Reflections on Gone Home: a conversation with Steve Gaynor
The Fullbright Company’s Gone Home whipped up something of a storm last month, both because of the story it told and how it told that story. Set in a vacant family home, the game relies entirely upon environmental storytelling to spin multiple tales about ordinary people with relationship issues – a topic notable simply because it’s scarcely touched upon within the medium.
Whatever your thoughts on Gone Home are (mine are here), it’s unarguable that Fullbright’s interactive story has sparked some vibrant and impassioned conversion of late, which is always a good thing.
I caught up with Steve Gaynor, one of the founding members of Fullbright, to gain an insight into some of the design decisions that came to define Gone Home, and to see how he feels now that the dust has settled.
What has the past week been like for you and everyone else at Fullbright? You released Gone Home to critical acclaim and lots of people have written stories about how they related to the characters and their stories in the game. How does that make you feel as one of the people that created it?
It’s… a very unique sensation. You know, I’ve shipped games before, but it’s always been part of a big studio, or it’s always been a sequel or an expansion pack for a game that already existed. So it’s a very different kind of feeling to know that Karla and Johnnemann and Kate and I made something on our own that would never have existed otherwise, and to have people reacting strongly to that.
So, like, the reviews from gaming sites and from other outlets like the New York Times have been really awesome to see. But I think the thing that has affected us the most has been those personal accounts that people have written in blog posts or emailed to us just saying what their personal connection to the game was. That’s been really cool and not something that we could have predicted.
It’s definitely a game that seems to have brought a lot of connections out in people and people seem to relate to these characters. I can’t remember a time when I have seen any other game that has had this many responses, so many personal responses.
Could you tell me the story of The Fullbright Company? Where did you guys start out at? I know that most of you used to work at 2K Marin and you worked on Minerva’s Den. So how did you get from that point to where you are now?
Just sort of like the process of starting the company and the game? I mean, yeah, so I worked at 2K Marin with Karla and Johnnemann and we worked together on Bioshock 2 and Minerva’s Den. That was an interesting experience because we went from a really big team working on Bioshock 2 of like 80 or 100 people to 12 people full time working on Minerva’s Den. So we really felt a lot of ownership over that and it was really cool being on a small team within a big organisation and just being able to kick ideas around. Everybody making that game was in the same room. But then I went, after that, and spent a year at Irrational working on Bioshock Infinite and that was back to, you know, a team of 100-150 people, and the contrast was huge. Infinite is a really incredible game and just being there I could tell that it was going to turn out to be a game that people really loved and that did really well. But it made me realise that I wanted to work on smaller games, and on stuff that was more personal and more like the experience that we had on Minerva’s Den.
So I moved back to Portland where I lived before I worked in the games industry at all and where my wife is from and I contacted Karla and Johnnemann and said, “if I was going to do this thing up in Portland would you guys want to drop what you’re doing and move up here to work on it with me?” Luckily they were both into that idea. So we went from there to figuring out what Gone Home was going to be.
So was there a light bulb moment when you were thinking about what your game would be? Or was it something that just evolved into Gone Home?
It was definitely an evolutionary process, both because all of us came from a background of having worked on the Bioshock series and had experience making these first person immersive atmospheric games that are about exploring and finding a story in an environment. But also, I had a design blog for a lot of years and I’d been talking about various, or thinking about different ideas of just like, immersion and experiential gameplay and getting away from genre constraints and what you could do with an environment that you are free to explore, all this kind of stuff.
So I think it came from a lot of design thinking that I had been kind of accruing over the years, and the kinds of games that we had worked on and the resources that we had available just as far as the fact that we are a very small team and we were working from our own savings, which meant that we didn’t have a lot of time. Our timer was, “when are we going to run out of money?” So it all kind of added up to, “we need to make this small game that plays to our strengths, but that also, we believe is going to be interesting for this, this and this reason that I had been kind of putting together over the years.” We went from there to, “what are the specifics of the game and the characters?” And, “what is the setting?” All that kind of stuff.
How do you feel that the work that you did, and the other guys did on the Bioshock series influenced Gone Home and the development process?
