You Can Go Home Again: Fullbright Talk Tacoma
"It’s definitely about the lives of the people that inhabit this station"
Earlier this month, Gone Home developers Fullbright dropped a trailer for their follow-up, Tacoma. It's set on a space station! People talk to each other! The gravity ain't all there! There's a toilet! And, er, that's about all we found out. So let's find out some more, by talking to Fullbright's Steve Gaynor. Discussed: micro-gravity, Demolition Man, Chris Hadfield, being 'socially conscious' devs, accidental BioShock inspirations, what of Gone Home can and can't work in a fantastical setting, System Shock, locked doors and whether Tacoma is more or less not-a-game than Gone Home was or wasn't.
RPS: Is your next project even a game?
Steve Gaynor: Yeah. I think it will be as much, if not even more, of a game than our last game was or wasn’t (laughs). We definitely have some really interesting things that we’re working on based on the setting. It takes place on a space station, you can tell from the teaser that it’s in micro-gravity; stuff is floating around. And some of the implications that has for the relationship that the player can have to the space that you’re exploring, that you couldn’t have in a terrestrial setting, is really exciting to us. Those are the kinds of expansions that we’re looking at, to take advantage of by really changing the setting and the feel of the game from Gone Home.
If you are still exploring a place and trying to find out what happened there, how can it be interestingly more than just walking around and just finding notes and scraps and stuff like that. And so finding what the boundaries of the new stuff that we can do with the setting of Tacoma is, whilst still staying true to the core tenets of what we want to do with story exploration is where we’re at now in the development process.
RPS: Could you go so far as to say gravity is a mechanic?
Steve Gaynor: I think that a phrase like ‘gravity is a mechanic’ is kind of loaded, only in as much as when I hear that phrase as a gamer, I think of something like being able to manipulate gravity, as something the player can do, which I don’t think in that specific way is something that we’re looking at doing. I will say that being in a micro-gravity environment is core to the experience in a way that’s not just window-dressing.
RPS: I like the phrase ‘micro-gravity’, I’ve been saying low gravity all my life but micro-gravity sounds way cooler.
Steve Gaynor: Technically, when you’re on a facility like the ISS for instance, that’s outside of any atmosphere, people think of it as being zero gravity. When you see videos where people are floating banana peels around and stuff like that, it’s effectively zero gravity, but technically it is micro-gravity because eventually anything that is in orbit like that will be drawn towards a gravitational body. One thing that we’re really interested in, Karla and I especially, as the creative side of the game, is being as faithful to the laws of physics and can this stuff actually be done, or would it actually function, as we can.
I’m not saying anything about physics or trying to be a mathematically precise, scientifically rigorous simulation or anything, but we’re enjoy doing a lot of research and finding that ‘well, we’ve been thinking of this as a zero g environment but technically it’s a micro-gravity environment so that’s the phrase we’ll use in the fiction', and it also leaks into how we talk about it. But that’s been a really cool part of the experience so far, looking stuff up about what the experience is of day to day life of people that spend extended periods in space, and the ins and outs of how things would work in that environment has been cool to integrate into what we’re doing.
RPS: So what you’re saying is that Gone Home made enough money that you were able to go to the ISS and research all this stuff?
Steve Gaynor: They haven’t invited us up yet, but we watch a lot of YouTube videos.
RPS: Get that Chris Hadfield on the phone, he seems to talk to anyone, he’ll help you out.
Steve Gaynor: He’s actually done some great research around his book, his videos, and we’ve watched a bunch of other ISS videos. There’s a ton of material out there and it’s really cool. I think that really got a lot of attention because people really are interested in the day to day.
RPS: They just needed a human angle on it.
Steve Gaynor: The rest of the world that doesn’t get to go to space, they’re asking questions like ‘how do you wash your face in zero gravity?' And for us to try to think about that kind of stuff and how we put it into an interactive space, has been really cool. I’m not saying we’re going to be putting washing your face into the game (laughs).
RPS: Sure, ok, but you’ve got a history of the minutiae of domesticity and you could do that here. Is there going to be some exploration of it?
