2013 Game of the Year Awards: Number 1

We here at Silicon Sasquatch don't take this Game of the Year responsibility lightly. No matter how large our audience may be, we recognize that putting our collective seal of approval on one game for every year is going to have repercussions on some level. It's with that significance in mind that we deliberate extensively every year to choose the game that we feel best fits the voice and mission of this publication — the one game that most fully represents what we believe in and where we think the most significant accomplishment has been made within the medium.

This year's Game of the Year winner is no exception to these standards. It takes the familiar concepts of gameplay but imbues the experience with a strong, utterly believable sense of place and a relatable, deeply meaningful central conflict. Perhaps most importantly, it's an idea that only could have worked as a game: the very act of play enriches and redefines what in any other medium would've been merely another interesting story.

We're pleased to present to you what we consider to be the single-best game of 2013.

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#1 – Gone Home

August | The Fullbright Company | Linux, OS X, Windows

SALEM 30

I work in Wilsonville, Oregon. To get there I drive south on I-5, five days a week. Before playing Gone Home I passed the “SALEM 30” mile-marker sign without looking twice. It appears a quarter-mile from my exit, so most days I would gloss over its existence. I had no business worrying about Salem — there was no connection to make other than it being the state’s capital and a pitstop on the road to my former college in Eugene.

The morning after I finished Gone Home the sign finally caught my eye. It evoked emotions in me, a false memory and familiarity with the Greenbriar family that had been created for a videogame. It was the most absurd out-of-body experience I’d had in years.

Gone Home proves our limited view of what a game "is" needs to mature if this industry ever stands a chance of becoming inclusive.

For a second I thought that Sam and Lonnie (the two teenage lovers central to the plot) were real and living somewhere in Oregon, or another state entirely. I imagined they drove south on I-5, past the same “SALEM 30” sign — just 18 years earlier. What did they think of Salem? Did they stay in Oregon after running away together? I couldn’t help asking these questions, so many questions, raised by exploring an empty house in 1995 as Sam’s sister, Kaitlin.

The imprint Gone Home left on me was the strongest of any title this year, and perhaps of any title ever.

We selected The Fullbright Company’s monumental first release as our 2013 Game of the Year because Gone Home argues that the gaming industry doesn’t need to accept the claustrophobic box it has built for itself from years of redundant clichés. Space marines and bro culture are fine in small doses, but games need to cover other aspects of life to use the medium to its full potential. More polygons do not beget more heart.

Themes of 1990s-era family values and lesbianism weren’t copy-and-pasted onto a mock-horror title to be edgy, but rather to prove that our limited view of what a game "is" needs to mature if this industry ever stands a chance of becoming inclusive.

Gone Home made me feel, and think, more than any game throughout 2013. Whereas I find myself playing many games reflexively, mouth agape and eyes half-closed, Gone Home helped open my eyes to the endless possibilities of the art form.

I can only hope this beautiful, moving title’s success is the herald of things to come for an industry still deeply in flux.

– Aaron Thayer

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I knew we were in for something special when I saw that the team behind BioShock 2's critically acclaimed but lesser-known single-player add-on, Minerva's Den, had abandoned mainstream game development and moved up to my hometown of Portland to make the kind of games they'd most wanted to make. I didn't much care what the final product would be; frankly, I'd been absolutely floored by what I'd seen in Minerva's Den and how well it turned my notion of what a BioShock narrative could be on its head. And if nothing else, the formation of The Fullbright Company gave me hope that my lifelong dream of seeing a successful game-development scene begin to grow in Portland might actually come to pass.

With those things in mind, it's fair to say that I went into Gone Home with high hopes and higher expectations. I expected a tight narrative, an all-consuming and convincing sense of place and an innovative interpretation of familiar game mechanics. It'd be accurate to say I got all of that out of Gone Home, but those qualities — the same things that made Minerva so special — don't even scratch the surface of what Gone Home meant to me.

Gone Home expects you to play an active role in understanding what it has to say, and it's that trust — that reliance on the player's agency — that enables the experience to be involving, mature and resonant.

The story in Gone Home is, on its surface, not revolutionary or controversial. It's more My So-Called Life than There Will Be Blood. But the game pursues its story, its characters and their conflicts with a such a dogged persistence that every element aligns in its service. The end result is a genuine, heartbreaking story that feels at once like a great work of modern American storytelling and simultaneously like a true coming-of-age story that many of us could relate to in some way.

A great story will only get you so far, though. What makes Gone Home excel is how its design, level layout, object interactions and use of sound and lighting are all put to use in creating a singular, focused sense of place in service of the story. Nothing is laid bare for the player; instead, the story is pieced together ad-hoc with scraps of paper, stray empty liquor bottles, suggestive notes from a potential homewrecker (depending on how you look at it, anyway) and Sharpied mix tapes. Gone Home expects you to play an active role in understanding what it has to say, and it's that trust — that reliance on the player's agency — that enables the experience to be involving, mature and resonant.

2013 was maybe the year of the existential crisis among game developers. Even just looking at our top-ten list, you'll see at least a couple games that exist solely to probe and understand the nature of interacting as a person with a game. These games pose intriguing questions but shy away from drawing any of their own conclusions. Gone Home stands alone for having the confidence to say what it wants to say the best way it knows how, and the result is something simultaneously intangible but invaluable: a genuine, meaningful, and deeply human experience. That, to me, is as close to art as anyone can hope to get.

Nick Cummings

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What I said last year about our top two games, The Walking Dead: Season 1 and Journey, holds true about our top game of 2013, Gone Home: It’s an experience that is completely unique to gaming. In no other medium can you truly have the same experience that Gone Home provides.

Of course, I’m probably predisposed to liking that experience. A kid who grew up in the 1990s, I may not have taped The X-Files like Gone Home’s central character Sam did, but I definitely remember a more than a few living rooms that shared the same aesthetic. Super NES cartridges? Writing down cheat codes? '90s-tastic stationery, bills, and letters? Oh yes. The place might be fictional but the style is accurate — seeing the parks service letters the mom receives makes me think of the super-old medical records my parents still have. And as a native Oregonian, I appreciate the winks and nods the Portland area gets as well.

I see it as a strength that gaming can move beyond the point where the mechanics are all there is to see, and instead the story is the star. Where the mechanics aren’t the center, but merely the transmission method by which you experience what the storytellers are trying to show.

But no amount of blows from the nostalgia hammer could vault a game up to number one automatically. No, that’s where the story and storytelling in Gone Home come in. It’s not just the story told, the characters within, or the characterization, but how it all works together. The tone is perfect; the kinds of notes and letters teenagers write and pass to one another are spot on. That a story is told by those means (and others) is an achievement in itself. I almost can’t believe it works as well as it does. Add in the dark, haunted-feeling, creepy house, and the game earns all the tension that ratchets up at the very end. I hurtled the player-character from the penultimate area to the very last one because I was so worried about what I’d find. Instead, I got a very different kind of conclusion.

Some could complain about the real lack of mechanics. “It’s not moving things forward in terms of game engine or graphics!” you shout. Honestly I see that as a strength — that gaming can move beyond the point where the mechanics are all there is to see and the story is the star. Where the mechanics aren’t the center, but merely the transmission method by which you experience what the storytellers are trying to show. And when it’s a story as interesting and engaging as this one, it’s easy to go along for the ride.

Gone Home is a gem. It’s a small, short, perfectly encapsulated experience. It may not be the most game of 2013, but it is definitely the best.

– Doug Bonham