Steve Gaynor of The Fullbright Company knew his studio's debut title, Gone Home
, wouldn’t be a video game that appealed to everyone. What he didn't know was how Gone Home
would become so ingrained in the discussion of what a video game actually is
"We went in knowing we were making a niche game that was going to work for some people, and that some people wouldn't be into it,” says Gaynor. “It's a game, but it's very focused. It does a small number of things. If you're not into exploring this house and finding things out, it's not the game for you!"
“[But] the degree to which it's become more of a focal point of 'oh, this isn't a game' wasn't something we pictured happening."
If you’re reading this, you probably already know the premise of Gone Home
, but just in case: It's the mid-90s, and you play the game as a young woman who has returned to the U.S. from a trip abroad. Her parents and younger sister have moved in to a sprawling old house in the Pacific Northwest, but no one’s home upon your return. It’s through keen level design and interactive, environmental storytelling that you unravel the story. There are no points to earn, no headshots to pull off, no obvious opponents to "beat."
So, some say it doesn't fall within the definition of a "game." But this week it did win best debut game
at the BAFTAs, so someone
thinks it's a game...but…does it even matter if anyone thinks it's a "game"? And why bother giving a GDC talk called “Why is Gone Home a game?"
“At the end of the day, I don't think it's really the binary yes or no that's important,” Gaynor admits. “What is important is if the experience is valuable to you or not. Do you get something out of it? It doesn't really matter what label is applied to it."
"What is important is if the experience is valuable to you or not."
Nonetheless for Gaynor, the subject is worth pondering. He and his team’s past work includes BioShock 2
— no one questioned whether or not that was a game. So being a central focus in the “Game or Not?” dialog has been eye-opening for Fullbright.
Gaynor explains how there’s a lot of baggage from the term “game” that has accumulated from even before the digital era. These concepts have endured over time and adapted to video games.
“Since [the ‘what is a game?’ discussion] is something that is now part of the identity of Gone Home
in some ways,” he says.
Gaynor and his team at Fullbright aren’t building a Gone Home
follow-up quite yet. The studio just announced console versions that are slated to arrive later this year, so the focus is still very much on Gone Home
But the team has been thinking about what might come next. “We don’t want to repeat ourselves,” he says. “We want to continue exploring what we built with Gone Home
, we want that interactive framework to be our foundation. But we don’t want to just make Gone Home
with different stuff in it, anymore than what we feel people would be excited about."
He says he’s inspired by studios like independent developer Supergiant, whose upcoming game Transistor
, design-wise, shares similarities with the studio’s first game, Bastion
. But there are important differences that will set Transistor
apart from its predecessor. “They’re continuing to build on what they’re good at,” says Gaynor. That’s not the approach [everyone has] to take, but it can be valuable to exercise that restraint.”
He says it’d be possible to use Gone Home
as a sort of template — if you have rooms, content, voiceover, you can tell a story in the style of Gone Home
But Gaynor wants to further explore the idea of environment storytelling and interactive narrative. “That’s a cool thing when thinking about the potential of Gone Home
[— that it can fit all kinds of stories],” he says. “But on the other hand, we don’t necessarily want to say ‘let’s do that again with different content.’ We want to ask ‘what’s the next step we can take past this?’”
As for whether or not Fullbright’s next project will “be a game,” Gaynor didn’t bring that up. And I didn’t even bother to ask.