When Caitlin Greenbriar arrived at her family's new home after a year abroad only to find it empty, she tried to find out where they were. That's it. Gone Home is remarkable in just how unremarkable it is. It's not avant-garde or experimental. With a first-person perspective and fully explorable 3D world, it feels instantly familiar and relatable, but chooses to use these to tell a simple story. Which is great. It may seem obvious enough, but Gone Home has made many people suddenly realize this is possible. Thanks, Gone Home.
A large part of why Gone Home is so successful is that developer The Fullbright Company knew its limits. Starting with a team of three people and a small budget meant it needed to be small, tight, honed. Gone Home is a house, a story, and a whole lot of opening cabinets and drawers, and evidently that's just fine. The house and its contents are interesting, exciting, and often entertaining to explore, and spark a strange nostalgic sense of homecoming for those of around our thirties.
The game's overlapping stories are simple but touching, the everyday of everyday people's lives. Our lives. Our boring, stupid lives. We're not heroes, but our lives matter. Again, it's not hugely ambitious or challenging, but small, tight, honed.
Big-budget blockbuster video games are broadly getting better at injecting a human element into their stories, but often both game and story suffer for their attempts. They bend over backwards to explain why, no, look, seriously, it's perfectly natural and reasonable for this one person to murder hundreds. Big publishers blockbusters' are insecure, unnecessarily amping up their stories and ramming in cutscenes because playing is apparently shameful--no, they say, they're not making games to play, they're making stories and worlds to live and breathe. While dolts on the Internet froth about how damaging Gone Home is to games, it's actually more respectful than many "proper" games for only using the parts from the Big Toolbox of Game Bits which it needs.
Gone Home took things we knew and used them for something we always knew was possible, but for whatever reason never saw. It exudes a quiet, unassuming manifesto: video games can do a lot of things; let's discover some more of them.
Disclosure: I'm vaguely chummy with The Fullbright Company co-founder Steve Gaynor. We once explored a deconsecrated cemetery together then took afternoon tea.
The Shacknews Best of 2013 Awards were determined by ballot voting across the entire Shacknews staff. Our top pick will be revealed tomorrow.