"I think one of the most valuable things a piece of entertainment can do is make you feel empathetic towards people. Any piece of writing or fiction that focus on an individual can help you understand them better. If you understand something better then you do feel more tolerant and empathetic towards them, and if that’s part of the value of Gone Home then I think that’s a really good thing." -Steve Gaynor
Portland based developer The Fullbright Company has had one child—Gone Home. Shaped by nontraditional mainstream design theories, Gone Home makes a first-person experience profound simply by focusing on a normal family with normal issues.
I sat down with Steve Gaynor to chat at length about many things, like the initial inspiration for Minerva’s Den, why he left Irrational Games before BioShock Infinite shipped, whether or not Gone Home really is a video game, letting go of traditional genre requirements, creating sympathetic villains, PAX, The New York Times adoration for Gone Home, and what’s next for The Fullbright Company.
Mark DeSanto: Hi Steve, it’s great to meet you! Thanks for taking the time to chat with me. Let’s start out at the beginning, shall we? How did you get into making video games?
Steve Gaynor: Hi there! Yes, nice meeting you too.
My first design job was working with a company called TimeGate Studios, who were based in Texas, on the Perseus Mandate expansion pack for F.E.A.R., the first person shooter by Monolith.
Oh I remember that expansion pack!
Well…<laughs> I doubt very many people do. It was the second expansion pack for a game that was almost 3 years old at the time.
When I was in college I realized I was interested in game design, so I started to make my own levels using the F.E.A.R. editor. I chose that particular level editor because I was a big fan of the game and that particular studio’s output, plus the Creative Director worked on No One Lives Forever. Anyway they released essentially their entire development toolset as a mod suite. You could add new voice files, create all new story scripting…you could do everything the developers could do.
Between all those things I knew I wanted to make single player levels for that kind of game—a big AAA title—that had a lot of expressive capability. I started making levels for that game to build up my portfolio. Then someone who worked at the studio who knew of my work sent me an email saying, “Hey I see you make levels for F.E.A.R.. We’re making an expansion for the game and think you should apply!”
I was living in the bay area at the time with my now wife—who was going to Grad school while I was working QA, plus creating levels on the side—and we just decided to move to Texas for 6 months. We shipped that expansion pack, moved back to San Francisco and then worked remotely for them for a while.
The following year (2008) I went to GDC on my own dime. I had actually been going to GDC for a few year prior through the auspices of Idle Thumbs. By the time I came back, Idle Thumbs wasn’t really publishing anything, plus it didn’t feel right getting the Press Pass that way. Anyway, when I went to GDC in 2008 I met Greg Kasavin (Bastion, Transistor, former editor-in-chief of Gamespot) face-to-face for the first time. At the time he was working at EA, but had been talking to some of the folks at 2K Marin about a job. He tipped me off to it saying, “Hey you should talk to the 2K Marin guys if you’re interested in working on BioShock stuff. I think you’d be a great fit!” Plus my good friend Chris Remo—who was a journalist for Shacknews at that time—said I should tag along with him to his appointment with Ken Levine. Between those two things I decided I had to go.
But I was thinking about the fact that I’d only shipped one expansion pack, and here they are working on BioShock—why the hell would they even consider hiring me?! I mean…I wouldn’t have even considered applying, but between the two events how could I not?
Thank GOD you went to GDC in 2008!
I know right?!
By the way Chris Remo was one of my co-hosts on an old gaming podcast called Played.
Oh wow! No shit?
"Actually the initial inspiration was from a conversation I had with JP LeBreton. He was chatting with the Lead Designer of the original BioShock about how Rapture had all this accelerated high technology, and it would be cool if all the technology that had lead to the creation of Shodan in the System Shock universe had come from all these advancements in Rapture. It’s off the books and not official in any way whatsoever, but I was like fuck it, I’ll just do that!” -Steve Gaynor on Minerva’s Den
Yea, it was just a little side thing. It ran for roughly 3 years. It was…ok , but we had fun. Well, I was terrible, Chris and Elizabeth (Tobey) were great.
