Last week, I ran the first half of my recent chat with Steve Gaynor, formerly of Irrational and 2K Marin, and now of indie studio The Fullbright Company – who are working on mysterious, ambitious, suburban-set non-combat first-person game Gone Home. Being as I am an investigative journalist par excellence, I decided that it would be appropriate to spend the second half of the interview forgoing questioning entirely in favour of simply shouting the names of other games at him. Games like Myst, Amnesia, Jurassic Park: Trespasser, Journey and Dear Esther. Rather than hanging up in disgust, he offered fascinating, thoughtful replies on the limits of interactivity in games and the sort of scale Gone Home is intended to operate on.
RPS: OK, I’m going to say the names of some other video games to you and I want to hear your reaction in context to Gone Home. Like people have thrown out, ‘oh it’s like this, or it might be like this’, and obviously no-one knows, because they’ve only seen one tiny little bit of footage. So I’m just going to say them in a completely random order and see what you think.
Steve Gaynor: That was a big inspiration for sure. How much of a reaction do you want, is this like a free association thing?
RPS: Yeah, what occurs off the top of your head. I’ve not planned this in the slightest so if it backfires, that is entirely on me, not on you.
Steve Gaynor: Yeah, the atmosphere and interactivity of that game were really inspiring to us.
RPS: Ok. Myst?
Steve Gaynor: Similarly the mystery and feeling of exploring somewhere that you want to know more about, but not the crazy abstract puzzle stuff.
RPS: You don’t need to be a mathematician to do it presumably?
Steve Gaynor: You don’t have to play the piano to launch a rocket ship, or whatever happened in that game.
RPS: (laughs). The Witness?
Steve Gaynor: I haven’t gotten to play it, but from what I’ve seen….Something that’s inspiring from that game, and also with games like Gunpoint, for instance, is that those games announced that they existed really early, like alpha screenshots and video to show an outline of what it’s supposed to be. I think it’s been really great being able to follow the development of those games as opposed to just like ‘suddenly it appears fully formed one day, and a couple of months later it comes out, and you can buy it if you want.’ So, aside from this non-combat first person experience, The Witness for sure has been something that we’ve looked at as far as how to actually share the game with people. I’m really interested to see more of The Witness when more of it is ready to be shown to the public.
RPS: Yeah, me too. Dear Esther?
Steve Gaynor: Dear Esther is actually a game that we played when it came out, and it’s something tonally and experientially in some ways, there’s a lot in common. We’re really interested in focussing on the player-driven experience, and a non-linear experience, because I loved Dear Esther, but I also felt that it was really transparent that I was just holding down the W key to walk forward, and audio was falling into my ears. I loved the stuff that was great about it, but we’re really interested in saying ‘If we give you a real feeling place that’s constructed logically and give you the tools to explore it and pull the story out of it, that’s what really interesting to me as a player and as a designer.
RPS: I’ll do one more and then I’ll stop doing this, this ridiculous scheme that I’ve come up with. Journey?
Steve Gaynor: I liked Journey. I think that I don’t feel like it overlaps really. I guess there’s some high level stuff like, you walk around and don’t fight things… I liked Journey but we’re not really relying on it for any kind of inspiration.
RPS: Sure, I was just trying to get a sense by saying that stuff if yours was going down the esoteric route or the more directly interactive route. I guess the Dear Esther answer pretty much tackled that really.
Steve Gaynor: One game people have brought up, which I thought was interesting, is The Last Express. Our game isn’t going to have any people in it – spoilers!- you’re not going to come around a corner and find a dude. Exploring an abandoned place is the core of the experience. And so Last Express had this whole clockwork world, real time progression thing in it, and that’s not relevant to us, but I did really love the fact that the entire game took place on a few train cars, and you could go into one compartment and turn all around and fold down the bed and find something that was hidden in there when it got folded up, and open up the luggage and see what was inside.
What’s interesting to me is just scale. I feel like the scale of interactivity in most games is really coarse. It’s like, the scale of interactivity is basically human-sized or larger – you can shoot bullets at that other human-sized thing and kill it or not. In GTA, I loved some of the stuff they did that brought the interactivity down to hand scale in GTA4, but it was also really reall,y really secondary. The GTA experience was like ‘I’m a big human-shaped agent of chaos and I can get into a car and I’m an even bigger, car-shaped agent of chaos, and I cause havoc on a large scale, and in GTA4 they added the thing where you could go round and pick up any physics object off the ground, so you just pick up coffee cups and throw them at people, which is hilarious, but it obviously wasn’t what that game was built around.