It has been a really big influence, obviously. That is the main series that I had worked on in my career; I spent like three of four years on different titles in that series. But as much as Bioshock is an influence, so are the games that lead to Bioshock – the System Shock series and Thief and Deus Ex. The way that those games allow the player to inhabit the game world and interact with it and occupy a role in those worlds and for the game to have a world that is consistent and reacts to you – all that stuff was a big influence.
I kind of went back to the roots of the original System Shock and looked at what was there, because the start of that whole lineage of games does not have a lot of the things that people think of when they think of a System Shock game or a Dishonored or Deus Ex or something where it is like, “there are all of these living characters walking around and there are all of these different powers that you have and emergent gameplay.”
They were relatively sparse, those early ones.
Yeah and so System Shock was mostly an empty environment with enemies in it and audio diaries to find and you got different weapons and abilities and stuff, but there was no economy, you didn’t find money and then spend it on stuff. It was really stripped back and so what we did was think about what the tenants of the player experience in those kinds of games was at its core, and how that might apply to something that doesn’t even have any combat or puzzles or objectives or loot to find, or anything.
Obviously that’s the… Well, not the only difference, but one major differences between Gone Home and those other games that you have just listed as influences is that it’s not an action game, it’s not about being stealthy or killing people. It’s an exploration game and it’s about normal everyday life in a way.
I feel like, in that sense, Gone Home puts a lot of trust in the players and their curiosity. It’s a very open game and it’s set entirely in this one big house and you can miss a lot. The entire thing depends upon a player’s curiosity and the player having a lot of curiosity. So how did you feel about that during development? Was there ever a time when it was more structured and linear? Or was it always as open as it is now?
It definitely started out more controlled, and that’s how it has been at every stage. So we built the game in two parts. We started working on it last March and our first goal was the IGF’s, which is the Independent Games Festival at the Game Developers Conference. We had six months from when we started to when submissions were closing. Our first big target was to have something that was polished and that at least feels like a complete experience for IGF. We built the first hour of the game and when I was first designing that there were way more keys and locks and it was much more nailed down to… you had to go to the library first so that you could get the key to go upstairs so that you can go into Sam’s room. And we did some very early play testing and people were like: “that stuff feels very gamey and doesn’t feel necessary.” That made me re-examine, “how much of this stuff really has to be gated? And how much of it can we just trust the player to follow the level design and see stuff basically in the right order. Or even if they see it out of order, can they reconstruct what they’ve found after the fact.” And it occurred to us to just remove as many actual hard gates as possible and just give the player clues that lead them in the right direction at the right time and then only start saying, “now you know about this secret passageway you didn’t know about before, so that’s a gate. And now you have the combination to a locker, so that’s a gate,” and see how little we could make linear in a very structured way, and how much we could just leave up to the player probably finding stuff in the right order.
It goes deeper than that in the sense that in any given room you might not pick up any given thing. We do kind of trust the player. We establish a contract with the player that is, “if you explore this space fully you will find stuff that is worth finding.” And so if we were to betray that and it’s like, “well I searched through the whole music room and I didn’t find anything that was even worth a damn. Why am I doing this?” Then we would have failed the player. So it was a constant requirement to encourage the player to investigate as carefully as possible and then to pay off that attention that they were paying so that they would keep doing it. That was our gambit versus having an objective screen that says ‘now go to the basement, now find the next note’ and really leading them by the hand.
I think a lot of that curiosity that players feel playing this game comes from how real the game world feels, how real this house feels. It feels like a real home. And I think there is a lot in there that people will relate to, lots of random sports trophies, etc. Things like that you just don’t get in many other videogames because they aren’t as real as this. Was there ever a time when the game wasn’t this realistic or was it always your goal to recreate a believable house?