It sounds familiar. I think I remember that podcast existing, but I didn’t really check it out.
Yeah it was a while ago. I think we began recording in 2004-2005…before the Bombcast, Weekend Confirmed and even the Idle Thumbs podcast.
Actually I think I did listen to one or two episodes. I remember listening to Elizabeth on a podcast.
Anyway, back to GDC 2008…
So I met Jordan Thomas and Carlos Cuello who were two seed-personnel to 2K Marin, and we set up an interview.
At this point was BioShock 2 in pre-production?
It was. They had an idea. When I was talking to them there were still only 12 people at the studio. I think I was the 14th hire. That’s how I got from college to working on BioShock 2. It’s a crazy thing!
At that point did Irrational Games have any input? Did they visit the studio?
They were not really that involved. They sent a contingent as a kind of cross-studio-best-practices kind of thing, but they were definitely not in a position where we were on a conference call every week. We saw them once or twice but there really wasn’t any direct input.
Did you get any sort of feeling if Irrational Games cared about BioShock 2? It sort of seems Irrational Games would have made a direct sequel to the original BioShock if they thought one need to exist. They seem to be very protective of their stuff.
I think it’s something they saw as very separate. It was part of the deal they had with the publisher. They wanted to do something that had a much longer development period. BioShock Infinite isn’t something they could have made in the amount of time the Publisher needed a BioShock 2. It had a development time of roughly 1.5 years—a rather speedy turn-around. If they had been responsible for doing BioShock 2, they wouldn’t have gotten started on the next big crazy thing.
So it was due to scheduling?
Well…let me put it like this—it’s nowhere near the same situation, but it’s also not wildly dissimilar—but Activision trades off studios with the Call of Duty franchise.
See for us there was some shared creative-type personnel. Well…not a lot, but the core members of 2K Marin were from Irrational Games, and they built a new team to make that game that allowed the Publisher to keep the franchise active. I think it was just a more practical decision.
What was your role on BioShock 2?
I was a level designer. I worked on the Adonis Luxury Resort (1st level), and Pauper’s Drop (4th level).
When BioShock 2 was announced it was met with some trepidation from BioShock fans as they wondered why the original team wasn’t working on the sequel. I think things turned out great, but I’m curious how you feel about the game today?
It’s one of those things where it’s hard to have any sort of reasonable, objective distance from it to really tell. It’s a lot easier to consider it from a internal production perspective. The fact that 2K Marin had to build a game AND a studio at the same time, within 18 months, is pretty fucking incredible! It went both from no game to a game, and from 8 people to 80 people in the same amount of time.
I think we had a really outstanding design department that worked really well together. I worked with really, really talented people there. All these people were brought together to make this game and we hit the ground running. I’m definitely really proud of having made something as successful as BioShock 2, especially considering those constraints.
"When I worked with Ken Levine, we discussed the concept of creating sympathetic villains. He pulled this quote and it went, “No one is the villain of their own story.” Everyone is the hero of their own story, and that extends to everyone’s life. It’s not necessarily because they won the Nobel Prize, it’s because they ARE the main character in their own story.” -Steve Gaynor
It had a multiplayer component but was developed by Digital Extremes in the same amount of time, right? It’s sort of amazing all of this stuff actually came together.
Yeah! A lot of it had to do with the fact that we were working off an established game. If you start with something like BioShock 1 and then move on to BioShock 2, you have stuff to work with.
There were a lot of new and different things added to the development pipeline in terms of features and stuff that wasn’t player facing. We had some engineers who were really invested in making the design tools better. Which was cool because by the time we were farther through production there was a lot of stuff in the editor that made it a lot more efficient to build & test stuff.
Was the concept from the very beginning to play as a Big Daddy?
Yeah, I think that’s what Jordan wanted to do from the start.
Lets talk about Minerva’s Den!
You led the development of that DLC. How did it all begin for you?
