It's a warm evening in the summer of 1995, and there's a storm coming. Fortunately, you're close to home. You approach the house, and realize something is wrong. There’s no trail of blood, and ghosts aren’t popping out from around the corner. This isn't Silent Hill. A note on the door catches your eye. One can’t quite put a finger on it, but Bad Things have almost certainly happened here. Dread, oppression, and anxiety seep from the walls of an otherwise ordinary house. Naturally, you decide to head inside.
Gone Home is the debut game from The Fullbright Company located in Portland, Oregon, and scheduled for a release later this year on PC and Mac. If “fullbright” rings any bells, that’s the Twitter handle of Steve “Hot Scoops” Gaynor (full disclosure: he had the nickname first), lead designer on Giant Bomb’s 2010 downloadable content of the year, BioShock 2’s Minerva’s Den. After working on BioShock 2 and Minerva’s Den at 2K Marin, Gaynor was picked up by Ken Levine to work on BioShock: Infinite. He was only there for a year, and decided to leave. He grouped with key members of the Minerva’s Den’s team, and started over.
(Oddly, this story is publishing days after BioShock: Infinite went "gold," which means it's complete.)
“This is a game we all wanted to play, and nobody else was making it,” said Gaynor.
The logistics: Gone Home is an adventure game that takes place in first-person, and there is no combat. You click on things a lot. Gone Home exists to tell a story, and tell that story as effectively as possible. The Fullbright Compay isn’t going to spend two years nailing down just-good-enough shooting for variety's sake. BioShock’s combat wasn’t bad, but when I recall my time in Rapture, it was about the sense of place. It was about a nightmarish world of ambition and broken beauty, not firing bullets.
“On some level,” said Gaynor, “when you're making a game that has you know tens of millions of dollars behind it, and you have millions of people that are going to play it, you have to, at least, say ‘Okay, how do we make this as accessible to as many people as we can?’”
“This is a game we all wanted to play, and nobody else was making it."
It only takes a few moments for Gone Home to get under your skin. The aforementioned “note” is from your brother--or might be, anyway? You're Katie (probably?), and it’s implied you’re visiting from abroad, and things have gone amiss while you were gone. You also keep hearing about the attic this and the attic that, which means there is probably bad juju hiding in that attic.
Gone Home is subtle but not shy. It ratchets up the tension in its early moments, igniting the player’s imagination. It's not clear what is happening, but sunshine and rainbows are not on the other side.
“We've had some play testers be like, ‘I tried to play it, but I couldn't--it was too fucking scary! I couldn't do it.’” said Gaynor. “The other people are just like ‘This house is really nice, I like to be in it.’ There's this whole spectrum of just how you react, and how much does the implied unease affect you. We're trying to strike a balance where there aren't too many people on either side of that. Nobody feels too comfortable and nobody feels so freaked out that they just can't handle it.”
My 30 minutes with the game a few months back only hinted at the broader story, but established the house itself immediately. Real is the wrong term for it. Gone Home’s domicile feels authentic. There’s a “oh, yeah, that was in my parents’ house, too” feeling permeating throughout the rooms. As you rummage through every shelf, drawer, and closet to learn more about the residents, a narrative about the family forms in your head. The game doesn't tell you what details are important, asking you to do some of the detective work. And it certainly doesn’t feel like your typical Video Game House, which would only have a few open doors and a working toilet. (For the record, Gone Home has a working toilet.) Have you visited your parents house after being away, and spent an afternoon just rifling through old, dusty boxes in the attic just for the fun of it? It's like that, except here, it's someone else's stuff.
“I think on some level like players want to explore interesting spaces,” said programmer Johnnemann Nordhagen, “and so if we do a good enough job of making an interesting space--both a physical space and a sort of narrative space--for them to explore, then that's all you need. They will go ahead and pursue that, and you just kind of need to get out of their way.”
(Nordhagan is Gone Home's programmer, but Gaynor pointed out every member of the development team communally contributes to the design, plot, art, and other choices regarding the game.)
"Katie, I'm sorry I can't be there to see you, but it is impossible. Please, please don't go digging around trying to find out where I am. I don't want Mom and Dad anyone to know. We'll see each other again some day. Don't be worried. I love you. -- Sam"A note you find during Gone Home's opening moments. Things are, obviously, not right.
The developers described Gone Home’s focused design as reactionary. One, The Fullbright Company is small, a function of necessity due to self-funding and a desire to work on a small team--it's four people. Two, it allows them to dive really, really deep on the game’s details.