Steve Gaynor: It’s definitely about the lives of the people that inhabit this station that you visit, so a lot of it will be at least wrapped up in how do these people live their everyday lives in this environment. And then the story of them as individuals is going to be what you’re discovering. It’s a very different set of considerations than ‘I am in this house.’
RPS: I remember interviewing you about Gone Home maybe two years ago, maybe longer, and I didn’t know a thing about it – I didn’t even understand what type of game it was or how it would play. There was this duck in the trailer, and I asked some very vague questions about Myst. But this time, I’ve got a head full of preconceptions, I’m almost complacent about what sort of game it’s going to be. How much are you looking to confound that?
Steve Gaynor: What we want people to be surprised by are the specifics of the setting and how you interact with the environment, what your role is, on the station and so forth. Honestly, it’s an interesting space to be in. People have one point of reference, which is Gone Home, and it’s a totally fair point of reference because we are building on a lot of the core experience of that game. And so people coming in with expectations and then being able to play against or expand those expectations in ways that people aren’t expecting, that’s what’s exciting as a creator, to be able to say ‘we’re doing something not just in a void but in relation to an experience that people already had.' And it’s definitely riding a line, I don’t think we’re really interested in some kind of subversive twist like ‘aha, you thought it was going to be this kind of thing but it’s a totally different kind of game.’
RPS: ‘here come the guns’….
Steve Gaynor: Right. Or ‘that sure was a lot of kart-racing’.
RPS: The other preconception you’re maybe evoking, I guess deliberately, is the station reminds one of Rapture when you see it in the trailer. Is this going to be game about what Fullbright have done before? [The Fullbright team previously worked on BioShock 2, and led the Minerva's Den expansion]
Steve Gaynor: It’s interesting because I would say that it is not deliberate, which is to say we started talking about the universe that Tacoma would take place in and why this space station would be here, and it became clear to us that it would be built with some opulence. This is a place that’s built to be impressive and beautiful and gaudy in a lot of ways. We were looking back and taking visual references from casinos and cruise ships, and once you start building a science fiction video game space with a lot of big classical columns and buildings, it definitely at that point starts to take on some Bioshock vibes.
RPS: It’s kind of unavoidable, perhaps.
Steve Gaynor: It kind of is. That said, I have every expectation that our subconscious pushed us in the specific interpretation of classical sci-fi opulence that we went towards, based on the fact that we had spent so much time on it. I think that’s also inescapable as us as people having worked on that series for a long time. So I think it’s a totally fair comparison. It makes sense, and I think that there was some amount of even unintentional drift in that direction while we discovered what the fictional requirements were. But it’s definitely not starting from a place of ‘we should totally recreate Rapture’ and this is not intended to be a direct reference to that.
RPS: The brain wants what it wants whether you know it or not?
Steve Gaynor: It kind of does, yeah. I think that part of what will be interesting when people start exploring Tacoma is finding out the whats and whys. Why the place was built like this and what it means and what led to this scenario, along with all the options.
RPS: Similarly it’s hard not to suspect a touch of System Shock given what Minerva did and given your fondness for it.
Steve Gaynor: I think that in some ways it’s a little bit full circle. If you load up System Shock 1 now, in the difficulty settings at the beginning, you can turn off combat. And then it’s just a space station with these people who inhabit it and you’re finding out the story of how this place went to hell. I replayed System Shock 1 while I was working on while I was working on Minerva’s Den, and I think that there’s something really alluring about being given free reign to explore this very remote, high-tech space that’s also inhabited by people, and find out about who they are and what kind of people end up in a place like this, and all that. I’m sure that there are reasons that the space station setting was attractive to us (laughs) as people who are making these decisions. And obviously System Shock was one of the reference points that you can’t not at least be considering.
RPS: The other side of the coin of the move to space is that it seems like a lot of the tone and the atmosphere of Gone Home worked because it was earthly stuff, the empty house, the pictures of the parents, the lights turned off, the storm, there’s something in the attic... How much of have you had to lose by moving to space? While you’ve gone somewhere that’s science-based it’s also fantastical; it’s not the same degree of recognisable to the average person. Apart from Chris Hadfield, maybe.
