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Road to the IGF: The Fullbright Company's Gone Home Exclusive

March 20, 2013 | By Leigh Alexander

March 20, 2013 | By Leigh Alexander
More: Console/PC, Programming, Art, Design, Exclusive, Video, IGF

The Fullbright Company's Gone Home has earned an Excellence in Narrative nomination in the Independent Games Festival -- storytelling through first-person exploration is its primary mechanic, reflecting the team's heritage in environmental narrative in the AAA space.

You play as the older sister of troubled teen Sam, returned to your family's new homestead after a trip abroad to find the house empty, and must piece together what's happening by exploring the clues in the big suburban home, including Sam's diaries, letters and cassettes.

Continuing our series of Road to the IGF interviews with nominees, we talk to the Fullbright Company's Steve Gaynor about building a character the team hopes is unique and nuanced enough that learning her story is motivation enough to interact with the world.

What background do you have making games?

I have taken the classic QA->Level Design->Lead Design path. Specifically I started in QA in San Francisco in 2005, and was a tester for a year and a half at a couple of different companies. My first design job was as a level designer on F.E.A.R.: Perseus Mandate at TimeGate Studios in Houston.

Then I moved back to the Bay area to work at 2K Marin on BioShock 2. I was a level designer on that, then the writer and lead designer on the Minerva's Den DLC for that game. In 2010 I moved to Boston to work for a year at Irrational Games as senior level designer on BioShock Infinite.

At the very end of 2011, I moved back to Portland, OR (where I lived before I entered the games industry at all) to start The Fullbright Company with two compatriots that left 2K Marin to move up here to make Gone Home. That answer came out complicated, but basically I was a level designer and writer in AAA for a long time, and now I'm doing an indie thing where hopefully that experience will prove to be useful.

There are how many of you living in a house in Portland, working on this game? I'd imagine that kind of collaborative environment presents both opportunities and challenges of its own, versus working in a traditional studio environment. What's it like in terms of collaboration and cohabitation?

It is pretty good! There are three of us from the Company, plus my wife, Rachel, living in a house in Northeast Portland. Our office is in the basement. Our Environment Artist, Kate Craig, lives up in Vancouver, BC, so she works remotely on the project fulltime.

So, first of all, living in Portland and sharing rent is what's made Gone Home possible. We're splitting a house and office that in total costs less rent than the average 1 bedroom apartment in San Francisco. Gone Home is self-funded, but only because we can afford to live in Portland without salaries for long enough to make the game.

The live-work arrangement is also good, since we're all friends and have worked together for years before starting The Fullbright Company. Having the office in the basement is really nice because your commute is one flight of stairs, so you can walk down and get some work done, walk back upstairs to take a break, maybe walk around the neighborhood or something, come back and just kind of follow your own rhythm for the day instead of being locked to core hours and having to drive in to the office and now you're stuck there til you go home exhausted at the end of the day and so forth.

In all, I think we're all really happy with it. Though also I am looking forward to hopefully having my own house and separate (but easily walkable!) office space in the future, assuming things go well with Gone Home.

What development tools did you use?

We're using Unity 4.0. Our initial target platforms are home computer, so Unity's ability to build for Windows, Mac and Linux is great. We're also going to examine other platforms after our initial launch, and Unity will make that process much easier as well. We've just found the engine very easy to use for iteration and collaboration.

We've gotten stuff onscreen very fast. I think we've also done a good job of making a game that looks competitive visually. Unity is capable of a lot more than I think many developers would assume. The other stuff is standard: Maya, Photoshop, Visual Studio, etc.

How did you come up with the game's concept?

Our process for figuring out the core of Gone Home (mechanics, story, setting) is very much based on problem solving. We started from saying, "alright, we're three people (Kate didn't join the team until later.) We have experience in the BioShock franchise, so we want to make a game that focuses on the exploration and environmental storytelling we've done in those games. How do we reconcile that?"

I took some inspiration from real-life urban exploration that people document online, and thought about how exploring abandoned places is inherently interesting in real life. Could we translate that into a game? If we said, we're going to make one, completely abandoned location, and let you really explore it deeply and investigate every aspect of what it contains, and discover a story that way, could it be compelling?

That was our challenge with Gone Home: to figure out what mechanics and what content could work together to make just the pure act of exploration compelling enough to be the entire experience, instead of a sideshow that's welded onto a shooter or RPG.

You're setting the game in the 90s -- what inspired that decision, and the art/visual direction in general?

This was an extension of the above. When we decided to make a game about exploring a place and finding evidence that people have left behind, we knew we had to set it prior to the wide use of email and text messages, so that the place would still be filled with physical notes and letters and receipts and messages.

But since we were eschewing any game genre that would have required us to have enemies or abstract puzzles, we were able to set the game in a totally mundane, familiar location. We wanted it to be as modern as possible, so everything about the environment would be familiar and recognizable to the player as a time they actually lived through.

So we ended up with a house occupied by a suburban American family, because people's homes are filled with all the evidence of who they are, and exploring that space is inherently fascinating. And we ended up in 94/95, because it was the end of the era where this family wouldn't have had AOL yet, and all their notes to each other would be on paper you could find and pick up and see the handwriting and read.