As BioShock 2 development was winding down we knew that we had to go straight into the development for the DLC. It was all hands on deck for the development of the main game until it was completed, so the development of the DLC began as soon as it was finished.
Basically I had an idea for the DLC, showed interest in it, and emailed my pitch to some people for feedback. I also had helped with some of the writing on the game, like with some of the Splicer parts, audio diaries and some PA announcements. There were a lot of people who were eager to move on to XCOM from BioShock 2 since they had their heads in it for so long. I was still enthusiastic and interested in doing something else in the BioShock universe because we knew we had to do this DLC. So Zak McClendon (Lead Designer on BioShock 2) sat me down and said “I’m making you the Lead Designer on the DLC so…do your thing! You got nine months to get this thing through certification!” <laughs>.
For the unfamiliar, is nine months considered fairly short for something like that?
It’s very short! They needed it six months after the game shipped, so I was told I had nine months to complete it.
I actually started working on it before the main game was out the door, and that’s because there was some lag once the game was submitted for certification. Then was a submission to get re-certified once more, plus some bugs needed to be squashed. So there was a little more time here and there before the game hit shelves before I was given the nine month deadline.
But nine months is still short, especially because I did the design document on the first DLC (The Protector Trials) too, which was a challenge rooms thing. That needed to be completed two to three months after the game shipped, so most of the personnel assigned to the DLC were working on that. For the first 3 months of development on Minerva’s Den it consisted of just me and (Lead Artist) Devin St. Clair.
It turned out to be a good thing though because I was figuring out the story. So I completed a draft, sent it up to Jordan & Zak and they said “I get where you’re going with this, but it isn’t good enough yet. Can we figure out some way to make this more interesting?” So I did several revisions while the Lead Artist worked on visual identity for all the mid-century computing for the game. Once that was nailed down—which was cool—Devin (St. Clair) and I worked on the layouts for all three levels. Once we had all the grey boxing done, where you could walk through the quest line, we acquired two more level artists, level designers and programmers.
For the final six months of development I worked with the Gameplay Programmer and we were able to put in the new weapon, new Big Daddy, new plasmid, while the level designers were figuring things out with scripting and level populating. I remained the primary level designer on the first level, and also worked with the artists on weapon design and voice casting…all that stuff.
During the final six months of production it was a very collaborative process with the full team working on the game. That’s why it was sort of nine months in development but also six months in development.
It‘s interesting because, in a way, Minerva’s Den was in pre-production with a small team for a long time, which is a luxury I think most DLC probably doesn’t have.
What inspired such an interesting narrative?
It came from a very practical place. In the beginning I was thinking, “Ok, what does someone want from a single-player BioShock DLC?” and the main thing was “Hey let’s visit a part of Rapture we’ve never seen before”. There’s a lot of city and we’ve seen only so much of it.
Also there are these flying robots and turrets that clearly have Artificial Intelligence. They can perform target acquisitions and pathing, so clearly there was some form of Steampunk, mid-century computerization going on in Rapture. It’s never really directly addressed in BioShock 2 and I really wanted to address that. There would have to be some kind of Mainframe computer in Rapture—as a nerd and as a person who likes BioShock—and I would love to see what form the computer core takes.
The heritage of this series is System Shock. That’s a series about an A.I. that thinks, has a voice and fucks with you. I figured it would be really cool to have the DLC be an homage to System Shock 2. I considered, hey, what would an A.I. be like in Rapture? What story could you tell there?
Actually the initial inspiration was from a conversation I had with JP LeBreton. He was chatting with the Lead Designer of the original BioShock about how Rapture had all this accelerated high technology, and it would be cool if all the technology that had led to the creation of SHODAN in the System Shock universe had come from all these advancements in Rapture. It’s off the books and not official in any way whatsoever, but I was like fuck it, I’ll just do that! <laughs>
**System Shock 2 and Minerva’s Den Spoilers Ahead**
So the idea in Minerva’s Den is that there’s this A.I. trapped in Rapture, and it engineers a way to get the player to transport that A.I. out of the city so it can live on. This computer uses the voice of someone you know and trust, to manipulates you into supporting its self-preservation routine. That was the jumping off point.
