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Level With Me, Steve Gaynor

Home again

Level With Me is a series of interviews with game developers about their games, work process, and design philosophy. At the end of each interview, they design part of a small first person game. You can play this game at the very end of the series.

Six years ago, Steve Gaynor started as a level designer at Timegate Studios on the F.E.A.R. Perseus Mandate expansion pack. Then at 2K Marin he worked on BioShock 2 and lead designed Minerva's Den, one of the few respectable DLCs ever made. After a stint at Irrational Games to help with BioShock Infinite, he went indie with some former teammates to form The Fullbright Company. They all made a lovely thing called Gone Home that has won oodles of awards and emotional acclaim.

(NOTE: This conversation happened before Gone Home's release, more than 2 months ago. Transcriptions take time, people! Still, it's interesting to read predictions, hopes, last-minute feelings, etc. and a lot of it is still surprisingly fresh. Enjoy.)

Robert Yang: So, Gone Home. You're releasing it.

Steve Gaynor: Yeah, we're announcing it in a few weeks. Right now, we're trying to fix-up as much stuff as we can before we send out review code. So far, no one's been finding stuff in the playtests that's been super mega worrisome, so that's good.

RY: I feel useless. I'm terrible at finding bugs.

SG: Any experiential feedback is useful. "I liked this" / "this could be better."

RY: I wish I tested the last milestone, to see what changed.

SG: We changed a lot since then. We changed all the player flow in the basement. We re-wrote almost all the audio diaries in the second half of the game...

RY: Isn't that expensive? You have to re-record everything.

SG: We had some great placeholder voice in there, and I'm also really happy with the final performance.

RY: Yeah, I think all your actors "sold" a lot of the emotions. I wouldn't believe it as much without them. Good voice direction too.

SG: We did the voice direction for Minerva's Den in-person too. 2K flew us down to Los Angeles for a day to voice direct the main character. It was really valuable to be able to make eye contact with someone so they can understand what we were trying to get across. We really wanted to record locally for Gone Home, so we found a local actor and a recording studio that just happened to be a 10 minute walk from our house.

RY: Do you have any voice directing tips? I'm going to be getting some voice done in a few weeks. Not in a fancy studio or anything. [(N.B.: I ended up not doing any, it was too early.)]

SG: Are you working with professional actors?

RY: An actor friend, yes, but he's kinda new to voice over. Mostly, he just gets cast for reality shows. He usually plays a brooding billionaire type.

SG: [laughs] Okay, so... Giving them the background -- "here's what situation you're in" -- is not very useful. It's more useful to be as concrete as possible. "Maybe less energy, less up, more low-key. We really need you to emphasize the word -- 'rocket launcher' or whatever." Focus more on what you want from that performance instead of, [annoying director voice] "remember you just came back from that scene where you saw that guy fall off the bridge?" That's great, but like, what do you want them to do with their face? I did talk with the actors about the character background beforehand, but once you get into a session and you're doing a read, you should be as specific as possible.

Oh, and be really encouraging! It's really easy for me, at least, to assume that the actor knows they're doing a good job. You might say, "so we want to do one more take." But it's actually good to remember to say, "that was really good, that was most of what we need, we just want it more this other way too."

RY: Good tips. [repeating to self while writing] "Be concrete and encouraging."

SG: Yeah, that sums it up.

RY: I feel like voice direction is a lot like art direction. There was an artist on The Last of Us who talked about how we often focus on crafting individual textures -- but he argues that's wrong, we should think more how each piece of art or voice acting fits together into the whole game.

SG: Yes, I think other Naughty Dog guys, Neil Druckmann and Nate Wells (I worked with him at Irrational, before) talked about how it's so tempting for an environment artist to want to guitar-solo the shit out of, like, a hospital wall... when actually you gotta pull back, and just the important things should be important.

RY: And I think you got that out of your performers in Gone Home. It's not super emotional every time... there's some restraint.

SG: We tried hard to "pull back." A lot of stuff has to not jump into the space -- with the voice, but also with our music in Gone Home. For our friend Chris Remo (who also did the music for Thirty Flights of Loving, works at Double Fine, etc.) this was the first time he did the type of music that he did for Gone Home, and a lot of our feedback was, "this has a great sound to it, but just pull it back, remove some instruments, reduce reduce reduce." If you push on it too hard then, yeah, it can feel inauthentic or overwhelming.

RY: [sighs] It's so hard for me to collaborate with sound people. I don't think in sound. I'll just say, "you know best, do what you want; oh that sounds good, let's put that in," and then it's like I'm not engaged.

SG: I know what you mean. It's been a good collaboration with Chris. I know what I like but I don't know any of the terminology. It was important not to go in with too much ego? A lot of his music in Gone Home goes with specific voice-over lines, so it's about matching the tone of the line, as well. We did the rest of the sounds ourselves, mixing samples and stuff. It would've been nice to have a real sound designer but... [mumbling really quickly] we didn't have any money! But I'm happy with the sound. Fortunately, we don't have a complicated game in that sense.

