Unfortunately for the reviewer, the less said about Gone Home, the better. It is best to approach the game with no more knowledge than this: you play as Kaitlin Greenbrier, a young woman coming home from a year abroad in 1995. The gameplay is based around you exploring the house and examining objects. Anything further risks spoilers.
At its core, Gone Home is a ghost story. The eeriness of the empty house, the sounds of its settling, and the storm rumbling outside place the player firmly in horror territory, expecting danger (such as a home invader, Jack Torrance’d father, etc.) Gone Home toys with these genre expectations. In my playthrough, I turned on every light in that house, with a similar feeling of dread to the one that usually accompanies Silent Hill 2. Only twice does the game step fully over into horror territory: once, in the sole jumpscare, which is either evidence of an actual haunting in the house or a reminder that the player needs to worry about a ghost (or simply a coincidence, but not really. The instance is effective, if it shows the authorial rigging.) The second instance is much better executed. It is the one room in the house that cannot be illuminated and the only one I refused to explore, for that reason. See how well the game primes one’s senses? At its best, it uses the physical space to tell the story.
Mystery pulls the player through Gone Home and the Greenbrier house. There are questions from the beginning of where everyone is. Early details help us jump to conclusions, most of them horrible, since the game has primed us for such. As the player moves on, learning more about the Greenbrier family, a few tracks emerge. Primarily, Gone Home is the beautiful coming-of-age story of Sam, Kaitlin’s sister. A voiceover performance by Sarah Grayson lends a tenderness that I’ve seldom felt in a game. In addition, the player’s exploration–investigating rooms, reading notes and letters, listening to mixtapes–further fleshes out Sam’s story.
The Greenbrier mother and father, Jan and Terry, also have their tracks too. I found Terry’s interesting because his takes perhaps the most work to sort out. His track rewards in-depth thinking because more of his clues come not from his own letters, but from the objects that make up his life and from the house itself. In his case, Gone Home succeeds the most at its own conceit.
So that’s it: exploration. It’s all one does in both Gone Home and Dear Esther, and this seeming simplicity is the basis of the argument denying them as games. Yet both of these brilliant games hinge on interpretation as a feature of gameplay. Up until the final moments of Gone Home, nagging questions remain, forcing the player to assemble the fragments of the Greenbrier’s lives into a cohesive interpretation or narrative. This happens against the backdrop of horror tropes that never really shift us into horror, tropes that in fact distract us from the empathy it draws out from us.
Dear Esther functions according to the same mechanic: the player is limited to exploration and interpretation. But what a world in which to be so limited! The Hebrides island on which the game takes place is breathtaking, glorious. Part of the game’s power is that its environment, due to the simple gameplay, does not need platforming architecture, shiny items, or the linearity that limits other games. It looks like the real world.
Whereas Gone Home‘s interpretive playground closes once the game is finished, Dear Esther sets out to haunt a player long afterward. One way it does this is by adding a few magical realism-ish elements to its gorgeous environment: chemical formulas, Fibonacci spirals, circuit diagrams, campsites, standing stones, and flickering candles appear in odd places, painted all over the landscape as though a mad hermit scribbled them in search of a master theory. Thus even the setting tries to interpret. On a practical level, such things raise questions about who actually inhabits the island, and the voiceover segments point to a few possible suspects. On a deeper level, it reveals the island as a spiritual space or headspace more than a realistic place–and what better attitude can a game have about itself?
Dear Esther‘s narrative has several moving parts that shift on each playthrough. Foremost are the voiceover segments, triggered at various points just like the ones in Gone Home. However, while Sam is telling a linear, cohesive narrative, the narrator of Dear Esther shifts between stories about himself, a tragic car crash, and previous residents on the island. In some cases we aren’t sure which story he’s talking about at the time. It takes a good deal of interpretive work to piece things together. The assembled whole we make, diving as it does into Biblical myth, personal and local history, and grief, can be deep indeed.
The skillful move that Dear Esther makes here is that only some of the total available voiceover segments will play in a given playthrough. Also, the order is partially random. The effect is like putting several novels under a book guillotine and reading whatever pieces you happen to grab off the floor. Different playthroughs vary in tone and meaning.
Another randomized element of Dear Esther is a good example of its approach to narrative. At several points in the game (particularly an easy-to-miss one on a beach), ghosts appear, vanishing upon closer inspection. But according to the Dear Esther wiki, there are several ghosts: a man, a woman (who may be Esther), a cowled figure (who may be a monk who lived on the island), or a figure with a disfigured skull (who may be Death, a personification of the island’s curse, who knows.) Only one ghost will appear on a given playthrough. If the woman appears, we might say it’s Esther, comforting the narrator who may be her widow. If the monk appears, then the island’s former inhabitants are somehow guiding the player, for better or worse. It means, at least, that we’re not alone. The disfigured ghost is a threatening presence, darkening the tone of the story if for no other reason than he doesn’t fit neatly anywhere.
These elements make Dear Esther a game of interpretation without a clear end, a contemplative journey through a space designed to drive us into places deeper than games normally go. Gone Home, although more linear, uses similar mechanics to bring the player into empathy with Sam and the rest of the Greenbrier family. What I admire about these games is that they take interpretation seriously. They go beyond a game simply “having a good story;” they use gameplay in a way that itself searches out the story.