“We can't make a giant game, we're small,” said Gaynor. “We can't make complex A.I. and bunch of weapons, so what's the version of that that it boils down to? Okay, a house is interesting--you can explore it, you can find out about people’s lives. The setting? We want you to be able to find physical notes and stuff that have been left around. So, if this takes place in 2012, everything's text messages and emails--that's not very interesting. Okay, 1995? Maybe they don't have AOL yet. You actually find handwritten notes and answering machines.”
To that end, Gone Home is filled with stuff, and lots of it. It’s easy enough to build a virtual house, but far more time consuming to make it feel lived in. The Fullbright Company is spending hundreds of man hours bringing this one alive. Gone Home is a veritable rainbow of mundane details, with the term mundane used as the highest possible compliment. These details truly run the gamut, from a stacked pile of X-Files seasons recorded onto VHS tapes to sets of frighteningly realistic letters. The letters aren’t just a font, either--it’s handwritten. Everything feels crafted, and it makes a striking impact.
“Hell yeah, dude!” said 2D artist and story supervisor Karla Zimonja.
“We had a lot of friends that helped us out,” said Gaynor.
“And moms!” said Zimonja.
“It’s the only way to get authentic mom handwriting,” said Nordhagen.
“DId you read those ones on the awful stationary with the flower?” said Craig. “Yeah, that was Rachel’s [Steve Gaynor’s wife] mom. [laughs]”
“It's cool because it gives a way to have friends that aren't working full time on the game [to] just be like ‘Hey, could you just write this?”” said Gaynor. “[If] we have a one-off note from like a delivery man or something--’Can you just write this on a piece of paper, and then scan it for us?’ And we put it in the game and, and it's cool! But we had to be to be committed to saying ‘If it's a different person in the fiction, we’re going to find a different person to write it.’ If it’s a 45-year-old woman, we’re gonna find [someone close]. Because you can’t fake it.”
When I found the pile of X-Files episodes, it appeared each VHS tape contained an entire season of the show. I mentally noted how that’s impossible, and joked about it during my conversation with the team.
“Did you look closely?” said Zimonja. “Because they were individual episodes.”
Unlike BioShock, these bits aren’t glowing like a beacon in the darkness. You have to open drawers, sneak into closets, ruffle through shelves, and generally be a total creep to find everything The Fullbright Company has hidden away. I was careful for the first few minutes...before becaming a slob.
“We had a lot of feedback from playtesters,” said Nordhagen, “that [said] ‘Well, I feel like an asshole because I’m coming into this house and I'm picking this shit up and then I'm just like a monster. I'm just tossing stuff everywhere! I want to be able to put things neatly back where they were!’”
“It’s just disrespectful!” said Zimonja.
“That's where we came up with the idea of you know giving you the ability to pick something up and then put it back exactly where it came from,” said Nordhagen.
With a single mouse click, items go right back where you found them, you gracious houseguest.
“We want to support the player being able to act the way they would if this was happening to them,” said Gaynor, “and not break them out of the experience with ‘Well, if I was here and I picked this up to look at it, I wouldn't just like throw it on the ground!’ And now you’re like ‘This isn't even a real thing anymore. This is just bullshit. This is just this thing where all I can do is throw crap everywhere.’”
The Fullbright Company is going out of its way to support player choice in interesting ways, too. There’s an authored progression through the house and story, which means locked doors and suggested paths. If players want to, though, that can be turned off, and the entire house opens up. You can get really granular about it, depending on your taste. Want to turn off the map? Go ahead. Audio diaries? Sure. These options are not part of a new-game-plus, they’re available right from the very start.
“We have a game that has few enough moving parts that isn't like so incredibly complex that there's any excuse not to say, ‘How could we let the player customize their experience and say ‘Have at it,’ if that's what you want to do?” said Gaynor.
And as we wait for The Fullbright Company to chip away at Gone Home, I’m left with the most important question of all: if you’re featuring X-Files in your game, what’s your favorite episode? Me? "Home."
Kate Craig, environmental artist: Oh, no contest! In a show centered around aliens and Ogopogos, I remember "Drive" being a fantastic character piece--it stuck with me when other episodes had been all but forgotten.
Johnnemann: I liked the one about the killer computer ("Ghost in the Machine"), because it was some sort of acid-head tech genius and an evil AI. It wasn't a great episode, though. But I've only seen a season and a half! [Note from Steve: It WAS a great episode! A machine that thinks, reasons for itself?! Imagine!]
Zimonja: I remember being into "Hungry," because my idiot young-adult self thought that, when he wasn't wearing the bald wig and hilarious prosthetic teeth, the brain-eating guy was totally cute. YEP.
Gaynor: My favorite episode of X-Files is "Pusher." It was written by Vince Gilligan, who went on to create Breaking Bad. The climactic Russian roulette showdown is heart-stopping. Cerulean blue.