It’s one of those things. We came at it from two angles. We decided that we didn’t want there to be combat and we didn’t want there to be any puzzles. We didn’t want there to be these challenges that are like, “you have to prove to us that you are good enough at beating these enemies or figuring out this puzzle to keep playing our game.” So very early on we were like, “okay, the game is just about exploring a space and finding a story in it.” And so the other side of that is that it allowed us to tell a story that didn’t have any fantastical moments. We didn’t have to answer the question, “who are the enemies you are fighting? What are the puzzles you are doing?” That allowed us to say, “so it can just be a story about normal people in a normal house,” which isn’t an opportunity you have in many games. You normally have to figure out some excuse for things like, now you’re fighting hallucinations, or you go into a dream and do the action gameplay there, or whatever. So we had the freedom just to say, “you explore a house and you find out about the people that lived in the house, and the drama of their lives is what’s interesting about the game.”
So no, we never really had a time when we were like, “there really should be ghosts.” You know? It was never something we were super interested in. And it’s also a production constraint, because we don’t have character artists, etc. If we had wanted to put a bunch of enemies in our game and had AI and stuff, that would have just been a totally other level of shit we had to get done, and it wouldn’t have been feasible for who we had and the amount of time we had. So all of these factors kind of played into each other to determine the identity of the game we ended up making.
I think it’s interesting that you mentioned ghosts there, because I think that I’m not alone in saying that when I played the game I half expected someone to jump out at me from most of the closets that I opened. It felt very much like a horror game when I was first playing it. I don’t know if that is just because I had been playing Amnesia beforehand.
[Laughs] I don’t think that helps.
No, definitely not. I think a lot of other people felt that as well, because it’s quite an ominous setting. It’s night time, there’s a thunderstorm outside, and it’s an empty house. You couldn’t get a more classic horror set up. So a few of the things that happen in the game are jump moments. Were they conscious decisions of you behalf? Were you trying to create that horror atmosphere, or is that just something that happened?
Well, there’s one jump moment that I can think of. What comes to mind for you?
I’m thinking specifically of the crucifix moment, when you twist the crucifix round.
Right [laughs], so that was very intentional and that was just to kind of keep you on your toes. Actually that was the only outright scripted moment, except for the intro and the outro, in the entire game. That was the one point where I was like, “okay, I’m going to mess with the player, when you look at this thing I’m going to blow the light bulb and creep you out.” But all the other stuff is totally randomised. So all the creaking and bumping in the house, all the thunder and lightning and stuff, that’s just on timers. Some people are like, “oh man that moment where you open up the door to Sam’s room and the lightning strikes” and I’m like, lucky you [laughs]. I didn’t script that. That’s cool.
Really the basic reason for it was that we knew there wasn’t going to be anything that was actually threatening the player in the entire game. We said outright, nothing is actually threatening the player in the entire game; nothing is going to hurt you. But we needed there to be a feeling of urgency and a feeling of unease and tension. Something that makes you naturally get into the mind set of, “something’s not right here. I need to solve this mystery now. I don’t just need to like, go up the guest room and take a nap and hope that people show up in the morning. I have to figure out what the hell is going on.” So the atmosphere of that kind of foreboding feeling of something not being right was our attempt to get you into the mind set of, “I need to figure out what is going on and I shouldn’t just feel comfortable and I shouldn’t just feel safe.” Like, “I should feel like this is something that I need to resolve.”
Once we had that atmosphere going on it was the next step to kind of play it up and subvert it in intentional ways. Like the red stains in the bathtub. Like, you’re playing a game that seems creepy. If this was Rapture those would be blood stains. So that’s the first thing that you would think. In this game it’s not right. Yes, in other games that you have played this would mean one thing. But you dig a little bit deeper and you realise that, okay, this whole story is just about normal people leading normal lives and not just the serial killer got them, you know. So that is something that we intentionally played with throughout the game. Hopefully the way it paid off was that the meaning of those symbols was different to what you expected.
I think it is interesting that you are playing with players expectations because most videogames would have enemies and jump moments and that would have been blood in the bathtub, so it’s quite interesting that you can use those expectations to really play with player’s experience.
So let’s talk about some of the characters in the game. You have a family unit. They’re very relatable in the sense that they have human flaws. You learn about them through the objects in the house and the letters and things that they leave to each other. Where did these characters come from?
