Fullbright On Personal Stories, The FemShep Conundrum

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.


  1. Vernalagnia says:

    There is nothing about this game that I’m not excited about. It’s exciting to see a team working on a project with so many novel ideas for a game.

    • Feferuco says:

      Oh yeah? How about this
      You’re not going to see yourself in a mirror and find out you were Dracula the whole time.

      I hope they’re just being misleading here, like okay not Dracula but maybe a robot.

  2. Jamesworkshop says:

    Thinking about it how come nobody in the family are in any of the screenshots directly and only indirectly

    • Smion says:

      There aren’t any NPCs. The goal of the player is to find out what happened to them.

      • Jamesworkshop says:

        I got the impression the story was supposed to be set over a 5 (roughly) year period with talk about coming of age type stuff

        • Smion says:

          The story of the game IS what happens in that period (amongst others) it’s just that we uncover it from a later point. You know, like you might say the majority of the story in Bioshock is told through the audiotapes.

          • Jamesworkshop says:

            So are we a member of the family?

          • Ayslia says:

            As I understand it, you are a member of a four-person family (mom, dad, your sister, Sam). You went traveling for a year but when you returned you found they were all gone. Your job is to find out what happened.

            The reason why Sam is brought up so much is that as this is apparently a “find out what happened” game, “what happened” centers on Sam.

  3. SuperNashwanPower says:

    The whole part about a feminist narrative vs an anti-sexist one was a million times more enlightening and persuasive than any article attacking gaming sexism I have so far read. I actually would like to experience how another person goes through the world, and the cares and concerns they have, and understand that better from the opposite gendered perspective. To experience the world as a woman, when I am a man would be incredible. Is that truly possible in a computer game without inventing the Hitch-hiker’s Guide Empathy Gun? I don’t know – but its an idea that pulls me in.

    I find this far more effective in being swung round to feminist ideals than lots of shouting about how awful male gamers are, because those arguments tend to make me feel guilty by association, whether intended or not. This approach is far more integrating and inclusive, rather than polarising. It gives me something positive to focus on.

    • ffordesoon says:

      And that’s why it’s so important for more developers to make games with protagonists who aren’t shouty grunty white men. Games have the ability to foster empathy and understanding in a way no other medium can match, and one of the chief disappointments of the medium’s evolution so far has been the near-total lack of progress on that front. A woman can talk about being treated differently from men until she’s blue in the face, and the guy listening will never understand what the hell she’s talking about. But sit the guy in front of a game where male characters are constantly ogling the main (female) character, and he might start to get it.

      • Jamesworkshop says:

        I think most men are aware that most men don’t hit on them, even the ones that would want men to hit on them know that 90% aren’t going to :)

        • ffordesoon says:

          You’re missing the point. There’s a huge gap between being aware that you’re not getting hit on constantly and understanding what it’s like to be hit on constantly.

      • SuperNashwanPower says:

        “But sit the guy in front of a game where male characters are constantly ogling the main (female) character, and he might start to get it.”

        Unfortunately this kind of response is alienating to anyone who sits in the grey area of this argument though. What you are saying divides the world into two camps – For women or against them. You are either a perverse ogler of women, or on the side of good. Its not going to get people to listen to you and fails to take account of the mindset of your potential new audience.

        “If you want to gather honey, start by not kicking over the beehive”. Trite, yes. But if you want people to listen, make them WANT to listen. Otherwise all you are doing is getting people that already agree with you to shout louder, those who are not with you to dig their heels in, and anyone on the fence to be turned off by what to them is unwarranted aggression. Ultimately you do the cause you are fighting for a disservice, because there is no net change in the amount of people that think its worth adopting your values.

        I completely agree there is a huge need for more awareness on this topic, but the attitude you are conveying in your post actually accomplishes the opposite of what you are setting out to do.

        • s1gny_m says:

          One of the reasons tone arguments are so – annoying – to feminists is because of the different ways that the same tone is perceived when it comes from a man and when it comes from a woman. One good example about which there is significant empirical research is office settings and bosses. Men who are assertive and confident in their dealings with subordinates are perceived as good leaders; women who are assertive and confident in their dealings with subordinates are perceived as bitches. Unfortunately, women who aren’t assertive and confident are perceived as weak and incompetent. So woman tend to be in something of a bind here.

          In other words, I am suggesting that – given the different ways that men and women are perceived – it might in some cases be impossible to speak the truth without upsetting some people, especially given that it is often their privilege and prejudice under attack.

          • SuperNashwanPower says:

            You seem to imply that if people don’t accept everything you say, its because of their privilege and prejudice. I would say not so – how about the ones that simply don’t know about the issues? How about educating people, as you began to do, rather than accusing? That is the major difference between your approach, and the approach being talked about in the article. Fullbright are trying to bring people along, you are trying to batter people into admitting their shamefulness. You are trying to win an argument as opposed to winning people’s minds – and that is incredibly frustrating to see on an issue as sensitive as this.

            You did start to bring some information, some research, and that is good. But why bother with the final sentence? If people reject your agenda its because your agenda is “all men are guilty, and if they protest it just proves the point”. That they reject it then seems to be proof how un-cooperative they are, as opposed to seeing the flaws in your own approach.