Then that kind of decision become our mandate: we have to represent 1995 accurately and believably and do our research and ensure that it all passed the blink test, because the player, in all likelihood, is going to have actual personal memories of that year, unlike games that are set in a fantasy or sci-fi or distant historical context.

How many guns does it have? Seriously, though, environmental storytelling is such an unfortunately under-explored thing for games, and we know you're good at it. But what considerations did you have in shifting away from the kind of games you worked on in the past toward making one that's entirely exploration, analysis, imagination?

On the one hand, it was a practical decision. Doing good character art and animation and AI programming, so on and so forth, takes a lot of time and effort that we just don't have the headcount or budget for. But the bigger motivation was that we as a team always found the subtler aspects of exploration and discovery and environmental story in bigger games to be inspiring.

Often you're playing a big, high-fidelity AAA game, and so much of it is the shooter gameplay or whatever the "core" is, and then you have this one occasional moment where you go off the beaten path and discover some evidence that character left behind that helps define who they are, and it really sticks with you and opens up the possibilities of the game and story and makes you wonder what else you might find.

But it's almost always a secondary aspect of a bigger, genre-focused game, and you go back to shooting enemies or whatever. We were convinced that if you took those moments of discovery from the games that inspire us, and give the players the ability to really deeply interrogate the environment, that could itself be the core of the experience. That's the experiment that is Gone Home.

I was a high school girl in the 1990s. Never thought I'd see game developers want to tell that identity story. I read your RPS interview where you described it as an apolitical act, not an intentional "statement", but certainly it's important to people nonetheless. How do you approach that? And, like, can I make you a mixtape?

I'll take these questions in reverse order. Firstly, yes, I would love if you would make me a mixtape of your most deeply meaningful 90s highschooler songs. I would listen to it while I build the rest of the house in Gone Home. Secondly, I guess I keep coming back to this, but for us it was about following things to their logical conclusion. We knew we were making this house in the 90s.

We knew there was going to be a nuclear family that lived there, with parents and one or more kids. We asked ourselves, who are the most interesting characters here? What is the most interesting story? The tumultuous experience of a teenager was the most interesting to us, and had the most drama inherent to it. Because even though we don't have mechanical conflict in Gone Home since there's no combat or puzzles, we still need conflict to drive the drama of the story and keep the player interested.

The conflicts in Gone Home are generational and societal-- Samantha's generation versus her parents', and the more complicated relationships they all have with the prior generations of their family; Sam's conflict with the other kids at her school, and the trauma inherent in growing out of adolescence into adulthood, leaving high school for wider society.

As to why we picked a female character? I'm not 100% sure. Fully half our dev team is female, so I'm sure that's part of it. Karla Zimonja is my story partner, and she's interested in telling stories from a female point of view. But for me the main thing I wanted to accomplish was creating a character that the player would like, and would want to spend time with, and feel for.

And I guess when I started thinking about, who is this person at the center of the story, Sam started to come to mind, and I liked her, and was interested in spending of time in her headspace (which is important, since you spend a lot of time in your main character's head while you're working on a game like this.) Hopefully that affection for the character extends out and helps players care about this character and what happens to her.

Have you played any of the other IGF finalists? Any games you've particularly enjoyed?

I've been lucky enough to play a good deal of the IGF entrants. I'm a huge fan of 30 Flights of Loving. It gets my GOTY! I love how compact and dense it is, and how it experiments with form and structure and wordless storytelling. It has a lot in common with Gone Home, and also is completely opposite from it in many ways (for instance, there are a LOT of words in Gone Home.) But I find the approach that Brendon took really brave and inspiring.

I also found Cart Life really impressive for how it systematized its story and made the experience of living these characters' experiences powerful by making them interactive. I liked FTL a lot-- a very, very smart design that obviously connected with a lot of people. And it's one of the first high profile games to have shipped after being funded by a successful Kickstarter campaign! So that was nice to see. Is Fez nominated again? Fez was pretty cool.

There were a couple of indie games I played this year that I was disappointed to see weren't in IGF. For instance, Teleglitch is a really awesomely well-considered and executed design that I found really impressive and loved a lot. But I don't think they even entered. Everybody play Teleglitch, though! It's cool!

And I found Receiver incredibly fascinating. It's a 7-Day FPS game jam game by Wolfire that really deeply simulates the use of a firearm in a way that is bracing and surprising if you're someone who's fired off millions of rounds in FPS games over the years. If you're a designer or a longtime FPS player you owe it to yourself to see how they've reconsidered the concept of shooting in games from the ground up. It gives you a different kind of appreciation for what it's easy to forget is a complex and dangerous piece of machinery.

What do you think of the current state of the indie scene?

I feel incredibly lucky to be part of the "indie scene" as it stands. And a big part of that is because I feel like what can sometimes be an insular and inward-looking "scene" is expanding and diversifying and opening up more every day. The sheer breadth of experiences that indie game developers are creating now is amazingly inspiring, and I believe that the definition of "indie games" is only going to get more inclusive as we go forward.

It's also awesome to have distribution platforms like Steam and Humble, and communication channels like Twitter and Facebook, for people to discover and spread the word about your game and buy it and play it with almost no barrier to entry. It allows "niche games" to actually be discovered by every person in that niche, and to be affordable and accessible to players who are seeking out new kinds of experiences. It's a very exciting time.

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