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Fullbright On Personal Stories, The FemShep Conundrum

Home Is Where The Family Isn't, Pt 2

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Yesterday, we brought you word of many important things about The Fullbright Company’s brilliant-looking Gone Home – for instance, how many guns it will have. I also laid eager hands upon it, if you’d like to know how exactly a first-person ’90s-family’s-hidden-mysteries-uncover-er works. All of which brings us the second installment of my interview with Steve Gaynor and the rest of Fullbright’s merry troupe. Today, we discuss a fairly astonishing range of topics – from what it’s like to live and work together, to twist endings, to gender issues in Gone Home, to creating female characters who are believable (not just generically “strong”), to Dracula. In the process, we venture into some SEMI-SPOILERY territory, so keep that in mind before proceeding.

RPS: Most of you worked on BioShock previously, which is obviously a huge thing. Then you up and left that to make this game. First off, was that a frightening leap to make – especially with a game that’s pretty experimental in the grand scheme of things?

Steve Gaynor: As far as the game being experimental, it is and it isn’t. On the one hand, it’s a lot different from most other things you could play today. But with that said, it draws completely from stuff that we have experience with, that we feel confident in our ability to build. In that way, we had a certain amount of confidence that this would be something we could make and something people would be into. That said, you leave a job with a salary and health insurance and get a couple of your friends to move to Portland and split a house to make this game and live off your savings… In that sense it’s…

Johnnemann Nordhagen: That’s absolutely the more nerve-wracking part. We have full confidence and totally believe in the game we’re making. As Steve said, it’s playing to our strengths in a lot of ways. We realized that one of the biggest challenges for any team is scoping and hitting the targets that you need to have. Shipping the thing is the difficult part.

Steve Gaynor: Actually shipping in less than four years.

Johnnemann Nordhagen: Yeah. So we picked our targets such that we felt pretty confident we could hit them. I think we did a fantastic job of that. I’m happy with the progress we made on the game so far and where we plan to be by the time we release it. That part is great. Cutting ties and leaving paychecks is considerably harder.

Steve Gaynor: I don’t know. It’s one of these things where, these days in the triple-A industry, you have as much chance of being out of a job as you do if you’re on your own. Your own project could fail, but as far as job security goes… [laughs]. It’s not great out there for anybody. I would rather be putting myself at risk for something that we’re totally responsible for and totally invested in than to put myself at risk to be partially responsible for someone else’s success.

We’re very lucky to have the ability to do that because people hired us and we worked on big games with big budgets for a long time. We saved up our money. We’re all very grateful for the time that we spent working on a great franchise like BioShock, but since we had the opportunity to, I think now was a time to take a chance on something that’s ours.

RPS: And you all share a house?

Steve Gaynor: Yeah.

RPS: You work together and live together?

Johnnemann Nordhagen: It’s basically some kind of crazy sitcom.

RPS: I was thinking of, like, a band on tour, but I like yours better. How is that, though? Being around the same people all the time? Does it ever get in the way of your ability to be creative? Or is that level of comfort with people helpful to the process?

Steve Gaynor: It’s good. We’re not around each other all the time. Kate’s down visiting from Canada, so the three of us and my wife are the ones that live in the house in Portland. We split a house and the office is in the basement. It’s nice. We have a house that’s in northeast Portland. It’s close in to the city. If you need to get away from the office, you can just walk out the front door and you can walk to streets where you can go have a beer or whatever. We’re right on the train line where you can go to downtown. I think we do a pretty good job of saying, “Alright, I’m not going to spend 18 hours a day in the basement.” [laughs]

Johnnemann Nordhagen: At most it’s 16.

Steve Gaynor: I’m gonna go downstairs to work, I’m gonna get some good stuff done, I’m gonna get to a stopping point, then I’ll get some fucking fresh air and get my head out of the computer for a while. Then maybe come back and watch some Star Trek together on the TV upstairs when we feel like it. I think it’s a good balance. We hang out together sometimes We all have our own stuff we go do. The office is the office and the rest of the house is… not the office. We’re working on the balance. It’s harder, in some ways, than getting in your car and driving to the office, and then you go home. That’s a very hard split. But that said, I’ll take having no commute and no schedule and being self-directed over the kind of predictability of a nine-to-five job.

Johnnemann Nordhagen: It’s not as though we just found people off of Craiglist to move in. We had worked together for years, and so we knew each other, at least in a working context, pretty well. A team working context, even, because we all worked on Minerva’s Den together.

Steve Gaynor: Karla and I worked very closely on that.

