One of the most acclaimed games of the year is, it seems, one in which you don't do much. You walk. You look. You read. You pick up magazines and boxes of tissues and cassette tapes. In other words, you explore, but the exploration all happens within a suburban American house in the mid 1990s. Gone Home applies more tension, atmosphere and emotion than you'd find in any recent action or adventure game to what's superficially an unexciting setting.
The avoidance of any violence or fantasy frees Gone Home up to be refreshingly human - to spend its efforts adding depth and resonance to the small family who comprise its unseen yet ever-present cast. Story is its main focus, but this isn't told in cutscenes or scrolls of text. Rather, you piece together events, the reason why the family is apparently missing from their home, as you explore.
The main tale, that of teenage daughter Sam and her struggles with youthful acceptance, sexuality and rebellion, is told essentially in order, as her diaries are slowly uncovered during progress through the house. It's powerful, moving and very, very affectionate, a simple personal drama which proves far more effective than any number of space marines battling evil ancestor races.
Equally but far more subtly affecting are the stories you have to piece together yourself, based on visual clues and out of order notes. Sam's parents have been facing their own dilemmas, both recently and stretching back to their childhoods, and while superficially they might seem to be benign but useless figures in Sam's tale, putting the hints together tells a very different tale. Where Gone Home works best is in quiet discovery - noticing something that you suddenly realises relates to something else you saw half an hour ago.
Unlike Sam, the parents' voices are never directly heard, so that their circumstances wind up feeling equally powerful speaks to the strength of both Gone Home's writing and its attention to small, careful detail.
On top of that, the game's a well-observed love letter to alternative pop culture in the 1990s. Playable cassette tapes of riot grrl bands, spoof magazines with Kurt Cobain and Winona Ryder covers, VHS tapes with 'X-Files season one' scribbled on the side - it's faithful and loving to the age its characters and its creators grew up in, and anyone from the same generation will find the game remarkably evocative.
Even those who aren't will get something from the tone of the game - the family's huge, empty, darkened house, as rain and thunder echoes outside, has all the atmosphere of a haunted mansion. While the ghosts are metaphorical rather than literal, Gone Home is reliably unsettling.
The only real failing in this distinctive, bold exploration game is that it's so short. Clearly it opts for detail and depth rather than length, but winding up after at best two hours will likely leave you yearning for more of its haunting, moving stories and its secret-filled, atmospheric mansion.