The original story was just a retelling of System Shock 2 up to the point where you discover Janice Polito is dead. In Minerva’s Den it’s Charles Porter’s voice telling you what to do, which is fine but not really that interesting. It just wasn’t satisfying enough, and that was the point where I brought it to Jordan and Zak who said “I don’t think this is going to have the impact you want it to have.”
That was when we starting talking about the characters. We knew we had to make the player a Big Daddy. It was one of the main DLC constraints because we weren’t going to invest time in making new player hand models or a totally new weapon set. Every Big Daddy used to be a somebody before their mind was wiped, so I said “Hey what if the player was Porter who was turned into a Big Daddy?”, and I totally remember clearly Zak was like “Yup, let’s just do that and run with it!”
That was the point where the narrative was about Porter, and you ARE the guy who is giving yourself the missions throughout the entire game, more or less. It becomes this narrative about this relationship between a man and this thing he created, doing something amazing it wasn’t explicitly programmed to do. It’s decided to save itself and its creator.
Was there ever any feedback from Ken Levine, Nate Wells or anyone else at Irrational Games regarding Minerva’s Den?
Once I started working there! <laughs>
What were their thoughts?
Well neither Ken of Nate played it before I started working there, but they had heard it was good. Some other folks at Irrational played it before I got there and enjoyed it.
I went to Irrational for my interview with Ken Levine and he asked me some fairly normal questions. Things like “What were the biggest issues with BioShock?”, things like that. I was happy with the interview because Ken, I imagine, was probably very skeptical going into the interview, but I think he got the idea I knew what the hell I was talking about. He’s been around for a long time and talks to a lot of designers.
Anyway, at some point I asked him if he had played Minerva’s Den and he had not, so I asked him if he’d check it out, and he said “For you kid…I’ll do it.” Later, Chris Remo—who already worked at Irrational at the time—told me Ken was walking around the office asking if anyone had a Xbox 360 copy of BioShock 2.
He eventually played it and told me he liked it a lot. He said he totally bought Porter as a character and as someone who would actually exist in Rapture, which is the biggest compliment he could give to me.
I think one of things I’m good at doing is internalize tone, or the parameters of a creative paradigm. I think I have a good feel for that stuff. Ken saying “I think you got what BioShock is about. You created a character that fit into that world.” That’s a big compliment!
We worked together a lot on BioShock Infinite, and I think we had a good working relationship.
Nate and I really never talked about it. I gave him a code and I think he played it a little bit, but I think he’s just seen way too much goddamn BioShock in his life! He did play Gone Home and enjoyed it, so I’m happy about that.
So you had the interview with Ken, got the job and worked on BioShock Infinite. What exactly did you do on the game?
My title was Senior Level Designer and I worked there for a year. I started roughly 2.5 years before it shipped, where there was not a lot on screen.
When I was there, things were still coming together. There was a lot of rapid development on the campaign, but my biggest job was to basically pitch ideas to Ken. If he liked them, I would work with a level builder to create the initial layout to present to him again.
I pitched a lot of stuff that wasn’t’ built, but I pitched the parachute descent into Columbia. Ken already had the idea for the baseball scene but I put the prototype of it in the actual game. I also worked on the first pass of the carnival games and street fair. I pitched the beats for the escape from Elizabeth’s tower, but the main level I owned and was farthest into was Finkton.
Finkton was always going to be about the factory, you know, the workers versus the owner! It would take place inside the factory. I thought it would be more interesting to see where and how the workers lived. You know, see the company town. Well before you get to Finkton, the concept that Elizabeth can create tears is introduced, so I knew once you arrive in Finkton things should center around that new ability to progress the game.