I feel like, especially in a first person context, it’s really interesting for me to think about…in our lives, you’re going round, you’re looking at your desk right now, you could pick up and examine and move around any of the bits and bobs on your desk, and they’re actually really relevant to your understanding of this place. Our interest is taking the scale of the experience down to the smallest bit of granularity that’s actually relevant to understanding this place and being able to explore it. And so the Last Express thing, you can fold down the luggage rack and open the luggage and examine what’s in the pocket of the luggage, and then open up the wallet, see what’s inside the wallet… That is really cool to me, and I think it was ahead of its time in that regard.
RPS: Which makes me think of the other game I meant to mention and completely forgot, I promise this is the last one. Jurassic Park: Trespasser?
Steve Gaynor: I’ve never actually played it. I’m fully aware of how hilarious it is. We don’t have a physics arm. I feel like Trespasser was almost a virtual reality experience – they simulate everything down to the angle of your hand or whatever. We aren’t going that far. Something that’s interesting about making a game like this, as a designer, is figuring out what the line of abstraction is. If it was a total virtual reality experience, you’d be able to rearrange all the furniture in the house and tear the pictures off the walls and throw them on the ground and break the windows. If there was a piece of lint somewhere you could move it around.
Something that’s interesting about abstraction in game design is it’s a process of figuring out what’s relevant to the experience, and what isn’t. In Gone Home you have to figure out what the line is between ‘can I interact with that or not, and how?’ and what are you going to get out of interacting with that thing. And how much is it going to affect the tone of the experience versus actually give the player a feeling of being in control of what they’re doing and understanding the world better.
So I think Trespasser was a super interesting experience because it went all the way down the line of ‘we’re just going to let you fully physically interact with every single thing in the world’, and in fact you have to to even aim your gun. But in Gone Home we are establishing a very clear interactive language so that as you explore the space you understand ‘how can I interact with that thing, and what does it mean to me?’ So the focus can be on the understanding of the content and the feeling of being in the place, not the fiddly little maths you’re doing in your head of how to twist that one box perfectly to the right angle so that you can stack it on top of another one, or whatever.
RPS: Bringing up Dear Esther and Journey again, do you see Gone Home as a game people will replay, or is it you go home, you have gone home, you have solved whatever secrets are going on. Or is it a little bit more random than that?
Steve Gaynor: There’s not any randomisation to it, I understand that there was randomisation in Dear Esther, which is weird to me because, speaking of invisible systems, I never knew that until someone said so. I don’t know how you would know it because the first time you play through it, it feels as if you’ve seen the whole experience, so the only way you would know is just to say I played through that again and noticed something was different. Did you ever play Silent Hill: Shattered Memories?
RPS: Nope, I haven’t.
Steve Gaynor: It was the one that came out on the Wii, I can’t remember the studio that made it, in the first or second year that the Wii was out. It was actually a really interesting game. They put it out on other platforms as well if you don’t want to dust off your Wii, but it’s super interesting. It had a similar thing, which is as you go along in the game, stuff that you look at or interact with or whatever will change content later, but there’s no way of knowing that really, unless you just happen to play the game through twice and notice.
So anyway, as a tangent, on the one hand our game doesn’t have any randomisation, and I mean if you were to fully explore it the first time you went through it there wouldn’t be anything else there, but on the other hand we sent out a play test build recently to a number of fellow developers who are used to seeing and playing games in their very early stages, and we don’t have a lot of content in. We have the spaces that you can walk through for the first half of the game, and the critical path of the story and progression is all in, but just as far as pure volume of content, there’s just not a ton there. I was surprised to see even from the people that played it and gave feedback, there were a couple of people saying ‘Oh yeah, there was this one part where I didn’t have the key that I needed, and so I went back and explored the areas I’d already been in and I found multiple things I hadn’t seen when I first went through the room.’
So I think between us having a lot of small detail content in each area and the degree to which the players’ exploration of it is self-directed, I think that most people, if they play through it once and then open it up again, they will find stuff that they missed the first time through, and be surprised by that.
RPS: Is it going to be like Dear Esther or Journey again in that it really does feel final at the end? I struggled with both of those, I feel like my journey is complete and to go backwards undermines what I’ve experienced and seen because it’s a finished story. Or is there more ambiguity for you?
Steve Gaynor: I guess with Dear Esther and Journey, they both feel so linear to me that it feels like you go from the beginning to the end and it feels like you have walked a path and had a singular experience. I know exactly what you mean. I think for some people that will definitely be true, because we do have a story spine, a core narrative, that runs through the spaces that you’re discovering as you go along, and it has a resolution of a sort at the end. But I think for some people, the game world will feel populated and real, more of a place than this single threaded linear experience that you have. People who are really the investigators and completists will want to come back and revisit that place and find everything that was there that they didn’t get to see when they first passed through.
RPS: Thanks for your time.
Gone Home is due for release next year.