Well, it started like the rest of the creative decisions that we ended up making. It started very mechanically. We were like, you’re exploring this house and it’s about the drama of the family that lives here. So what is the driver of the drama? What is the conflict between the people that live in the house? Because the main conflict was between them and stuff that happened outside of the house, like, you don’t have direct access to it, because we knew we were never going to make the school or the house across the street or mum’s office that she goes to. So we were like, “what’s the conflict between generations? Between the parents and a teenager?” We thought of Romeo and Juliet. If the kid falls in love with someone that they’re not supposed to then that causes all of this internal tension, and that could be one of the main things that the conflict hinges on.
So at that point we kind of knew, “okay, we have two parents and a teenage kid and this is the basic conflict identity of these people.” And it was then just all a process of just picturing what the specifics could be. We have these roles for each of the characters to fill and we just started picturing Sam and who she is and what kind of kid she is, where she kind of stands in the high school hierarchy and how extraverted or introverted she is, all that kind of stuff. We knew that we wanted a lot of stuff to be going on with Sam, but for the parents to be kind of distant so that when they found out about it, it was a surprise to them. So we figured out what their obsessions are and what’s distracting them from what’s going on with Sam and, you know, it was all a process of answering those questions and finding what was an interesting version of these characters’ roles in their conflict.
Can you talk a little bit about some of the collaborations you’ve had on the game? I understand that Chris Remo produced some of the music and you had some other collaborations creating some of the environmental objects.
Yeah, Chris Remo did our original score – so all of the ambient music and the music behind the audio diaries and the intro, all that kind of stuff. And then we also licensed music from a couple of authentic early ‘90s Riot GRRRL bands that are on the tapes that you find in the house. We also got a couple of tracks from a local band that aren’t signed. They’re sort of a garage band and they appear as the band that Lonnie sings in. We said, “can we use your music to be this fictional band?” And they were cool with that.
So those two things are very different. The music that Chris did is mostly this sort of supporting role, like a bed for the rest of the experience that occasionally comes to the foreground in the more emotional journals, but it’s mostly part of the texture of the game. And the licensed music is like, you put in a tape and it’s very foregrounded and it says a lot about the characters and who they are. So we were really excited to have two very different kinds of music in the game. I mean, a lot of games have licensed music versus score. But ours served very different purposes.
Then we had some of our friends in the industry make Super Nintendo cartridge labels for us. We thought they might think it was fun and they were up for it. So Rachel Morris is an illustrator from New York who does a bunch of posters and other design for the NYU Game Center program, and we’re fans of hers and fans of her work. She did one of the Super Nintendo cartridges – Super Spitfire – which, by the way, have you played Minerva’s Den?
Yes, I have, yeah.
Do you remember a little mini game in that? That you can find on the computer. It’s sort of like an old vector graphics like, Asteroids type of game.
Erm… Oh, yes. I do.
Do you remember what it’s called?
It was called Spitfire. So it’s like a little reference to a Super Nintendo version of that game.
Anyway, so Lee Petty, who is the art director at Double Fine, did Adventurous The Cat Returns, which is like a mascot platformer, attitude heavy cat kind of game. And Jen Zee, who is the art director at Supergiant who made Bastion and is working on Transistor, she did sort of this Japanese Super Nintendo RPG game called Journey Of Crystal that’s in a very recognisable style. So that was just really fun. It was only a few weeks before we shipped, I think, and we we’re like, “hey, would you guys want to do this?” We just realised it would be cool to have like more than one Super Nintendo cartridge lying around. We had had Rachel do hers a while back, and they were really cool and they did it over a weekend or two on time and we are really, really grateful to have their cool art in our game.
So the game’s set in the ‘90s. What was reasoning behind setting it in that time period?
It’s one of those things where that’s very much a practical constraint at first. We wanted to make this story that was about exploring the house and finding all the bits and pieces of the story, and if you set it too recently, you’d just find somebody’s cell phone and you’d look through their text message and the whole story is right there, right.
