The Human Touch of Gone Home

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Steve Gaynor has played key roles in two of 2013’s most critically acclaimed videogames. One of those games has sold millions of copies. The other has sold thousands. The latter is poised to change the way many of us think about games, while the former mostly continues the course of corporate game development despite an unusually provocative setting. All the two games share is a first-person perspective.

As the former Senior Level Designer at Irrational Games, Gaynor made vital contributions to Bioshock Infinite, a massively budgeted blockbuster that strives for emotional and philosophical depth within the framework of a first-person shooter. With The Fullbright Company Gaynor designed the intimate coming-of-age PC game Gone Home. Set amid the riot grrrl punk milieu of the 1990s, Gone Home wouldn’t exist if Gaynor hadn’t taken the DIY punk step of leaving a key position at one of the most successful AAA studios to start his own company.

In December of 2011, Gaynor and his wife moved from Boston to Portland as Gaynor made the terrifying decision to step away from Irrational to co-found Fullbright with former colleagues from 2K Marin. When asked him about the move, Gaynor says he knew “there was no guarantee at all that starting our own thing would work out…but I mostly concentrated on how to make it happen, as opposed to worrying about if it didn’t.” Senior Level Designer of a game like Infinite is the sort of position that would ensure Gaynor a bright future in AAA game development. And while Gaynor had nothing but nice things to say about his experience at Irrational, it’s obvious he was wired for something more personal.

Before moving to Boston to start on Infinite, Gaynor worked as the creative lead on the Bioshock 2 DLC Minerva’s Den. This gave him a taste for the personal touch that is possible when working with a smaller team. “We had a team of about 12 people and we got to own it entirely. I pitched the story and everyone on the team got to be very close knit and very involved with the entire project,” says Gaynor. Consequently moving to Irrational, “in some ways, felt like a step backwards in terms of leading a team that could own the entirety of a project.” Gaynor knew that Bioshock Infinite would be an accomplished game whether he stayed in Boston or not and he wanted “to get back to the small team feeling” where “you can see the whole shape of the project and feel totally responsible for it.” So he reached out to a couple of people who worked with him on Minerva’s Den and asked them to move to Portland to make a game that would truly be their own.

Gaynor missed the benefits of working with a small team. “It is much more straightforward to maintain a consistent tone when the team is small and the project is small,” he says. “That is why Gone Home is exploration only. There isn’t any combat. There aren’t really even any puzzles. We don’t have to wonder how to make a crazy puzzle not pull people out of the story that we are telling because we made the explicit decision to focus on one core type of experience and explore as many variations of that as possible. This makes it much more reasonable to maintain consistency and make the one thing that you are doing as meaningful as possible.”

Gaynor and I chatted the day after Bioshock Infinite was released. He was incredibly happy for the stellar reception the game received. He seemed genuinely excited to play it and was curious as to how much of his work had made it into the final product. Having played both games, I am glad that Gaynor left Irrational. The personal story that Gone Home tells is one that needs to be heard. It challenges common assumptions about what makes a great videogame.

Gone Home is stunningly simple. The game takes place entirely within the confines of one family’s house. Playing as a college-aged daughter just back from a year in Europe, you walk through the rooms of the Greenbriar home, examining objects, opening drawers and cabinets, and reading notes. Aside from some mysterious voiceovers, the player is left to piece together the story that the house and its contents tell.

As Gaynor says, with Gone Home Fullbright “wanted to give people permission to be voyeuristic. We have all gone to a friend’s house and thought about going through their medicine cabinet or their dresser drawers to figure out their secrets but we don’t because we are good people. With Gone Home, you are a member of the family and something is obviously not right. You have a motivation to find out what that is.”

The result is a rare game confident that its world and story are compelling enough to drive players to complete it. “With Gone Home, we wanted to make all the meaning that you get out of playing the game come from the interactions and from you saying I want to engage with this and to find out about it,” says Gaynor. He believes that “you have a closer connection with what you are discovering if you have chosen to reach out for it and find it.”

This was my experience with Gone Home. Even though I never actually met the Greenbriar family, I felt like I knew them. I had made the decision to consider the many objects, notes, books, music and ornaments and piece together the story they tell.

When I played through Bioshock Infinite this last spring, I took stock of the various items I found in the game. I’d find jars of pickles, cans of beans, cereal, chips, hot dogs, soda, cake and beer. I’d also find the game’s currency, silver eagles, and various types of ammunition. I’d often find these things stuffed in trash cans or abandoned suitcases, sometimes right under the nose of starving people who desperately needed them.

These objects do very little to color the players understanding of Infinite’s floating city of Columbia. If anything they merely equip us for what Columbia is all about—combat. Most people won’t notice that there are no distinct brands of soda or chips in Columbia because chips and soda merely exist to give players more health and salts. They aren’t there to illumine the world in which they exist. Thus, it’s more efficient to simply press “x” to “take all.” Looting in Columbia does not move me to consider its world and characters. If anything it turns me into a thoughtless glutton who ravenously moves from place to place eating and drinking everything in my path.

Gaynor has nothing but nice things to say about Infinite, but there’s a stark contrast between it and Gone Home. It’s not just that Infinite is deeply, grotesquely violent. It’s that so much of what I do in the game does little to endear its world to me. It seems like everything I do in Gone Home, a game that is a mere fraction of the size, makes its world a place I want to be and its characters people I want to understand.

As Gaynor explains, inspiring the player’s curiosity was crucial to creating this sort of experience. “With Gone Home, there is no objective screen,” he points out. “We never say, ‘here is the mystery that you need to solve.’ There is never a point where the game says, ‘now go here.’ If you are playing at all, the only reason is your own inherent curiosity.”

Perhaps this means that games have gotten too big. Authorial intent must be nearly impossible to manage when games have as many moving parts as Infinite. Perhaps it tells us that AAA games are suffering from their own stubborn commitment to various genre tropes. At the very least, I can say, I am glad Steve Gaynor made the decision to move back home to Portland.

I spoke with Gaynor briefly after the release of Gone Home. I didn’t ask him how the game is doing financially. Whether or not the game is a commercial success, The Fullbright Company has made a game that is poignant, memorable and full of life. He said that he and his team “were really glad to see the response the game has been getting. There have been a bunch of personal responses to the game that have meant a ton to us. It’s wonderful to see.”

Instead of talking numbers, I asked Gaynor if his experience confirmed his desire to work with a smaller team on more personal projects. Gaynor said that The Fullbright Company may grow some, but “keeping the whole team in one room working on one project together that we are completely invested in is super important to us.” Perhaps the personal investment that’s so evident in Gone Home might be what the big AAA blockbusters are missing.

Drew Dixon is the editor-in-chief of Game Church. He also edits for Christ and Pop Culture and writes about videogames for Think Christian. Follow him on Twitter.

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