Steve Gaynor: And even I don’t think he’s been in a space station that works a lot like Tacoma. I’ve seen the ISS – it’s a lot more cramped. I think it’s definitely requiring us to think in much different ways about much different things. It gives us a lot of new, interesting problems to solve. And that’s really good for us as the people who are making the game. Which is to say, agreed, that a huge part of the value of Gone Home experientially was that familiarity of ‘oh, this reminds me of a time that I’ve lived through or a house where I’ve lived, or these could be people I might have known’ or what have you. Pushing that and saying ‘this is still about recognisable individuals but in a setting that is totally removed from anything that I’ve actually experienced in my own life.
It’s a very different set of expectations that you go in with, but at least for us that was a big part of why we wanted to move this far away conceptually from at least the setting and fiction of Gone Home. So that we didn’t get set in our ways and be like ‘hey, we made a house, and we put some people in it, we should make a different house, or we should make an apartment building, or a dorm room, or something’. And then it’s like ‘it’s our familiar world, we’re going to put a different story in it’.
At least at the point in Fullbright’s life span that we are, doing something that’s as close as that, we would have been in danger of becoming complacent in ways that I don’t think would have been good for the game itself. And so, saying we’re really going to make a jump, and say we have to have a bunch of new problems conceptually to solve was really important for our process, if nothing else. What defined Gone Home’s development for us was, ok, we are doing a bunch of stuff that we’ve done before, like the level design process, and laying it out, is similar to building the Bioshock games. We’ve done audio diaries before, but there were a bunch of other new questions like ‘how do you do audio diaries in such a mundane setting, and how do you make the player flow through the level to find the story in a way that makes sense without there being press objectives?’ and we solved a bunch of those problems. So I think deciding to go to lunar transfer station Tacoma with our next game is a process of not being able to rely on solved problems and to keep us engaged in the same way that we were last time, but in a new way, if that makes any sense.
I think that there’s no way that we’ll be able to get away from our natural inclination to focus on who the individuals were and what their daily lives were like. That I think will have a lot of familiar feel from getting to know the characters in Gone Home, except that so much of it will be about what that means when these people are so far from earth, and how they deal with that.
RPS: The thing that worries me a little is that one of the things Gone Home did well was the level design. You’re essentially in a comparatively small space but you’re ushered around it in such a way that it seems enormous and confusing and frightening, when it needs to. Now presumably you’re going to be in a massive space but you’ve got to usher people around it with an inverted priority; you need to make it navigable rather than overwhelming.
Steve Gaynor: I don’t know, we’ll see. Gone Home is run by four people full time, we’re currently at six, we’re going to have a seventh by the time we finish Tacoma.
RPS: Check you out, Cliffy B.
Steve Gaynor: I know, almost twice the team size… That said, that doesn’t allow us to greatly expand the scope of the game in terms of ‘let’s make this station as big as a small city’ or something. We haven’t built all of it yet, but the plan is, in all likelihood there will be more square footage.
RPS: My concern was more that it was going to feel overtly gated because it was a bigger space that you had to funnel people through in clever ways. It might feel more like a trick if you can’t go into that part yet or something like that.
Steve Gaynor: Maybe. I dunno. I guess we’ll see. We’re definitely maintaining our priorities from Gone Home in as much as we tried to gate the house in Gone Home as chunkily as possible. I guess what I’ll say is, we would have the same concerns that you do. We will be doing what we can to avoid making it feel too artificial in that sense, but I think that’s always a challenge. If you need a player to go to specific parts of a level or specific parts of a game in a specific order, it’s really hard to work around the artificiality of that.
RPS: It’s the great unsolved problem of game design isn’t it, the locked door. How do you not have locked doors?
Steve Gaynor: I haven’t played GTA5 yet because it's not on PC - do they still do the thing where you can’t go to the second half of the city until you’ve got through part of the story or whatever?
RPS: I think more of it’s open this time. I only played a bit of it because the story was doing my head in but it seemed like it was all open.