The game we wanted to make couldn’t really be set in 2013. That doesn’t mean you couldn’t make an interesting exploratory story game set now. But the thing we wanted to do was divorce from that and so we were like, “how little can we wind back the clock to make this still be a contemporary setting and story, but say, okay, people are still writing each other notes and leaving answering machine messages, and putting post its on things and writing long hand letters to each other that you might find in a draw so that everything could be very physical, and so that all of the pieces of the story could be very distributed and be very scattered throughout this house and not just be centralised in devices,” you know.
So then going from there it was like, “now we’ve signed up for 1995, so we have to represent that era in a way that feels believable and in a way that is recognisable as a different time.”
I think it’s an interesting choice because many people who will be playing the game will have lived through that time period as well, so it’s relatable for them.
Right, and the other side of that though is that kids who are playing this that are like sixteen, eighteen years old… We’ve had a lot of messages off people saying, “what are these weird things on this cabinet. They’re just like a bunch of colours on a piece of paper.” They’re too young to remember what a magic eye is. [Laughs] Stuff like that. But, it’s been interesting. It’s cool.
You’re educating the kids as well.
Okay, so how do you feel about people who would categorise this as ‘not a videogame’? There’s a lot of discussion that goes on these days about what is and isn’t a videogame. There are a lot of similar first person experimental games that feed into this discussion, things like Proteus, Dear Esther, games like that. What do you think about that discussion?
I mean, I think it’s totally fine. It’s just a question of… I mean some people are just really interested in categorising stuff and breaking things down into very specific definitions. I don’t find that practice to be especially interesting. I’m not like, I have to know exactly what my dictionary definition of ‘game’ is, and if something doesn’t comply with that then it’s not one, so what is it? A videogame to me is just an interactive piece of entertainment that you play on a screen. Right? And if you’re interacting with it and you’re entertained by it and you’re looking at a fucking video of it, then it’s a videogame [laughs].
So, I think it’s easier to have a very conservative view, like, “if you don’t win or lose or if you don’t overcome specific challenges and get achievements or whatever then it’s not a game.” I don’t know what the value of that is. If you buy something and you interact with it and you like it, then great, right? If you think it’s not a game, then that’s fine. I think the biggest problem with it is that people use their perception of that as a way to basically just dismiss a game and to be like, “well, this has no value.” That’s really what they’re saying. “This isn’t worth anything” is what I think a lot of times the real intent behind saying “this isn’t a game” is. It’s saying “this isn’t even a real thing,” like, this isn’t worth your attention. And, I mean, if your shorthand for that is “that’s not a game,” then I think that’s too bad. But it’s like. I’m gonna go here. It’s like defining art or whatever, right? If you were an art critic in the 60’s and looking at Andy Warhol’s work and pop artists and minimalists, then you went to a show and said, “well this isn’t art”, all you’re really saying is “I don’t like this” [laughs]. “This doesn’t fit my standards of something that I approve of.” And like, great. But I don’t really give a shit whether you call it a word or not.
So, what’s next for The Fullbright Company? Can you say anything yet? Do you want to work on games in a similar vein to Gone Home? Or do you want to go away and do something different now?
I don’t think we really know yet. We want to give it some time, we don’t want to dive right back into something if we don’t have to and we’re hoping that, you know, the response to the game will give us some leeway not just have to like, get right back into the saddle. But, I don’t know. We’re not sure. On some level we’re interested in doing different things. On the other hand I think it’s super valuable to take what you’ve built and expand on it and use it as a base and see what other interesting new, different stuff you can do without just throwing out all of your work.
Gone Home 2?
Yeah, we don’t want to just make another game where you walk around a different house and find different stuff. But on the other hand I think that we’ve made a really extensible base for exploring a world and interacting with it that could be expanded on in interesting ways. That will at least be part of what we’re trying to figure out when we move on from the stuff we’re doing now, which is still patching Gone Home and maybe we want to add a little bit more free stuff to it, you know. And once we say “okay we’re not touching that anymore, what do we want to do now?” It’ll be a bit of an exploratory process. But we’re looking forward to it.