Co-Founder of The Fullbright Company
Hi Steve, would you mind introducing yourself to the readers?
I’m one of the co-founders of The Fullbright Company, a small independent game studio in Portland, Oregon, and I was the writer and designer of Gone Home, our first game that came out earlier this year. Before that, I worked on BioShock Infinite and BioShock 2, and I led the Minerva’s Den downloadable content for BioShock 2.
In addition to your studio’s game, this year we were treated to quite a few indie games from your former colleagues at 2K Marin. What sparked that trend?
Well 2K Marin just shut down, but the folks that released stuff this year left before it closed. David Pittman, who was a programmer on BioShock 2 and The Bureau: XCOM Declassified, released an awesome first-person roguelike game called Eldritch. Kent Hudson, a designer who I worked with on BioShock 2, released The Novelist just this week. Will Armstrong, a programmer from 2K Marin, is one of the few people working at Campo Santo, the new studio founded by the leads on The Walking Dead: Season 1. I’m sure there are other people too that are slipping my mind.
2K Marin was essentially founded to create BioShock 2. BioShock at the time was one of the most inspiring games you could imagine making a follow up to, and the studio drew a ton of talented people that wanted to work on the successor to this great game. The game came out, and as always is the case with a big project, a lot of people scattered. One of our level designers ended up working at Arkane on Dishonored, I ended up working at Irrational on BioShock Infinite, and over the months and years talented people that wanted to make their own experiences took a shot at indie.
While I was working there, it really felt like an amazingly talented group of people had been brought together for the project, and the games they are making in the aftermath only validate that feeling.
Tell me about the genesis of Gone Home.
It was one of those chicken and egg things that was partially creative impulse and partially practical consideration. I left Irrational after a year and went back to Portland, then started talking with people I had worked with about forming an indie studio. I talked to Johnnemann and Karla from 2K Marin, who I had worked with in the past, and they quit their jobs and moved up here to make this game with me. We knew we were good at making immersive, atmospheric first-person games about exploration and storytelling, but we were a very small team, so we had to create a version of the first-person exploration game that we could actually produce.
For years I had been thinking about what you could do in the first-person perspective without focusing on combat, violence, or puzzles, but on being in the place. Gone Home included only the story and discovery elements of games like BioShock, and we set it entirely in one house with just a few characters to keep it in scope. The game fit all the criteria that we had creatively and practically. We were excited about it, and we knew we could finish it before exhausting our savings.
The illusion that the player is stepping into someone else’s shoes is difficult to maintain without seeing the character on screen. Gone Home makes a great effort to remind the player that they are playing as Katie, especially with the internal text monologues that appear while hovering the mouse over certain objects. How much importance did you place on reinforcing this idea?
The relationship between the player and character is always fluid and always straddles the line. Within the first-person perspective there’s always some aspect that reveals that you are not literally playing as yourself, like when the character’s pain sounds differ from your actual voice. On the other side of the spectrum, you can play as Lara Croft who has a voice, model, and identity separate from your own, but you are still inhabiting her and affecting how she relates to the world.
In Gone Home we walked a particularly tricky line where we wanted you to feel like you were transported to a new place, but our character was already familiar with the rest of the cast, so we had to give you conceptual permission to go snooping through everyone’s stuff. We tell you that your family is missing and you have to find out what happened to them, so it’s okay to open up all the drawers to find out. You’re not just a home invader or an anonymous person busting into the house.
We didn’t want to drive a wedge between the player and the character any more than necessary. The story said Katie had been gone for a year and the family had moved into the house during that time to ensure that Katie and the player were equally unfamiliar with the place. We did the best we could to make any specifics the player discovers about Katie things that she could have easily forgotten about, or that she wouldn’t have encountered in a long time. When she sees her high school track trophies or the stuffed animal on Sam’s bed, you learn a bit about her but she’s just like, “oh right, that.”
There’s tension in cases where the player discovers something about the character they’re playing that the character should have already known. Katie needed to have a specific place in the story, but we needed to make her as anonymous as possible so there wasn’t a big schism between the player’s knowledge and the character’s knowledge. We used the mouseover text and other hints to occasionally remind the player that they’re playing as someone, while still remaining immersed in the space.
The game takes place in the mid-90’s, and I read that you set it then because it was the last time period before computers became prevalent. Was there anything else about that particular era that meant something to you and your team?
Our initial impulse for the setting was purely practical. We wanted to have answering machine messages and hand written notes scattered all over the house, so it had to be prior to cell phones and email and such, but there was also the squishy side in that all of the developers were teenagers in high school in the 90’s. We all had formative experiences during that time period. I’m sure there was a romantic attachment to that era, but that wasn’t the starting point. We were trying to rewind the clock as little as possible to support the kind of gameplay we wanted, which meant that the mid-90’s were the latest we could go. Once we chose that era, we could build based on our own memories.