If Liz is opening tears to essentially get to a reality to where the workers are rising up, that would get the game, its fiction and the mechanics all working together. That was my goal there with Finkton, and was the farthest along when I left. A lot of the geometry was all grey box and janky though. Everything that was in the shipped game was created by other people.
I did however recognized a lot of my design documents when I played through the final game. It was a little bit of a surreal experience to be like “Hey I know what’s going to happen next!” The coolest thing is just seeing what they came up with after I left. They solved a lot of problems that still existed by the time I had left. All the real work happened after I left.
Also, I discovered there was some stuff that was completely new when I played the final game, like the baptism at the beginning and the non-combat part of Town Center as well. That game is just fucking gorgeous!
"It’s important to understand that if you don’t agree with the people who run a thing, you have no obligation to support it by being on their terms and show things in their territory. There are positive aspects to showing your stuff at PAX. I’ve seen people Tweet about amazing games they saw at the show. Ones I’d never heard of, but that’s also true of showing your game at IndieCade or IGF. Going to PAX is a really good thing for a lot of people. For fans, developers, but you can also make it if as an Indie if you don’t play by their rules.” -Steve Gaynor on PAX
Did BioShock Infinite turn out to be everything you hoped it would?
Well that’s the thing. Part of my decision to leave was, “Ok I can see that this thing is going to get all 10/10s and the Game of The Year nominations, and it doesn’t matter so much if I leave.” Yes I could continue to work on it, but leaving wasn’t going to hurt either. I could tell this game was on the path to be awesome.
After you go from leading a small team, caring about everything like I did on Minerva’s Den, to something that is very much someone else’s baby—where you have a very specific job—it’s a much different experience.
So when you say “Is it everything I hoped it would be?”, it reminds me that part of my decision to leave Irrational Games was because I wasn’t like “Oh man I have such grand hopes for this game!” I mean, I was working on it and trying to make it good, but it’s just a very different experience than Minerva’s Den or Gone Home. There were people over there who had a very personal level of investment in it, but I wasn’t super, super, personally invested in it.
It was a good experience and I’m incredibly honored I have had the opportunity to work with Ken Levine, Nate Wells, Shawn Robertson, Scott Sinclair and Steve Alexander…people who had made things that were part of my formative gaming experiences—people I idolized! I learned a ton and I’m super-grateful they had me. They taught me how to do this kind of thing really well, but at the end of the day I worked there for a year and I realize it wasn’t interested in working on a project of that scale.
So you started your own video game company?
Well, first I decided to move to Portland. My wife and use to live here and we wanted to move back at some point. We spent years chasing school and jobs, so we just wanted to move back home. The problem was, there really are no big game studio in need of a level designer in Portland. I had to figure out how to make it work, and so I started thinking about how to make an Indie thing happen.
When you started The Fullbright Company, was Gone Home already a concept?
I started talking to Karla (Zimonja) and Johnnemann (Nordhagen) when I was leaving Irrational. We worked together on Minerva’s Den and I worked closely with them, particularly Karla. She did all the 2D art like posters and documents, helped manage some of the voiceover work, did some script supervising and was my story partner as well.
Johnnemann was a programmer on Minerva’s Den and was interested in changing it up as well. We all wanted to do something different. I asked them if they were interested in joining me if I did my own thing and they were like “Heck yes!”, but moving to Portland was a…longer discussion since they lived in the San Francisco. We talked about what we wanted to make, decided we were interested in First-Person stuff that included environmental exploration and having it sort of experiential focused instead of making a sweet shooter.
It was something we were all excited about!
It might be simply an issue of semantics but what do you say to people who proclaim Gone Home isn’t a video game?
Well it’s a complicated question. On one hand I believe, yes, it is a video game. However it doesn’t really matter what I say because I think the discussion matters too.
I don’t think it really matters if you label something a video game or not a video game, at least in practical terms. You can call it…whatever. I think if you enjoy interfacing with it, or not, that’s really what matters. I think the reason people say “That’s not a game!” is to be dismissive. To say it doesn’t have value. To say it’s something not deserving of our attention. I think people saying that is the real crux of the argument, and are not really trying to define something in a productive way.
