A couple months ago, I was at the end of a long, tiring weekend. The yo-yo-ing winter-not-winter weather had given me one hell of a headache, and curling up on the couch watching crappy TV seemed like an awfully good plan.
But I’d bought this game, you see, called Gone Home. It had been recommended by friends and by people I respect in the gaming community. Its publisher, The Fulbright Company, had been on my radar for being awesome. So I started it up, figuring I’d play for a few minutes then wander off to let the headache abate.
I played the game straight through. I regret nothing.
(I won’t spoil the ending here, and would ask that if you’ve played it, ssssshhh. )
It’s not, as a lot of modern games go, very action-packed. You’re not shooting zombies, or fighting, well, anything. You move from room to room, exploring and interacting with the environment. You can pick up pretty much everything you come across and take a closer, 360-degree look at it — we won’t talk about how many kleenex boxes and pencils I inspected.
At its core, Gone Home isn’t a horror game, but it uses elements of horror to tell its tale, and it’s brilliant.
For a little over two hours, you’re a young woman exploring the house her family moved into while you were away on a trip around the world. The game starts as you arrive at home. It’s late. There’s a thunderstorm raging outside, and your parents and your little sister are nowhere to be found. It’s just you and this big, empty, unfamiliar house. The lights in most rooms are off (don’t worry, you can turn them on), boxes are left partially unpacked, the storm is getting worse, and you have no idea where your family is. Along the way, you find ominous-seeming clues: a disturbing history of the family member who once owned the house; your father’s increasingly erratic notes on his work; warnings of the storm growing ever-stronger. And your little sister’s story about life in this new town, recorded in notes that play as you discover certain clues.
When you’ve spent years immersing yourself in horror media, certain environmental clues get your oh no meter running. Gone Home hits on plenty of them. Lightning flashes. A TV turned to static. Dark corners everywhere you turn. Even when I realized it wasn’t a horror game, I expected something to jump out at me. It’s a perfect exercise in atmosphere. So much of horror writing is about evoking the mood and modulating the reader’s level of fear. How safe do you want them to feel? Do you want to give them a breather before the next big scare, or do you want to keep ramping up the dread until they’re nearly shaking with it?
If you’re looking for an example of how to set a mood and tone, and how to play with your readers’ expectations, spend some time exploring in Gone Home. Take note of what’s going on around you, what you see and hear. What do you expect when you enter this room? What do the things you find lead you to believe will happen? What do you think did happen? How does each piece of the puzzle change your guesses? How can you apply this to your own writing?
What games have you played that had you biting your nails? Are there any scenes in particular that stick with you? Let’s hear it!
(And I’ll say this again: the story in Gone Home is excellent, but I don’t want to spoil it here. Go. Play.)