Karla Zimonja: I was going to say, it was basically like being roommates, because we were at work all the time… [laughs]

RPS: Earlier, you mentioned the idea of telling a story that felt very truthful. Whenever people say something like that, to me, it sounds like it also means “personal.” So is this story deeply personal for you? I mean, it does touch on some themes that are pretty specific.

Karla Zimonja: [To Steve] Explain the gender thing to me. How does that fit?

Steve Gaynor: So I’m the writer. I write the dialogue and the text and stuff. But I work on the story with everybody at the company, especially Karla. The thing about it is, there are a lot of different kinds of specifics in the story. There are the specifics of the years that Sam was in high school. That she’s a girl. The region of the world where the game takes place. All that kind of stuff that doesn’t map one to one with me. We’re in Portland now, but I grew up in Florida and I graduated high school years after Sam would have, and so on and so forth.

The stuff that’s specific and the stuff that’s personal and the stuff that comes from my own experience is the stuff that addresses a bit more to the universal themes. It’s like, okay, as a teenager Sam is making new friends and finding out about new cultural experiences that are changing how she thinks about things. She’s becoming independent and having conflicts with her parents. She’s perceiving her parents as human beings in a way that she probably didn’t when she was younger.

When we’re thinking about, “OK, what is something that would cause some conflict between Sam and her parents, and also is an embodiment of her having new experiences because she made this new friend?” That’s when I can think to myself, “Well, when I was 16, one of my friends that I made in school said, ‘Do you want to go to a rock show downtown?’” I’d never done that before. But you go and it’s a new experience. Maybe your parents don’t want you to go downtown on your own to some weird club where people are going to be playing punk rock or whatever. So you think back to when that happened to you and what feelings you had when you were in that experience. Those kinds of things. Having your friend dub off a tape for you of a band you never heard before, and you think, “Holy shit, this is amazing.”

All these little things that, in some ways, happen to everybody, but I can draw on the specifics of my experience to be the version of that that you actually encounter in the game. That’s how it’s a personal story without being strictly autobiographical.

RPS: Samantha’s story, though, began with a friendship, but seemed to evolve into more. A bunch of the diary entries and notes seemed to suggest that Sam had romantic feelings for Lonnie – who is, of course, also a girl. So it seems like you’re really exploring gender/sexuality and how people treated it during that time period, not just general coming-of-age stuff.

Steve Gaynor: It’s a story about how these two characters relate to one another. A lot of what I think is really central to young love is uncertainty. You don’t know whether the other person likes you. Maybe you hope they do or maybe you hope they don’t. There’s all of this imperfect knowledge, as they say in game design [laughs]. There’s fog of war in young love, you know what I mean?

And so Sam is someone who is sure of, I think, her own identity. She knows herself. She starts having feelings for this other person who has brought all of these new experiences into her life through music and meeting new people and whatever. The conflict in the beginning, the part you got to play through the beginning of, is about her trying to figure out what the dynamic is between the two of them and whether it’s just friendship or whether it’s more than that. It’s hard to say… I guess I have a lot of thoughts about when you ask, what you’re trying to do with that. But I will say that it’s about Sam trying to figure out her relationship with this other girl and whether it can be romantic or not.

RPS: Regardless, Sam doesn’t really fit the current videogame mold of “strong female character” – which, these days, is basically a Genderless Human. A lot of the characteristics that she exhibits aren’t traditionally “strong.” She’s a troubled teenager. She’s characterized by vulnerability and confusion and things like that. But there was a GDC Online panel – that Leigh Alexander participated in and helpfully summarized – where, at one point, they basically shot down the idea that unwavering “strength” or positivity is a must for female characters. Or any characters, for that matter.

Steve Gaynor: I know what you mean. In choosing to tell the story of a female character, you have a responsibility to represent the things that this character would be going through in a way that’s authentic. Do you know Jenn Frank?

RPS: Oh, of course. She was also on that panel. Mattie Brice too.

Steve Gaynor: OK, yeah, exactly. Jenn wrote an article a year or two ago talking about her experience playing a female character in Fallout 3. She made a really interesting distinction between a feminist narrative and an anti-sexist narrative. A feminist narrative would acknowledge the actual issues that a woman would go through if she was trying to accomplish certain things in the world we live in. An anti-sexist narrative would just be like, “She wanted to join the football team so she did and everyone was cool with it.” A wish-fulfillment kind of thing.

For me, at least, writing this character is not, first and foremost, a political act in any way. My intent is to write the story of an individual in a way that is believable and true to that person. The characteristics of her and of the other characters in the story – the mom and dad – are basically what define my responsibilities as a writer. To represent that person’s experience in a way that’s legitimate and that isn’t false in the ways that this sort of un-gendered female-shaped figure can be.