Steve Gaynor: Yeah. Because I love games like Skyrim and Fallout 3 where it’s sort of like ‘well, we will point you along the path if you want to follow it but also you can literally just walk in any direction and find stuff, if you want.' When you’re looking at something like Gone Home, there is more of a story spine that it’s important that you don’t accidentally end up at the end of the story in a way that just causes the player to be totally lost. We've kind of failed the player if we say ‘oh sorry, you turned left instead of right so now you don’t understand what’s going on’.
There’ll still be concerns like that on Tacoma. We want the player’s progression through the story to feel like it was intentional on their part, and there’s definitely a balance to be found there between really just saying ‘find whatever you want in whatever order you want’ and us having to make a story that literally works in any order which is – guess what? – kind of hard. You can really get in the player’s face with ‘oh, ha ha, there’s a locked door so that means that there’s a later part of the story through there, so come back later’.
We did internal play tests with other game developers on Gone Home. We had a lot more locked doors early on to really kind of be on a much tighter critical path and say ‘no you have to go to this room, then this room, then this room.’ And that’s what play tests are for, people responded that it felt really gamey, why is this family’s house so locked down, why is the bedroom locked and the closet locked and we were like ‘totally fair point’. How far can we ease off of that and still not allow the player to get totally off track in a way that makes for a bad experience? I’m sure we could have done better with that even in Gone Home but we struck the balance pretty well there.
RPS: You’re seen as a socially conscious studio. Is that a pigeonhole you’re happy to stay in as well?
Steve Gaynor: Are you trying to say that we’re social justice warriors?
RPS: I am, yeah. You damn SJWs. Colluding with the media by talking to me…
Steve Gaynor: Don’t tell anyone I did this interview…
Steve Gaynor: Because that’s not ethics...
RPS: I’m just doing it for fun, I won’t publish it. That’s fine.
Steve Gaynor: That means we’re just hanging out for fun. That’s even worse! I guess…we’re the same people that made Gone Home. We made the game we did, the story that we did, just because it’s the kind of stuff that we’re interested in talking about. Gone Home didn’t come from a place of ‘We want to make a message game and making a specific statement is what drives us’, and that continues to be true.
We’re not saying ‘Let’s make a game about X issue to say Y statement about it and that’s what we want people to get out of the game’, but we have a sensibility I guess where we want to talk about a lot of different kinds of people and what their experience of life is in whatever fictional context we choose. I’m perfectly happy with people looking at Gone Home as something that is socially conscious or however you want to put it. I know that we’ve definitely heard from a lot of people who have said that they feel represented by Gone Home in a way that they haven’t felt with other games, so that it’s allowed them to have conversations with people that they know and with their family about themselves, in a way that’s been valuable to them.
I think that’s really cool, I’m proud to be able to say that people can get something that’s meaningful to their own life experience out of buying one of our games, but it isn’t, and it never has been, something that is a stated agenda with what we do. It’s really just a reflection of who we are and what our interests are, and how we want to represent the characters that we choose to talk about. I really think it comes from who the people are that are making the thing and it all rolls out of that.
RPS: So you haven’t got a checklist that you’re going through one by one, ‘we’re doing Hispanic issues next, guys'?
Steve Gaynor: (laughs) Right, yeah. I think there can absolutely be real value to saying ‘we’re going to make a piece of media that is about this, and that we want people to be more aware of this aspect’. But that part of the process is a little bit more ambient for us I guess. We’re interested in talking about a diverse group of characters, but we don’t start from a checklist, as you said.
RPS: A last question, probably the most important one. It's specific to something in we see in the trailer. We see a sign for the toilet, the WC. Can you go into that that toilet?
Steve Gaynor: I don’t want to spoil anything but I will say I don’t think it would be a Fullbright game without flushable toilets, and I would be comfortable saying, as a totally side-comment, that space toilets might be the final frontier of game interactivity.
RPS: You’re not doing the three shells from Demolition Man are you?
Steve Gaynor: I won’t promise no Demolition Man references whatsoever, but I will promise no three shells.
RPS: Thanks for your time.
Tacoma is due for release in 2016.