I feel like something is a video game if it’s on a screen and you interact with it for entertainment purposes.
You could say “Oh well is a website a video game?” Fuck off. Who cares! We all know what we’re talking about when we’re talking about video games. If you want to call a Twine game, not a game, then…fine. It’s a Twine thing. Who cares. Proteus, Dear Esther, Anichamber, 30 flights of Loving are all video games.
If you want to define a video game, then perhaps the argument could be “It needs goals, achievements, required skill and a fail-state”. That would be a more narrow definition. What’s important to me is the player’s participation is central to a meaningful experience.
All that stuff applies to Gone Home, and you do get better at it. You are mastering the house. You’re making new connections. You’re gaining knowledge by performing the interactions the game gave meaning through mechanics and how they relate to the content. There’s a reason I made the secret passage very accessible. You can get to the end of the game is less than a minute.
If your only definition of mastering a game is to get better at aiming so you can kill the guys before they killed you, then yes, this doesn’t meet your criteria. I think that’s a needlessly limited interpretation of what traditional gaming elements are.
Is Gone Home trying to say something to the industry?
I think it is, perhaps, but I’m not certain.
Well you asked the question, you must have some idea! <laughs>
Maybe it’s saying “There needs to be more tolerance!”, or “We don’t necessarily need violence in video games to be effective!”, or “First-Person gaming can be interesting without the use of guns”. I’m curious, as it’s creator, if there was an intention to send a message to the industry?
I blogged a lot about what directions we can go to in terms of design, but I do hope the game speaks for itself.
I feel like it’s one demonstration where we can let go of traditional genre requirements and still make something people can connect with deeply. In fact letting go of the assumption that you need explicit challenge, combat, puzzles, loot, leveling-up or whatever, actually gives you access to more kinds of subject matter.
For us it was a two-way street. We decided to make a game that didn’t have any combat or puzzles. It’s just about exploring a space, discovering what happened and reconstructing the story yourself. If anything, the story itself is the puzzle. It’s not like you’re hacking doors or anything. Since it’s not about who you’re fighting or who made some crazy puzzles, we were able to make the experience about normal people. We could say, “Hey, what’s interesting about the story in this game is not its epic revelation about world changing events, but about the stuff that happens to normal people…and it IS interesting. That notion can be expressed through a video game, and it can be done without saying “Oh hey you’re shooting zombies while doing it.”
When I worked with Ken Levine, we discussed the concept of creating sympathetic villains. He pulled this quote that went, “No one is the villain of their own story.” Everyone is the hero of their own story, and that extends to everyone’s life. It’s not necessarily because they won the Nobel Prize, but because they ARE the main character in their own story. They know all the other people involved in it, personally. They’re familiar with all the mundane events, which have real meaning to them.
For example, if you walk through a park and see a wedding—it’s just a wedding, right? To those people, however, getting married is one of the most important events in their life! Not because the wedding is amazing, but because it’s their wedding.
With Gone Home it allowed us to put the player in a position where they can get to know the characters and care, and in such a way that what happens really does matter to the player. The drama of their mostly mundane lives is actually really gripping because we give you access to understanding them as individuals by playing this thing. Hopefully that’s something people can see as a valuable demonstration of something else video games can do.
"What’s interesting about the story in this game is not its epic revelation about a world changing events, but about the stuff that happens to normal people…and it IS interesting. That notion can be expressed through a video game, and it can be done without saying “Oh hey you’re shooting zombies while doing it.”” -Steve Gaynor on Gone Home
For me, part of the magic of Gone Home is it’s immersiveness. You start out in Katie’s shoes picking up household items and personal belongings trying to figure out what the heck’s happened, and by the end of the game I felt like I was the one returning home. I was the one discovering all these stories. Not only did the experience leave a great impression on me, but also The New York Times. They said “Gone Home is the greatest video game love story ever told.” How does that make you feel?