I love female Shepard in Mass Effect, but…

Kate Craig: No one acknowledges that [she’s in any way different from male Shepard].

Steve Gaynor: Yeah, exactly. Or maybe very little. Occasionally. I guess what I’m trying to say is that it’s not a case of saying, “I have a mission, which is to fly the flag for this, that, or the other cause.” But when we came to the decision about who this character was going to be… I have a responsibility to take that person seriously.

Doing that will require representing parts of her that are not idealized, or that are not what you would see necessarily from someone who was supposed to be a rousing protagonist player character. The kind where you’re supposed to think, “Oh, I’m a badass when I play this person.” Because you’re looking at Sam from the outside, right? You’re observing her. You see her for her strengths and her weaknesses. Having her be a character that you’re following allows us to explore those things in a way that is harder when it’s the character that you’re playing as. And if you don’t play along, then she doesn’t have those qualities.

Johnnemann Nordhagen: It says something about our society and the state of the medium and stuff like that, that simply portraying a character truthfully can come across as a political statement sometimes.

Karla Zimonja: I mean, arguably it’s all political statements, but that…

Steve Gaynor: You’re taking a stance in some ways by doing that. But at least for me, as far as where I’m coming from, it’s a byproduct of what I want to achieve creatively. It’s not the agenda I’m following.

RPS: Another thing that stuck out to me, that wasn’t really in that vein but was also very specific. There were a lot of things about the house that were religiously tinged. There were Bibles in different rooms. One of the self-help books, whether it was about dealing with teens or marriage, was very obviously rooted in Christianity. Why did you decide to put those in the house?

Steve Gaynor: That’s something that comes from my own experience. There’s this certain strain of suburban Christianity that I think is very familiar to a lot of people that grew up in this country. It’s the environment I grew up in, anyway. There’s this ambient Christian to tinge to stuff. It’s not like evangelical super-overt religious fanaticism of any sort. It’s just sort of like… yeah. Your parents have Bibles around. They take you to church on Sunday and it’s not the biggest deal in the world, but it’s a presence.

I think that a lot of games don’t acknowledge it. It’s sort of interesting. There’s like two Bibles or three Bibles sitting around in there, where the back of the book is like, “From Reverend whoever.” It’s interesting to me that it is not a super-heavy part of the game world in Gone Home, but just the mere fact of its existence stands in contrast in a lot of ways to what you normally see in games. Despite the fact that all we were basically trying to do is say, “This family goes to church.” Like any of millions of American families do.

When you ask about Sam’s sexuality or whatever, that could be an aspect of conflict that would arise from that later in the story, but no more so than it would be in anyone’s life with their family that was just sort of an everyday vaguely church-going family that gets dressed up on Easter to go to services.

RPS: Based on what I played, at least – based on a bunch of things that were implied – I feel like I have a fairly concrete notion of where the story’s headed. Is that what you’re shooting for, or is it a misdirection? Is there going to be some crazy twist that makes me think, “Everyone was dead all along!”?

Steve Gaynor: It’s somewhere in between. We are not making a twist-based narrative, like some big reveal. “You died in the plane crash! You’re a ghost!” No. You’re not going to see yourself in a mirror and find out you were Dracula the whole time.

RPS: That couldn’t happen anyway, Dracula can’t see himself in the mirror. Now you’re gonna have to remake your whole game. Sorry!

Steve Gaynor: The point is, on the one hand, we’re not leading up to a big M. Night Shyamalan twist. On the other hand, It’s our job to set things up and set some events in motion and give you an idea of [what’s maybe coming next]. If they kept going uninterrupted on that trajectory, it seems like they would end up here. And then we upset those expectations over time. If we did bring you to a place where you could say, “OK, in the first half-hour of the game, I can see where everything’s going,” and then it actually ends up there…

Johnnemann Nordhagen: We would be pretty bad at this.

Steve Gaynor: Yeah. We would be doing a bad job. The authenticity that we’re going for in the entire production is also relevant here. People lead lives that they think are going somewhere, and then they don’t end up there. Sometimes they do, but in a lot of cases they don’t. Our intent with the story is to represent that kind of experience that people have with… “I believed this was my future. And then this, that, and the other thing happened and I’m in a totally different place than I expected.” That’s the kind of journey we wanted to take the player on, along with these characters, but not in a way that is amnesia-based or any other broad crazy deus ex machina. You discover these things that change people’s lives in ways that you wouldn’t have expected along with them.

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