Team Joystiq is barging into 2014 with a celebration of last year's best games. Keep reading throughout the week to see our assembly of ingenious indies and triple-A triumphs.
Gone Home breaks gaming conventions to the point that critics (and some fans) hyperbolically question if it's even a video game, really. It's not narrative-driven – it is narrative. Much of the game plays out in the sparks of the player's synapses, filling in the story told by the notes that Kaitlin, our protagonist, finds scattered around her family's abandoned home.
The notes come from her sister, Sam, in 1995 as she enrolls at a new school and meets the love of her young life. Each note is heartfelt and raw, as if ripped from the pages of a best friend's diary, and reading them becomes an almost-guilty obsession and the crux of the gameplay. Though we never play as Sam, she becomes the main character, and her tormented teenage life – complete with feminist rock, Street Fighter arcade cabinets and self-discovery – becomes the game's stage, though we never leave the walls of her deserted home.
The house itself provides an uneasy tension that permeates every action in Gone Home. It's set up as a horror game's house: A giant, old mansion with flickering lights in the middle of the night during a thunderstorm. The player discovers that it's called the "psycho house," and then finds scraps of paper describing its odd, mysterious past owners. The house is unsettling. We don't know if it's haunted; we're unsure if this is a horror game or a thriller or if this truly is just an empty house. The simplicity of Gone Home's environment invites the player to imagine the worst – the fear and anxiety produced by a sudden bump from the inside of your bedroom closet when you're curled up in bed, half-asleep and home alone.
Sam's notes encourage similarly terrifying conclusions: Kaitlin might be a ghost. Sam might have violently snapped. Our parents might be dead and their bodies stashed behind the next door. The spirit of the previous owner might be lurking the halls, out for fresh blood.
Amid all of this mental torment, The Fullbright Company manages to craft a deeply personal, moving story of love on numerous levels, adolescence and bigotry. Gone Home is a feat of subtlety and game storytelling.
I'm ecstatic that Gone Home is one of our Best of the Year. Its place on this list validates my perception of the industry and reaffirms that I'm not absolutely nuts for seeing immense importance in the game's message.
When I finished Gone Home, I knew I adored it, but a niggling thought ate at my enjoyment. Was Gone Home so niche that it had grand appeal to only a small audience (that happened to include myself)? After all, at one point I was an adolescent girl in the 90s; I went to a new school, established my independence, played Street Fighter and tripped into tumultuous love – all of the topics covered in Gone Home. Is this a game made for me?
Turns out, it is. But it's also for anyone who's experienced the anguish of the vast teenage wasteland, or who's faced unfair persecution, or likes angry rock, or has a family, or has been in love, or ... anyone. Anyone at all.