Visit any review aggregation site like Metacritic or Rotten Tomatoes, and you’ll notice a disparity between scores from critic reviews and user reviews. Sometimes the critics will hate something, while the average viewer or player will love it. Other times the opposite is true, and plenty of movies and games fall somewhere in between. Classifications like “critically acclaimed” or “cult classic” derive from these differences, and often refer to more divisive media.
In the short time since the release of Gone Home, the story exploration game has seated itself in the chair of critical acclaim. Review scores from critics and users have averaged at 90/100 and 5.1/10, respectively. Of current critic reviews, 21 are classified as ‘positive,’ and only 1 falls into the ‘mixed’ category. Our own review, while not included in Metacritic’s averages, is among the many positives. On the other hand, user entries sit at 125 positives, 18 mixed, and 131 negative reviews, many of which offer scores of 1, or even zero.
Critics or not, people can and will formulate opinions for everything, which tend to be as varied as the people who possess them. With video games, as with movies and books, certain facets of the experience inevitably become polarizing forces in the formation of the these opinions. For some, Japanese RPGs are too long and monotonous, while for others gritty shooter games all seem to be the same one-dimensional tripe. Often, criticisms for games follow trends common among their respective genres. What then, are the common criticisms against a game like Gone Home, a game universally hailed by critics? Here are the most common complaints lodged against Gone Home, and why the critics loved what others hated.
It’s too short
Choice quotation: ”I bought this game and when i got home it was already beaten. Then when i went to return it the store wouldn’t refund my money because no one in their right mind would by such indie hipster garbage.” — ChadfromChad, 0/10
For many gamers—including myself, at times—a game’s length is a major influence on overall satisfaction with the experience. We get grouchy when we pay full price for a game and it only lasts us five hours, less if you’re not much for stopping to smell the digital flowers. With Gone Home, the most common complaint among bad reviews is that the game is too short. Indeed, at around 90 minutes long (depending on your attention to detail), Gone Home is brief. If you know what you’re doing and make a speedrun of it, Gone Home can be finished in under ten minutes. This brevity, however, brings with it a depth rarely seen in even the biggest AAA titles.
Why it didn’t lower the score: This is a simple issue of density vs. volume, and Gone Home‘s environmental narrative gives it incredible density. It allows an empty house to be full of life, and it encourages our minds to fill in the blanks with our own details. This makes us an active part in forming the finished narrative, and our imaginations are one thing not limited by time. You could wander the Greenbriar home for hours, soaking in every little detail, each telling its own story. Gone Home isn’t just one story, it’s a font of little stories that all intersect in a overarching narrative mesh, more dense than any number of games 20 times longer.
It’s not a game
Choice quotation: ”you really call a game this i dont care about the story dont care about the graphics i just want to play! instead of a interaction book when we are going to learn?!” — Drakhe, 0/10
Of all the complaints one could have with Gone Home, I understand this one the most. Interactivity is definitely limited. Even I hesitate to describe the experience as a game, but there is a game to be found below the surface. This also raises the question: what criteria are we using to define games?
Why it didn’t lower the score: Among gamers citing Gone Home as a non-game, the strongest common ground comes from the game’s lack of tangible interaction. There isn’t really an inventory (you won’t be collecting things), there’s no conflict to overcome, and your imprint on the world around you is virtually non-existent. After some consideration, I’ve noticed these complaints boil down to one thing: that players feel they didn’t get anything for their hard work.
Sift through the negative reviews and you’ll find complaints that there were no secret endings, there was no reward for ‘collecting’ all of Sam’s journal entries, and that there is an apparent lack of ‘unlockables.’ Essentially, the complainers want something more akin to a skinner box than anything else. To them, gameplay is directly correlated with reward. Rather than sit back and allow themselves to simply be immersed in a well-crafted world, they needed to go everywhere and turn over every coaster, in case it unlocked something interesting. After years of performing set actions and receiving metaphorical biscuits in return, it may seem like Gone Home is a button that doesn’t produce a cookie, no matter how hard you press it.
The scenario described above is how the vast majority of games are crafted, and that’s perfectly fine. Those games can be a lot of fun. That said, Gone Home is not less of a game because it decided to take the road less-traveled. The game we play when we dive into Gone Home is more one of imagination. We craft elaborate stories from small details, and it’s stimulating. If you don’t believe that, try telling a child that they’re not actually playing with their toys.
You never interact with anyone
Choice quotation: ”It’s seems to be another game from people who apparently have no interest in making games, there are no puzzles or enemies just exploring a deserted house, it is the bare minimum of interactivity to technically be called a game.” — prh99, 2/10
Despite being about four family members, you’ll never actually meet any of the Greenbriars. Instead, you’ll discover bits and pieces about them throughout Gone Home. The only looks you’ll get at Mom, Dad, Katie, Sam, and Sam’s girlfriend Lonnie will be from pictures. Like the artsy indie title Dear Esther, you’ll hear a lot about someone but never actually meet them. This isn’t a common practice in video games, especially not those from major publishers. Not every game has to have NPCs in it to be interesting, though. Sometimes, they most interesting characters are the ones we’ll never see.