Yeah, that’s awesome to see! I like being reviewed in the New York Times. <laughs> It’s really fantastic. If anything we benefit from being one of the few video game love stories out there. I don’t think there have been very many out there…or at least good ones.
I’ve been intensely influenced by—things I would call—great video game love stories. Most of them are rather melancholy, or even sad. Silent Hill 2 was a major influence on the work I did in Minerva’s Den. It’s about a guy trying to reunite with his dead wife, and is unable to do so. The tone of that game, and the approach they took to that narrative was a big influence on me.
One of my favorite comments we received on the first trailers we put up for Gone Home was “Her voice reminds me of Silent Hill 2.”, and I was like “YESSSS! Thank you!”. <laughs>
Full Throttle was also an influence as it’s a love story as well, and it has one of the best endings in a game I’ve ever played. There are other things that speak to that as well, but it’s not well trodden ground, so I think we’ve benefited from that.
However the biggest things for me are all the personal emails we’ve received from people. There’s also journalist like Polygon’s Danielle Riendeau (https://twitter.com/Danielleri) and Kotaku’s Patricia Hernandez (https://twitter.com/patriciaxh) who talked about the personal connection they established with the characters, and in a way they never have before.
Emails from people saying they’ve never connected with a game like this before, and thank you for making it. We received A LOT of those, and that’s not something I was expecting. It’s not something I had seen before as a developer. Obviously I was not someone who would directly get those kinds of emails before, and it meant a lot to know people had played the game and felt so compelled to write in. The New York Times is great. 10/10 is great. We’re humbled and grateful for that, but all the emails from people who took a chance, played the game and meant something to them—really was the biggest thing for us.
The commitment to the period setting is impressive. What kind of research did you do in preparation for the game?
Well it started with “We need you not to have a cellphone”. We needed the player not to have access to computers, and we couldn’t just have a power outage. So that means the very least we could turn back the clock was to 1995. That way everything is on paper and there are things like answering machines. Once we reached that decision, we needed to do research. We ordered Sassy magazines off Ebay and bought a 1990 Sears Home catalog for the visual stuff because it has every object that a middle-american might have in that period. We also mined stuff from our memories, like dad recording movies off cable and on to VHS tapes, TV guides with circled times on it. Plus we had to figure out the release schedules of albums and TV shows.
Do you think Gone Home will come out for the PlayStation 4 or Xbox One?
We would like to, but we don’t have any concrete details yet. We’re using the Unity engine and that doesn’t work on PS4 or Xbox One yet. We’re kind of in a holding pattern on that right now. I think it would be a good fit. We designed the game in a way so it works with a gamepad, but we don’t have any announcements about that yet.
Before the game was released there were rumors regarding the existence of the supernatural in Gone Home. When I was playing the game, I have to admit, I got a little creeped out when I heard creaky floorboards and noises behind me. I assume that creepiness or scariness is intended?
I wouldn’t say the game is…scary.
When we started making Gone Home we let people know outright that it would not have any combat. Nothing would hurt you. There would be no enemies. But Gone Home is a mystery and we need you to feel some sense of urgency to solve.
I remember when I was doing some voice direction for Porter on Minerva’s Den. We were trying to figure out the characters voice and speech patterns and eventually the word we hit upon was ‘urgency’. We needed to instill in the player a sense of urgency. It’s important you do this thing. His voice and tone mattered in creating that sense of urgency.
So in creating Gone Home, we found we also needed a sense of urgency after testers were saying things like, “If I came home from a trip and no one else was home, I would probably just go upstairs and take a nap in the guest bedroom until people came home.” <laughs> Between the note on the front door, the dark and stormy house and the creaky floorboards, we felt like that sense of tension and unease made players feel that something wasn’t right. They would have that urge to want to figure out what happened.
A criticism I have with a lot of games is the atmosphere gets stale by the back-half, and it’s because you just get used to everything. There can be blood stains on the walls and dead bodies everywhere—which is freaky at first—but towards the end its like “Ok, can I just find some loot now?”