We remembered our parents’ living rooms, the magazines, the torn out TV Guide pages, and all of these fond recollections helped us build the time. It was important to us to reconstruct that space from our own experiences, instead of say, setting it in the 60’s, which would have forced us to rely on movies, TV, books, and old magazines as barometers for authenticity. It’s really exciting to recreate a time that you have just enough distance from to build as another era, but is still one that you can clearly remember.
What inspired the decision to tell a coming of age story using horror tropes?
The basics of the foreboding atmosphere were answers to practical constraints that we had. We were only building the house, not the yard or anything outside, so we had to justify why you couldn’t go outside. If you were normally in this situation and the phones were out, you would walk into town, or get in your car and drive to find a working pay phone. So we said okay, Katie just came home from a year abroad, took a shuttle home from the airport, there’s a terrible storm outside, and the TV and phones are out. You’re isolated and alone in a dark house, so now it’s a dark and stormy night. The scary situation was basically put in place to explain our border on the playable space, and at that point we just went with it. We had decided upfront there weren’t going to be any enemies or things that would kill you, but there also needed to be a tension to the game and a sense of urgency to solve the mystery. We used the horror atmosphere to create the feeling that something isn’t right, but that was just the starting point.
As the player progressed, we knew the feeling would wear off as they grew accustom to it, and we wanted players to concentrate more on the characters and less on the horror aspects. So we decided to subvert the horror tropes. We put red stains in the tub to hint at something sinister, but they just amount to red hair dye, reminding you again that the game really is only about the characters. Hopefully by the time you’re in the second or third hour of the game, you’re motivated by the stories of these people and not by the prospect of a ghost. The experience was delicate to manage, but it tended to work for a lot of people, although some still might have been disappointed that there wasn’t a ghost at the end.
Gone Home is among several contemporary games to boldly eschew traditional challenge to preserve its atmosphere. Do you think that creating challenge and a sense of atmosphere are naturally opposing goals?
I think it all depends. The story, the challenge, and the atmosphere all have to mesh with one another. If you’re going to make a game that is about having difficult battles against enemies, that is what your story has to be about. In a lot of cases that works, but also tends to limit the breadth of stories that can be told. For a game that’s about fighting enemies, the story has to justify why the enemies are there in the first place. If Gone Home had included fights with phantoms, the story would no longer be just about the characters but about why the phantoms are there. Are they figments of my imagination? Is this place actually haunted? Am I going insane? The story has to answer those questions, which is just more baggage to deal with.
It’s the same deal with puzzles. If there were a bunch of tile sliding puzzles or something, now the story has to explain who made these crazy puzzles, and how anyone can live in a house where you have to line up three green tiles to open the kitchen. Those kinds of mechanical decisions are constraints. They limit what you can talk about. Deciding we didn’t have to have combat or puzzles allowed us to tell just this story for its own sake on its own terms.
Why do you think so many AAA games fall back on these age old mechanics that they then have to justify?
Because they’re familiar. They’re shorthand for a kind of experience that someone can have, and people will pay for something that has familiarity. If you like first-person shooters, you will probably buy a really good first-person shooter. If you’re developing a game for a publicly traded company that needs to spend tens of millions of dollars on the production and then make it all back, familiarity is security.
If you’re going to go outside the bounds of in the publisher driven model, it’s just a huge amount of risk. You can’t ask a publisher to figure out how to sell a 2-3 hour game that doesn’t have any puzzles or combat, but will make people interested in the story by letting them walk around and read stuff.
The proposition is legitimately risky because it hasn’t been done before in that segment of the market, but that’s what’s great about the rising prominence of indie developers. There’s much less overhead and it’s easier to recoup your investment. An indie developer with an idea and audience in mind can make it and be successful, which is a luxury you don’t have if you’re working for a publicly traded company that needs to make its twenty million dollars back.
The Fullbright Company is among the many indie developers using Unity as a development platform. How was your experience working in the engine?
Unity has been great. The iteration time is fast and it has all the advantages of any good middleware engine in that it gets the nuts and bolts stuff out of the way. It provides the renderer and the code interpreter, so you can move straight into implementing the aspects of your game that are unique. The tools are straightforward and we found solutions in the Asset Store for visual scripting and our first-person controller. Buying a Pro license is a one time fee - you don’t have to give away a percent of your earnings for life. Also, you can deploy to other platforms with essentially one click.
All of that stuff is great because it reduces the low level stuff you have to get done before getting your game out there. It’s a really good time to be a developer in terms of middleware, distribution, and social networking if you can get the word out.
What does the future hold for The Fullbright Company?
We want to be a good amount of distance from Gone Home before diving into our next project, and we don’t want to expand our team too much. Gone Home is a great experiential base. The interactive framework offers a ton of potential for us to change, enhance, and make a new experience that builds upon our previous accomplishments, but stands on its own. Finding that balance is our next big challenge.