When The Fullbright Company released Gone Home in 2013, the developer called it a first-person narrative exploration game. Everyone else — critics and fans alike — had a different name for it: a walking simulator.
Gone Home was not the first walking simulator; the genre, if we can call it that, dates back to the 1980s. But the term itself, “walking simulator,” was revitalized around 2012 thanks to The Chinese Room’s Dear Esther. Both games, which arrived close together, have since sold more than 750,000 copies each. But it was Gone Home’s cultural success, more so than its commercial victories, that helped catalyze what I like to think of as the decade of the walking simulator.
Gone Home opens with a voicemail message: Katie Greenbriar is going home. Though “home” is a funny word. She’s never lived in this house, since her family moved while she was overseas in Europe. As the screen fades in, the player steps onto the house’s front porch. A note is on the door — don’t go looking for me, Katie’s sister writes — and it’s clear something has gone awry.
I remember the first time I played Gone Home. I read that note on the door and then entered the house. It was dark, but the lights were on. I remember turning and seeing a lamp plugged in. Besides the door, it was the first object I was able to interact with. All I had was an option to turn the light off.
As you might expect, when I clicked it, the lamp went out and the room went dark. I’m easily frightened. Oh, hell no. No one told me this was a horror video game.
The thing is, Gone Home isn’t a horror game, not in any traditional sense. The things you do (and the things that happen to you on your walk) aren’t particularly menacing. The player, as Katie, picks up and puts down household junk, inspecting it for meaning and clues. Picking up certain items triggers a voice-over for Sam, Katie’s sister who left the note on the door. After the initial lamp, the lights don’t flash on and off, and the doors and floorboards don’t creak — unless you’re the one causing them to do so. And that’s how the story unfolds: by the player simply looking through the family’s stuff to learn about their disappearance.
That, of course, is the unsettling part. You know from the letter on the door that Sam’s missing, and Katie’s parents aren’t home, either. There are no jump scares, nothing lurking behind locked doors or sharp corners. It’s a game of emptiness, of voids that can’t be properly filled.
Or to put it another way, it’s a haunted house in which the house is the monster. On paper, the map itself doesn’t even make any sense. And while this is Katie’s home, filled with her family’s memories and secrets, it’s entirely unfamiliar to her, like a pod person from Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The house looks right, but beneath the surface, something is off.
The story itself isn’t horror. Well, it’s not scary in the ghost story sense, at least.
Gone Home is a family drama without any paranormal interference. It concisely and sincerely unspools the life of a queer teenager and a family that doesn’t understand her. It’s a personal kind of horror that has resonated with a lot of players.
It’s a story previously untold in mainstream games, told in a way that players weren’t accustomed to. A lot of people loved it for precisely those reasons, but it’s for those very same reasons that Gone Home landed within the shitstorm, as Willamette Week put it, of GamerGate, despite being released a year prior. Both its story (with its queer characters) and its design (it’s not a game, they said) came under criticism.
There was a shift in the video game community, a shift that’s still settling — if it ever will. Games have changed, too. They’re still changing. It feels like the house in Gone Home was built across a cultural fault line that has opened up avenues for new voices and different perspectives. In 2015, Gone Home developers Karla Zimonja and Steve Gaynor told Willamette Week they’d seen the shift just years after the game’s release; games had already come out that may not have seen such a critical response if not for Gone Home paving the way.
Gone Home’s influence extended even into big-budget games, like Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End. Developer Naughty Dog told Polygon in 2016 that it took influence from the walking simulator to create “slow-paced exploration” in its action adventure game. One of the more striking moments of that blockbuster is the epilogue, wherein players take control of Nathan and Elena’s daughter as she explores the family home. The house, as the daughter explores it, is a museum to the couple’s adventures over the years — a quiet moment that ties up a story that had spanned many years and countless explosions.
These days, it’s easy to look back at Gone Home and push it aside. It was new and shiny in 2013, but walking simulators — with diverse, engaging stories and great writing — are everywhere now. Shortly after Gone Home was released, we got The Stanley Parable. Then Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, Firewatch, Virginia, and What Remains of Edith Finch. Hell, this year, we got the ultimate high-concept and literal walking simulator: Death Stranding.
The urge to overlook Gone Home extends to its story, too; there are lots of games with more interesting plots. Better queer stories, too — queer stories that are happy, sad, messy, nuanced. (See: Brianna Lei’s Butterfly Soup.) There are queer stories that feature diverse characters, while Gone Home’s characters are all white and live in a mansion — a very specific experience that’s unrelatable to so many.
Gone Home isn’t the game of the decade. Rather, it’s a game that defined a decade, in both its shortcomings and its strengths. There’s a very real value in looking back on something like this, at a time like this. With Gone Home, a new genre of game emerged. It tugged at the limits of what a game could be, and the industry is better for it.
The most influential video games aren’t always the most popular, and rankings never tell the whole story. To mark the end of the decade, our editorial team published a list of the top 100 games. We’ve also created this supplemental series, in which individual Polygon writers get to talk about the most important games from that same period, and exactly how they changed the course of the industry.