            EDIT: Ultimately I do not completely disagree with the moral point of what is being said, but I think that the way its being gone about is completely ineffective.

          • s1gny_m says:

            I don’t want to imply that everyone who disagrees with me is biased. I don’t want to imply that all men are guilty. But I do think that it’s generally true that when you challenge people’s deep beliefs and practices, they can react in a – less-than-dispassionate – manner. Take a look, for instance, at the reactions Anita Sarkeesian received from the gaming community – or from the public even before her Kickstarter. “I’m going to rape you to death” is not a particularly constructive argument: it’s a death threat.

          • The Random One says:

            The person whose name makes a good password is right. As it was even touched in the interview, we are in such a situation that a game that does not come from the basic male default can be construed as a political piece. And in this very argument, a game in which you play as a woman who is oogled by man was immediately understood as an argument that all men oogle women, and not as a fact that women are often oogled and just because you don’t oogle women it doesn’t make you a feminist hero.

        • ffordesoon says:

          It’s not a perfect example, I admit. There would need to be more to it than just the ogling, as I should have made clear.

          However, the tone argument is more or less asinine precisely because it presupposes a problem (that all feminists are angry man-haters) that isn’t real. There are plenty of calm, polite feminists who are willing to educate interested parties. That you haven’t sought them out is pretty much on you.

    • Jarl Hamburger says:

      I’m replying to this particular comment, but this really is a response to your comments so far in this conversation bubble.

      The theme I’ve noticed in your comments is you telling how feminists should react to misogyny and how they should go about dismantling it. I know we’re talking video games here, but I want to talk about it in a general sense, wherever feminist/women’s issues pop up.

      So having said that, do not tell women how they should be reacting to misogyny. You have no say in such things. Women experience this crap every single day of their lives. No joke. They do. Their anger is 100% justified. For you to tell them to not react so angrily/aggressively really dismisses and invalidates their experiences. They’re not obliged to educate you on the concepts/ideas of feminism as there are plenty of resources of that on the Internet. Good on you if you find someone willing to educate you, but don’t take it the wrong way if someone doesn’t want to discuss their experiences in oppression, how they can see such oppression and how they plan to dismantle it. To put your own education first and to get someone who experiences oppression to recount their experiences regarding that is just rude. You’re really stepping on people’s toes here.

      For someone who seems big on empathy, you sure as hell aren’t displaying any by saying this stuff. Instead of policing how women should react to misogyny, how about you focus your efforts on men who actually pull this misogynist BS in the first place?

      • The Random One says:

        Well said.

      • f69 says:

        People have the full right to criticize a woman for her reaction to misogyny. Feminists are not right 100% of the time and we are free to disagree. And even when they are right the reaction is often enough done with swooping generalizations.

        If a woman’s reaction to misogyny is to conclude men are a-holes. I have the right to tell her she’s full of crap. There are a few women out there whose ideas of “dismantling oppression” is to castrate the male population. No joke. Should we keep silent then too?

        Misogyny is not a licence to act however you want.

        Fact is people need constructive dialogue to understand what upsets other people. There also need to be compromises.

  4. Citrus says:

    I am going to shoot some Stroggs in Quake 2. That shit is all philosphicalyasapopoloco.

    Yes, Stroggs make me think of life and the impact of machines on human body. Gaming never felt so deep. I don’t know if this game these interview people are making will achieve similar level of deepness.

    After reading last interview I was dying to read the sequel on RPS only. I can’t wait for the third & fifth parts.

  5. Mctittles says:

    Sounds like they found their news angle.

  6. Stellar Duck says:

    I’m trhilled that RPS kees bringing us the scoops on this game.

    I’m really, really looking forward to playing this. Everything about it just pulls me in.

  7. Chubzdoomer says:

    This project single-handedly reminded me just how much I LOVE virtual recreations of homes and even businesses. But especially homes. Why is that, I wonder? Does anyone else feel the same way or share the same fascination as I do? It’s odd that I can’t even pinpoint why I feel that way.

    • Skabooga says:

      No, I definitely share that fascination as well. There are times when I’m walking around in a public place and I think, “It would be really cool if this place was in a videogame. It would make a perfect map for [Game X]!”

  8. Arglebargle says:

    Nice interview! Makes me want to support the developers, without even knowing much about the game, actually.

  9. realmenhuntinpacks says:

    Man. I want to play this yesterday. Inordinately excited.

  10. The Random One says:

    Add me to the giant pile of people who are excited for this game. I think a great starting point for many games would be ‘game X without combat’ and this is essentially every game (with good level design at least) without combat.

  11. Runs With Foxes says:

    You could have asked about mechanics at some stage. Like, are there any? Besides walking around looking at stuff.

    • jorygriffis says:

      Did you check out Nathan’s hands-on article? Unless the game has some kind of twist it sounds like it’s mostly the walking and the looking. Which is awesome.

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  14. Wedge says:

    As someone who lives there, I can tell you a bunch of artists living in a house together in NE Portland is extremely normal. Really it’s expected if they’re anywhere near Alberta (the street, not the Canada).

  15. Emeraude says:

    You know, this really look like what I expected an art project like 18h39 would look like once actual game design actually caught up to it. Conceptual/Game/Narrative spaces being intertwined together.

    Looking forward to this. Cautiously so.