A screenshot from Gone Home. Image via videogamer.com

A screenshot from Gone Home. Image via videogamer.com

Whether or not you make a point of regularly playing video games, if someone were to tell you that one of the runaway hits of the gaming year was a low-key story exploration game about a young woman in the mid-‘90s investigating her family’s apparent disappearance, you’d probably be surprised, right?

Gone Home, from Portland, Oregon based developers The Fullbright Company, has enchanted gamers with its sense of quiet foreboding that comes coupled with a lack of gore or cheap scares. Playing as Kaitlin “Katie” Greenbriar, upon returning home from travel, you wander about the deserted house searching for clues as to your parents’ and sister’s whereabouts.

This is accompanied by a narration of sorts courtesy of sister Samantha’s journal entries, which provide additional clues as you open drawers, read notes and pamphlets, and even listen to a tape of original riot grrrl bands Bratmobile and Heavens To Betsy.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this deft combination of ‘90s nostalgia, low-key mystery and female protagonists has led to Gone Home being a particular hit with female gamers, many of them first timers.

As Polygon writer Danielle Riendeau wrote in her review of the game last month, “Gone Home resonated deeply for me, partially because the particulars of the story are eerily familiar. I was surprised by the story, and even more surprised by my reaction. I've mowed down thousands of bad guys and aliens and evil henchmen in my 25-plus-year gaming career. And I've enjoyed emotional experiences and fallen for a number of memorable characters in that time. But I never expected to see myself — or such a strong reflection of myself and my own life — in a video game.”

I asked some female Gone Home players what drew them to the game and their responses were diverse. “What I liked about it was its horror atmosphere, even though I'd been assured you didn't have to kill anyone,” said Ariel, 20, a student, “and even though the story itself wasn't horrific, just tender and heart-wrenching.”

Amy, 25, an educator, saw similarities in the game to the sorts of stories she enjoys reading: “Since I'm naturally drawn to experimental short stories when reading literature, I also generally gravitate towards games that challenge traditional narratives while simultaneously confined by a short play-through time,” she said. “I love playing video games, but the seemingly unending shoot-a-bunch-of-enemies, defeat-the-big-boss narrative structures in modern video games gets pretty boring pretty fast. ”

University student Greye, 20, was captivated by the fact that a game finally offered a protagonist she could relate to. “I personally have been through the exact same situation as Sam, and it caused a great deal of emotion and giddy joy to hear hers go along,” she said. “It was a wonderful experience.”

Everybody seemed to agree that the game’s character development was particularly strong. “I didn't anticipate how much I would come to love and root for these characters that I had only ‘met’ through objects in the game,” Amy said, “but I was especially surprised by how much I thought about the characters after the game had ended.”

This, like so many reactions to games that come heavy with emotional investment (Mass Effect, Heavy Rain, Shadow Of The Colossus are great examples), is another score for those who (rightly) consider video games to be an artform. And Gone Home has certainly taken the artform to some compelling places. 

As to what seems to be particularly appealing to female gamers about Gone Home, web developer and analyst Devon, 31, wonders if the simple fact the story is told from a female perspective caters to female gamers who aren’t interested in space-set shoot-’em-ups or tomb raiding. “I definitely think that the game appeals to lady gamers. This is probably at least in part because of the simple and terrible fact that there are still so few games with female protagonists, and almost none about specifically female experiences,” she said.

However, Amy suspects that boxing Gone Home into a “games for women” corner is ill-advised. “I've seen a number of reviews that have drawn similarities between the environmental exploration in Gone Home and those explorations in other more ‘traditionally male’ games,” she says, adding that the “joy of discovery” in such games “doesn't seem especially gendered.”

Indeed, many of the glowing player reviews found online are written by gamers of all gender identities, not just women. And in some way, rather than Gone Home being seen as ‘a big hit for female gamers’, the fact that male gamers are just as captivated by a quiet mystery about two young women - in a market clogged with flashy, high-concept epics - is an even bigger triumph.