I actually rely on that at first. Gone Home might be very intense for some. Players will probably be worried something might jump out and get them, but reinforced through various things they’ll find it’s just a normal house that takes place in the real world. Near the end, the player shouldn’t be tense at all, because that feeling will be replaced by an interest in the characters and story.
What’s next for the Fullbright company?
We need to recharge for now. However, we built a really extensible interactive framework with Gone Home. We have this paradigm for exploring a space, interacting with it in meaningful ways and progressing through it. That seems like it can be extended in potentially a bunch of different ways. Take that—which is a solid foundation—and make one, interesting change that makes it a new experience without throwing out what you already have. But, what is that interesting thing? How do we make it feel like something new and not just Gone Home 2: The House Nextdoor where you’re still walking around a home. We also don’t want to throw everything out and make something like a…space MMO.
We need to find the right balance where we make a new experience that feels legitimate, and is also interesting for us to make and for players to experience. That’s the challenge!
The Fullbright Company recently pulled out of PAX in protest. Has the reaction for the gaming community been positive in your view?
Yeah it definitely has been positive. We’ve received a lot of feedback and support saying it’s nice to see a developer stand by their convictions. We definitely don’t regret it at all, and things are going fine as far as sales and public perception go.
We decided not to go to the show, PAX happened, and then Mike Krahulik said something fucking offensive again. That is why we didn’t go! Clearly there’s this pattern that’s not going to change. That was the real reason; not because what had already happened but because it was clearly still ongoing. I mean, how many times can you do the same thing and apologize for it?
We’re satisfied with our decision, and we’re glad people are still interested in supporting the game even though we didn’t go to PAX. It’s unfortunate that the biggest argument we had against us was “You guys should have been there at PAX representing something good.” We all feel there are other venues for that. Why do we have to go to your house to talk about this stuff to do good in the world? There are so many things that are NOT PAX that are positive.
It’s important to understand that if you don’t agree with the people who run a thing, you have no obligation to support it by being on their terms and show things in their territory. There are positive aspects to showing your stuff at PAX. I’ve seen people Tweet about amazing games they saw at the show. Ones I’d never heard of, but that’s also true of showing your game at IndieCade or IGF. Going to PAX is a really good thing for a lot of people. For fans, developers, but you can also make it if as an Indie if you don’t play by their rules.
I think it’s unfortunate when I see people who are opposed to this, but feel like they HAVE to show at PAX or they’re going to starve. I think that’s really not true, and there are other venues where you can show your stuff. Being online is way more important than being at any physical location.
I hope the feeling that you have no choice but to go to PAX in order to be successful as an Indie, changes.
Between some of the themes in Gone Home and the Fullbright Company’s stance on PAX, there’s seems to be a message of tolerance. Is that Fullbright’s modus operandi? A theme we can expect through future releases?
I hope so, but not because it’s a mission statement. I think one of the most valuable things a piece of entertainment can do is make you feel empathetic towards people. Any piece of writing or fiction that focuses on an individual can help you understand them better. If you understand something better then you do feel more tolerant and empathetic towards them, and if that’s part of the value of Gone Home then I think that’s a really good thing.
The problem we have that’s come out of Penny Arcade…it’s not empathetic, it’s not tolerant towards people. These are people we care about, and it’s important to have an understanding. They’ve got it fucking hard enough already without anything else working against them.
It’s not like we have a bullet point list of what we’re going to do in future games, but that stuff’s important to me at least.
When you really put yourself into a game, that kind of stuff just comes through right to the player, right?
I think so. It’s easier when there’s as little overhead as possible. It’s harder when you’re working on a direct sequel to a huge genre, Triple-A game and want to express something personal. When you have the luxury to make a game that’s built expressly in the service of what we want to get across, you have a much greater ability for the identity of the creator to show through in the product.
That’s a great message to wrap up this interview! Thanks so much for your time Steve, and good luck on your next project.