We’re all happy at how well Nintendo Switch is performing - not just because we’re obvious Ninty fans, but because such success has opened the door to a much wider and diverse range of titles than any other platform in the Big N’s history. So it’s fitting that something as niche and avant-garde as the 'walking simulator' is strolling onto a new platform, finally offering a brand new kind of experience in mobile form.
With Firewatch also on the horizon, it seems fitting the first proper example of this genre should be the one that helped popularise it in the modern gaming era. Much like Limbo, Her Story and so many other indie titles, Gone Home has become a touchstone in games development. An experience that strips away so many of the systems we’ve become enthralled to over the years. There are no XP bars to fill. No skill points to assign. There are no puzzles to solve or platforms to leap to and from. There aren’t even any enemies or dangers (unless, of course, you’re petrified of storms raging outside and the occasional flickering light).
It’s a game where you won’t actually do that much ‘gaming’. Instead, Gone Home offers the chance to unravel a mystery, one piece at a time, as you explore a house you once called home. Think of it as an interactive museum, only this one is littered with letters from loved ones, 'riot girl' cassettes and incidental details that paint a picture of a believable and - more importantly - relatable family. As you move from room to room, opening drawers and looking in closets, you uncover more and more details that show that not every family unit is intrinsically happy. There are clues that point to past disappointments, childhood awakenings and the pressures of becoming an adult.
Played entirely in first-person, you enter the story’s titular residence as Katie, the 21-year-old eldest of the Greenbriar family who has just returned from an extended backpacking trip in Europe. But no one is seemingly there to greet you. A note on the inside door from 17-year-old sister Sam suggests she’s left the house for a reason she doesn’t wish to explain, and it’s this first ominous clue that leads you through the domain you once called home in search of why she's disappeared. But this is the beauty of Gone Home. It’s not necessarily where she’s gone, but why.
As you explore - looking at letters revealing your father’s younger years as he struggled to find a publisher for his books or stories written by your sister in elementary school that show the seeds of a troubled soul - you begin to unravel the history of Sam's growth from child to woman. You see her frustrations with the world, the fact she sees it differently to everyone else and the way she struggles to deal with the family’s own very public history. You see a female character transforming on her own terms, but you soon realise some of the most pivotal discoveries and challenges in her life were done without you, and you begin to understand the impact your absence has had on Sam.
That story, told in snippets as you push further into the house, is told through items you pick up and read and through journal entries that are periodically unlocked as a result. Actress Sarah Grayson does a wonderful job of bringing Sam’s internal struggles to life, with these entries often written to her sister - to you as a player - despite your previous absence. Along with occasional snippet of dialogue from Katie herself, this spartan approach to dialogue makes for an intimate and far more affecting experience. Some very sensitive and taboo subjects are covered, but it never feels cheapened at the expense of being in a game.
You can tell the four developers behind the game partially cut their teeth working on BioShock 2 - specifically its acclaimed DLC, Minerva’s Den. This is a game without danger, but one that leaves a tangible sense of foreboding thanks to the way incidental details and lighting are used. The fact that its mid-’90s setting is so beautifully articulated - from trashy teen mags left on coffee tables to TV listings that mention Boy Meets World and The X-Files - just shows how important small details can be in unspoken storytelling.
The Switch version runs smoothly on Nintendo’s hardware and is a like-for-like port of the iteration released on PS4 and Xbox One. Using the Joy-Cons to explore never feels disjointed and you can even use the touchscreen in handheld mode to interact with items or move the camera. The game also supports extra details such as the ability to turn all lights on from the start (if you hate games full of darkened rooms) and the full interactive commentary that reveals countless insider details on how the game was written and designed. And even five years, Chris Remo’s score still gives us goosebumps.
While it is a five-year-old game, there’s no denying the cultural and developmental impact Gone Home has had on the game industry. Both as a near-perfect exercise in interactive storytelling and an example of how to handle complex and very real ideas in a game, only Life is Strange has ever come close to matching its significance. While there still isn’t much ‘game’ to be found here, the story you unravel through exploring an empty home will stay with you long after you’ve put down your Switch. Essential.