Steve Gaynor, the co-founder of Gone Home studio Fullbright, has stepped down from his role as creative lead on their upcoming game Open Roads, following allegations about his treatment of employees. Multiple former staff have come forward claiming he had a "controlling" and "demeaning presence", and fostered a toxic culture that led to a "pattern of women leaving" the studio.
Late last night, Fulbright announced on Twitter that Gaynor was stepping away from his creative lead and managerial role at the studio, and transitioning to a writing role.
"We are a small team passionate about making an inclusive, poignant, story-driven game that gives players a feeling of discovery," they said. "We care deeply about creating games that have a positive impact. We are also fervent believers in fostering a work environment that is healthy and collaborative, where we can work with transparency, autonomy, and trust."
Shortly after, Polygon published a lengthy report with comments from multiple former Fullbright staff, detailing Gaynor's allegedly toxic behaviour during Open Roads' development. They say that 15 staff have left the studio since the project began in 2019, 10 of whom were women.
The report highlights that, while no women have reported sexual harassment or "explicit sexism", the studio's toxic culture led to women allegedly being broken down by "microagressions". Former staff claim Gaynor had a tendency to "disparage and discredit the contributions of female staffers in particular".
"This is going to sound like a joke, but I’m completely serious: Working for him often felt like working for a high school mean girl," one of the former devs told Polygon. "His go-to weapon was to laugh at people's opinions and embarrass them in front of other people."
Former employees said they wanted to report Gaynor's behaviour, but had "no infrastructure to escalate". Fulbright is a small indie studio, with no dedicated HR department, so multiple staff claimed they confronted Gaynor about his actions instead to explain how he was impacting the team. Some say they also raised concerns by leaving "anonymous digital Post-It notes" as part of a "team building exercise", others used their exit interviews to report his behaviour, and "at least two" told Annapurna Interactive, the studio's publishers.
"My personal experience of having Steve as my manager was a toxic and unhealthy dynamic," one former employee wrote in correspondence to Annapurna, which was obtained by Polygon. "I can confidently say that I do not want my career to be associated with him."
After the Polygon's story was published, Gaynor posted a statement about his role at Fullbright on Twitter:
"Earlier this year, I stepped back from my role as creative lead on Open Roads. My leadership style was hurtful to people that worked at Fullbright, and for that I truly apologise.
"Stepping back has given me space and perspective to see how my role needs to change and how I need to learn and improve as part of a team, including working with an expert management consultant, and rethinking my relationship to the work at Fullbright.
"I care deeply about Open Roads and the Fullbright team. I’m sad to have stepped back from day-to-day development of Open Roads, but it’s been the right thing to do. The Open Roads team has my full faith and support as they bring the game to completion."
Gaynor is continuing to work on Open Roads as a writer, though he has no "day-to-day collaboration" with the team, and his interactions with them are mediated by Annapurna. It seems some are unhappy with this arrangement however, given that a man who allegedly exhibited toxic behaviour towards women is still writing a story about a mother-daughter relationship.
"It turns my stomach to think that he still gets to write these games about women’s stories when this is how he treats them in real life, with presumably no sign of stopping," one former employee told Polygon. "I want women in the industry and this studio to feel valued. I want vulnerable young women who are new to the industry to be supported, not preyed upon. I want women to not have to fear retaliation from a powerful 'auteur' figure for speaking up. I want women to feel safe here. I want women to know that this is not normal. More than anything, I just want him to stop. He shouldn’t be allowed to keep getting away with this."