Why it didn’t lower the score: Environmental narrative isn’t a new concept; games like Bioshock have been doing it for years, and The Fullbright Company’s past work on that series really shows through in Gone Home. Environmental narrative allows the player to make up their own story using a framework set up within the environment. Portal did this brilliantly using the written ramblings of the Ratman hidden throughout various levels. Fuel for our imaginations, these small touches gave us a progressively clearer picture of the horrors experienced by previous test subjects, without ever actually showing us any of them.
Gone Home uses these same interactive narrative devices, but rather than complementing the wider narrative, they are the narrative. As we wander through the Greenbriar family’s home, sifting through their every possession from expired milk to personal letters, we experience vastly more than just walking around and manipulating objects. In this way, we get to know far more candid details of the characters’ lives, and, by extension, a deeper understanding than we would if we interacted with them as NPCs.
People project a certain image to those around them, and that’s what we see when we interact with a human character. Seeing their metaphorical dirty laundry without their input allows a much more genuine glimpse at the character in question. It’s not necessarily better than a tangible cast, but what’s the harm in mixing things up?
It’s too “normal”
Choice quotation: “No ghosts. No mystery. No plot twists. Nothing. Yawn.” — trajan_iv, 3/10
Peruse the shelves in a GameStop and count the number of titles wherein the main character does something extraordinary, and then count everything else. The number of games with everyday themes and characters certainly won’t be zero, but you’re likely to find far fewer of them. People often play games for an escape: magic, wars, fantastical creatures, saving the world—these are things video game fans experience on a daily basis. But just because that’s where some people’s tastes predominantly lie doesn’t mean they can’t enjoy something outside of their comfort zone, or that a game is bad because it doesn’t cater to their individual whims.
Why it didn’t lower the score: As far as complaints go, this one is among the most selfish. It says that no one should like it because you didn’t. On top of that, it shows that you didn’t know what you were buying, and that goes a long way toward invalidating your grumpy review. Many of the low-score reviews for Gone Home mention having seen screenshots and video of the game, leading to the presumption that the game was a dark and scary mystery game. While the house in Gone Home can be spooky, it’s mostly because it’s dark, and dark houses are pretty spooky.
The game is definitely guilty of using its creep-factor as a hook to pull the player in right away, but that doesn’t mean it’s misleading. It takes place in the Northwest, where it is known to get dark and stormy from time to time. Besides, it sounds like these players initially liked the environment, until they realized there weren’t any ghouls to fight. When you watch a horror movie, do you think it’s always going to be about a day in the lives of some precocious teenagers before zombies appear and start eating them?
It’s too expensive
Choice quotation: “$20 to experience a poorly written story that lasts less than an hour and still managed to bore me in such a short space of time. I feel completely ripped off. Don’t waste your money.” — dinglbows, 0/10
On paper, Gone Home doesn’t appear to offer a lot of bang for your buck. Given that it’s about 3 hours at the longest, takes place in a single environment, and doesn’t have a variety of mechanics, the game weighs in at $5 more than your average “major” indie title. If you’re one of the gamers who bought into it without knowing what to expect, your disappointment may grow to resentment based on the price. While it’s true that reviewers often don’t have to pay for their copies, price is something of a bottom line, and we necessarily keep it in mind when recommending or not recommending a title. On the other hand, assigning value to indie games is still a relatively murky business.
Why it didn’t lower the score: If there is value associated with a form of media, it becomes much easier to accept a price point on it. For the same reason we gladly pay $60 for games packed full of content like Elder Scrolls or Fallout titles, there are plenty of folks willing to pay $20 for a great story. Consider a new hardback book, which is likely to run you $30-40, or a BluRay in the ballpark of $20. If it’s good, we’ll gladly pay.
It’s only getting high scores because of lesbians
Choice quotation: “Gone Home is a feminist, “check your privilege” type of game that everyone should avoid. This isn’t worth your time. Hell, this isn’t even a game to be honest. Avoid this at all costs.” — kaaamos, 0/10
Looking at the many complaints made against Gone Home, this one is definitely the most unsavory. Gone Home is in no small part a personal tale of coming out to one’s family, and it’s the only high-profile game to broach the subject, let alone to do so in a way that humanizes the character in question.
Why it didn’t lower the score: Bigotry aside, the beauty of video games is their ability to let us step into situations outside of ourselves. For many gamers, Gone Home does just that. Others, especially women and people in the LGBTQ community, might find something they can identify with here. A quick glance at the average game is enough to show that there aren’t a lot of female central characters, and almost no gay central characters whatsoever. What could possibly be the harm in giving them the spotlight? Gone Home getting rave reviews doesn’t magically take them away from something else.
If Gone Home‘s themes boosted its score at all, that’s because it handles those themes with grace and maturity, which is something almost entirely absent in this industry. In this way, Gone Home is a step forward for games, and that makes it more than just a game. Its success is a sign of a growing audience, worthy of representation. Gone Home pulls video games further into the realms of social diversity and inclusiveness, and it’s deserving of recognition for that feat.