|Image from PopMatters|
It's not really about the "after school special" types of lessons the plot offers; we've all seen plenty of artistic works about the value of tolerance, family tensions, and the difficulty of facing the past. Gone Home certainly deals with such themes more gracefully than most other games, but the bigger point is that it addresses them at all.
Gone Home is unique in its normalcy, both in terms of its characters and the actions you take as a player. There are things to learn from this normalcy: the "put back" mechanic is genius. Being able to rummage around in drawers is indulgent, but it makes the house feel full. An intricate environment can be as impressive as a sprawling open world. On a thematic note, Gone Home is a great example of how stories can be dramatic without having to fight a supervillain bent on destroying the world. Everyday struggles can inspire just as much empathy as galaxy-wide wars if they're told with honesty and respect for the characters.
One thing I didn't get a chance to talk about in the column is the idea of a game as a period piece. There are plenty of games set in both the distant (sometimes mythical) past and plenty set in the far-flung future. However, I'm not so sure that are many in which the actual time period is very relevant. True, you can't have guns in a "bronze-age" game, but I can't help shake the feeling that time periods, and settings in general, are mostly aesthetic. Does it really matter that Prince of Persia is in Persia (or mythical Persia?).
Does Gone Home do a good job of justifying its 1990s setting? The pre-Internet world definitely justifies the preponderance of paper notes and the extreme isolation a school-yard outcast has to endure. The punk soundtrack and trappings of the pacific northwest (I do love those X-Files tapes) also evoke very specific cultural touchstones. Then again, could this just as easily be a story about a 1920s kid getting into jazz? I haven't decided yet.
In any case, Gone Home teaches us that these sorts of storytelling and mechanical decisions are valuable, even if they seem ordinary.