can crouch, which is useful for seeing what’s under the coffee table.) The mouse is used for looking, not aiming, and clicking is used for opening cabinets and turning on lights, not pulling a trigger. You’re just walking around your house trying to figure out what’s going on—where your parents are, where your sister is, why no one picked you up at the airport. Though you can trace Gone Home’s roots back to Myst, there are no intricate puzzles like in that game—just a few locked doors whose keys are easily found, to make sure you experience things in the right order. And while there’s an ending, there’s no obvious goal. The propellant that makes the game go isn’t a list of quests, but your own curiosity.

Gone Home also admirably avoids the traps of modern “video game storytelling.” Sure, there’s an unlikely number of crucial crumpled-up notes left in wastebaskets and scraps of paper sticking out from under couches and between the grates of air-duct vents. But your experience is never interrupted by movies, and there’s no writing on the wall in blood, a narrative insult that appears in what seems like 50 percent of video games published today. The story isn’t told to you, as such; you piece it together from notes on the fridge, invoices in your father’s filing cabinet, cassette tapes in your sister’s room. 

A staircase in Gone Home

Image courtesy of the Fullbright Company

This is a new direction for the video game industry. For much of its existence, the industry’s highest ambition was to make movies you could play. The heady early days when games could first display actual video, finally living up to their name, provide a cautionary tale. The legendarily campy Night Trap, from 1992, had players in control of a security system at a house where five teenage girls were having a slumber party. While live-action security-camera footage from around the house played in real time, players pressed buttons activating traps to thwart home invaders, and different videos would play depending on whether you were successful. Two decades and too many movie-games later, Gone Home signals that perhaps gaming has finally woken up from trying to ape Hollywood. Fittingly, the game’s creators are refugees from the big game-publishing houses. The people behind Gone Home—a core team of only four—had worked on such blockbusters as BioShock 2 and The Bureau: XCOM Declassified and struck out on their own to make something more personal.

The game is less a movie than a 3-D book, with its chapters scattered around a virtual environment for you to find, as the rain patters, the thunder rolls, and the house groans. Gone Home shows us that video games really are capable of telling a story in ways that books or movies simply can’t. A lot of the impact of Gone Home comes from the presentation of incidental things, the ephemera of life. The Magic Eye images on the wall, the “I Want to Believe” poster, the Lisa Frank–style neon school supplies—the game is set in 1995 and packs more ‘90s nostalgia than a BuzzFeed list. A movie could show these items and a book could describe them, but in Gone Home, you get to walk around the movie set, as it were, discovering its sights and sounds at your own pace, acting as your own director. As the medium is the message, here, the place is the story. This is a book you curl up inside, not with.

Home Screen
Gone Home

Image courtesy of the Fullbright Company

But if anything, the folks behind Gone Home don’t go far enough. Despite their willingness to eschew most traditional storytelling conventions, the game-makers set the experience back by providing a narration from Kaitlin’s younger sister, Sam. These occasional voice-overs read like journal entries—in fact, sometimes they repeat written journal entries you find in the house—but the game’s not told from Sam’s perspective, so within the otherwise realistic confines of the game it makes no sense to have her disembodied voice following you around the house. Something as simple as making these monologues part of an actual voice diary, on tapes you discover and put into players, would have kept the experience cohesive and shown that the storytellers trusted you to find the story on your own, which seems like it’s the whole point.

It’s a testament to the outstanding voice acting by Sarah Grayson, and to the game’s remarkably convincing writing, then, how quickly Sam’s monologues become the part of the game you look forward to most and how Gone Home’s story becomes her story. Anyone who gets to the end, or heck, even the middle, will see what a personal game this really is and what a big risk the developers have taken—not only turning an at-first-glance horror game into something quite the opposite, but tackling a subject the big game companies haven’t been eager to include in their creations. The fact that a story as understated and universally relatable as this can be told in a game suggests that a new form of storytelling really has arrived. Time (and money) will tell whether Gone Home is just part of the last few years’ renaissance in adventure gaming—a little sister to games like Heavy Rain and Zero Escape—or a new direction in game-making.