You don’t kill anything in the best game of 2013. You don’t run or jump, wield any weapons or face off against any monsters. It isn’t on the Xbox or the PlayStation or any of Nintendo’s systems, and it wasn’t made by a massive development team. The best game of the year is a two-hour piece of interactive fiction called Gone Home that was made by four designers in Portland who left big-budget game development behind to focus on more personal works. Gone Home isn’t about solving convoluted physics puzzles or single-handedly winning a war. It’s about people.
You’ll probably recognize some of your friends or family members as you unravel the stories of the Greenbriar family. Playing as older daughter Katie upon her return from a year studying abroad in 1995, you explore the Greenbriars’ sprawling new home, looking for Katie’s parents and teenaged sister, while slowly piecing together hidden secrets from the last year (and beyond) through clues placed unobtrusively throughout the house.
Gone Home consistently subverts what you expect from a game. It creates tension by adopting the first-person perspective so familiar from shooters like Doom and Call of Duty. Imagine if Half-Life took place in a suburban home in the 1990s, with a college student poking through VHS collections, dirty laundry, and punk mixtapes instead of a white guy shooting aliens. At first you expect enemies to pop up from behind couches or out of closets. Gone Home plays with the trappings of a horror story, with a young woman exploring an empty old house during a rainstorm, but it skips frights for a naturalistic look at a fairly standard family. As you walk through bedrooms and basements, discovering hidden rooms and secret passages, decades of secrets are revealed, from Mr. Greenbriar’s failed career as a novelist to Mrs. Greenbriar’s thoughts of having an affair with a co-worker.
The central character is Katie’s teenage sister, Samantha. Her self-discovery makes up the bulk of the storyline, as her friendship with a new girl in school has a crucial impact on her path into adulthood. Lonnie turns Samantha on to real-life riot grrrl bands like Heavens to Betsy and Bratmobile, introducing her to exciting subcultures she was barely aware of. That friendship develops into something more as Sam realizes her own homosexuality. We see our own teenaged selves as we watch Sam grow, from her awe at her first rock show to her self-expression through zines and Love and Rockets-style comics to the depth and pain of her first love. Gone Home delicately crafts this story without ever feeling maudlin or overly manipulative.
Games are thrilling because they’re essentially grand secrets that need to be unlocked. With Sam’s story, Gone Home chips away at the medium’s artifice, replacing abstract puzzles or reflex challenges with secrets that hold actual meaning for characters that resemble people we know in real life. It captures the liminal nature of adolescence, as we discover who we are and who we want to be.
The story makes Gone Home an especially powerful game, but that relationship is a two-way street. The story would be a little too pat and clichéd to work as a book, but the game format lends it power, both because we don’t expect something so tender and naturalistic from a game, but also because the story unfolds through our own actions, as we discover old letters or read through scraps of Sam’s journal. Major revelations about every character are uncovered only through diligently exploring every room in the house. We are active participants in how this story is told, which makes it resonate more than it would in other media.
Of course, some argue that Gone Home isn’t a game. All you do is walk around a house, reading notes left behind by the game’s unseen characters, observing their lives from a distance. There’s none of the bombast or action of Grand Theft Auto V or Bioshock Infinite. You can tell that Gone Home was created with a fraction of the resources available to those games. You can also tell that Gone Home is far more powerful, both emotionally and intellectually.
It’s not a surprise that a small developer like the Fullbright Company could make the best game of 2013. A thriving community of independent developers has been expanding the boundaries of the medium for years. Many of the best games of the year come from similarly small teams—games like Kentucky Route Zero, The Swapper, and The Stanley Parable, all of which achieve through atmosphere and skillful writing the success that eludes bloated, cynical, would-be epics like Infinite and GTA V. Gone Home is the best of these games that might seem small in scope but are massive in ambition and thoughtfulness.