Why Gone Home Still Resonates With Gamers and Developers Alike After Five Years

Remembering the influential indie on its fifth anniversary.

One of my favorite interactions in Gone Home happens relatively early on. Playing as Katie, you explore your sister Sam's room. It's a voyeuristic endeavor. The house is eerily quiet, with just you home. I remember peeking around Sam's room probably the clearest of any moment, and feeling a little gross while doing it, like I'm reading some teen girl's uber-secret diary or private blog or something. In Gone Home, I found that Sam feels really familiar. She's basically me.

This comes to a head when I discovered some of her old cassette tapes. After popping it into a tape player, the familiar sound of riot grrrl music plays loudly through the house, echoing in other distant rooms if you leave it playing. It's officially licensed music too. It felt like home, like the Le Tigre and Be Your Own Pet records I'd scream along to as a teen, wishing that I could be in a band with punk-sensibilities too. (I played bass and trombone for many years, but never quite achieved that dream.)

Gone Home's legacy in the five years since it released has not gone unnoticed. Game developers, from indie to triple-A like Naughty Dog, frequently point to it as a flashpoint of modern influence. For its time, it was unique in taking the first-person perspective often used for "immersive sims," and placing it into a story-driven setting. You didn't have an arsenal of weapons and abilities that interacted with one another. Instead, you just had a quiet house to explore, and a family's history to uncover. That's it.

Its influence can be seen far and wide across a lot of games, both indie and triple-A. In Uncharted 4's epilogue, you even take control of Nathan and Elena's teen daughter as she explores their family home. It's a very Gone Home-esque sequence, a fittingly quiet and relaxing ending to the series. In an interview with Polygon, Uncharted 4 co-writer Josh Scherr even cited it, saying, "We haven't gone 100 percent Gone Home, and it's a lot harder for us to do things like that. But when we can, we like people just being able to walk around, look at things, just take in their environment—without being shot at." Arkane, the developers behind last year's Prey, note the influence of Gone Home in one particular side quest in an interview with Waypoint.

In the years since its release, Gone Home's been embroiled in controversy too, and some have stricken down a lot of the games like it. The phrase "walking simulator" has followed combat-free games like it, like a backhanded compliment to any story-driven game taking on a similar structure. There have been others pushing the genre in new directions, like last year's What Remains of Edith Finch and even the episodic Life is Strange. But everything points back to Gone Home, and the many story-heavy first-person games before it. Only Gone Home dared to leave the once-necessity of combat out of it. In a way, it reminds me of the puzzle-adventure of Myst: A game that didn't seem likely to resonate, but did so and beyond.

Gone Home was a teaching moment, I think, for a lot of developers and players who maybe don't particularly play many smaller-scale games. The idea that not all first-person-inclined games had to be violent; had to have guns; had to have some frenetic action to it; had to have ridiculous padding to hit that 10 hour bare minimum playtime. Gone Home relished in being quiet, in just exploring, in turning the expectations of what one might think is a set-up for a horror game on its head.

The horror-like framing is apt too, given the subject matter. When Katie returns home to visit her family, she's greeted by rain, the night, and an empty family home. As someone who also made impromptu visits home to an unexpectedly empty house back when I was in college, the situation felt very familiar. (Only instead of rummaging through my parents' things, I'd rummage through their fridge and chill with their cats while watching HBO and doing laundry. So it goes.) All through exploring the house, there are eerie sounds and what seems like the making of something going terribly wrong. In one instance, a light even suddenly goes out, leaving you alone in darkness. Through the early sections of the game, I almost anticipated a zombie being behind a door.

"Through the early sections of the game, I almost anticipated a zombie being behind a door."

No zombie ever came, of course. There's other horrors that lie in it though, learning about your family, your distant sister Sam's struggles and personal life. The horror atmosphere is always there, up until its final moments. It matches the primary subject matter though: The horror of being a teenage girl and overcoming homophobia, of having a failed career and a history of experiencing abuse (as is implied of her father), of a marriage that's likely falling apart.

But no matter its genre-defining notions, its clever horror-like framing, its voyeuristic gameplay, what still sticks out to me is how uncomfortably relatable it all is. The closest I've ever felt to feeling like my teenage years were represented in a video game always came in the form of the Tony Hawk series, and I wasn't even a skateboarder. It was more the soundtrack, the culture, the friends I surrounded myself with that rung as familiar across its games.

Gone Home is relatable in a different way, because we were all that teenager once. Fighting with her parents, falling in love with someone for the first time, exploring sexuality, finding herself—whether it's through love, music, friendships, culture, and whatever else in between. And exploring Sam's room encapsulates what made Gone Home so special and far-reaching. It dared to explore what it's like to be a teenage girl. And five years later, that's what sticks out to me most about its legacy.

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