RY: I want to ask a bit about your background. I did some research on you, Steve Gaynor...

SG: On the internet?

RY: Yes, on the internet! And I read somewhere that you studied sculpture?

SG: That's what I got my undergraduate college degree in, yeah. With a minor in art history.

RY: So I think it's interesting that, as a game developer now, you don't do much 3D modeling... ?

SG: I studied sculpture because I had done a lot of drawing in my life, up to that point, and I did illustration and comics and stuff. So in Gone Home, I actually did all of Lonnie's drawings, and I haven't really progressed in skill since I was a teenager, so it seemed to fit...

RY: [laughs] Oh no. So I was actually making fun of your anime phase? I'm sorry, I'm a jerk.

SG: I like drawing like a semi-talented teenager because all the artists we know are actually good artists. And back then, I wanted to know more about 3D, so I studied sculpture with a great professor named Harrell Fletcher. I took metalworking, studied traditional materials and "social practice" art (performance art, happenings, etc.) so I was exposed to a lot of different interpretations of "sculpture." But I never thought of myself as a sculptor, I haven't really kept any of my work from then -- the point was never to become a sculptor. My final sculpture project was a video game level! I told Harrell it was 3 dimensions, it was what I wanted to do, and he said alright, just go home and spend a week doing nothing but this level.

RY: That's not healthy!

SG: I'm exaggerating, but it was full-time assignment, the only thing to work on for a week. To see if I still wanted to do it by the end.

RY: What was the level? What was the game?

SG: They put out an editor for Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, but you could only make multiplayer Mercs vs. Spies levels. Basically, I made a level with all the different traversals a spy player could do -- hand over hand, across a pipe, mantling, ladders, etc. -- going up a spiral walkway to the top, then taking a zipline back to the bottom so you can do it all over again. [laughs] Then I took screenshots in the editor, and imported them into the game as textures to show my process.

RY: Ooh. Did you get an A?

SG: Uhh, I don't know. Sure?

RY: [laughs]

SG: Let's say yes. The biggest thing was that I spent a week, as if that was my "full-time job", and I was still super enthusiastic to keep doing it. So yeah, sculpture obviously has a lot to do with crafting 3D art assets for games, but level design also has a lot to do with architecture and art history. It's a useful way for thinking about organizing space and how to communicate through shape.

RY: Ah, okay, when I read "sculpture," I imagined very traditional rigid French Beaux-Arts training, not the (also cool) conceptual hippie-art training you got.

SG: We still learned about metalworking, about pouring molten metal...

RY: That's so cool. I wish I could do that.

SG: Yeah, we worked with these giant cauldrons, suspended from chains, on tracks in the ceiling.

RY: Do you still do any of that now, more traditional art stuff?

SG: Not really. The drawing for Gone Home was the last thing I did.

RY: I was talking with Richard Flanagan, and he talked about how he still does woodworking and stuff, and it's important how we video game people don't get too detached from the reality of materials.

SG: I think there's value in that. The lead level designer at Irrational, Forrest Dowling, he started taking up woodworking again during Bioshock Infinite and made some great stuff. Personally, I don't have the same strong personal desire to -- I mean, it's not because I'm spending all my time with video games.

RY: Oh, that was the narrative forming in my head... never mind. It's dangerous to read too much into things, BUT it's interesting that your litmus test was a level that ignored all the intended combat mechanics of the game.

SG: Yeah, I guess. The editor didn't let me add pathing... or enemies, even if I wanted to. But the level I made after that was a single player F.E.A.R. level, which actually got me my first job, and that level starts in a mansion, much like the Resident Evil mansion, maybe even like the Gone Home mansion...

RY: (Oh!)

SG: ... and then you discover some secret stuff and there's bad guys in the basement. There's been some recurring themes. I'm pretty sure every level, that I've built and laid out, has opened with a big foyer and central staircase, a hub.

RY: I was reading through your blog, from the very beginning in 2006, which is like a development diary for your F.E.A.R. levels -- and many of the posts are about designing combat encounters, which surprised me.

SG: I'm still very much a traditional hardcore gamer. I've never been hardcore into multiplayer deathmatch or Counter-Strike or something, but I care about games having good combat in them, games like Far Cry 2 that are almost entirely about enemy encounters. The stuff I'm working on now, personally, is stuff that I don't think a lot of games spend time on right now -- it's not a solved problem or a known quantity, and indie games can take that risk.

RY: What was it about F.E.A.R. then, instead of Half-Life 2 or something? What was it about F.E.A.R. encounter design?

SG: It's... better to play?

RY: [laughs] Okay, fine, that's a bad question, sorry, geez...

SG: I was a big Monolith fan and a No One Lives Forever fan. I thought it did the very best version of the "Hong Kong action shooter" gameplay, about slow motion and movement and positioning. They had strong feel and presence. I even, uh, interviewed the creative director for my zine in college, and I sent him my level and he gave me feedback, so that was cool.

That Splinter Cell editor didn't let me add new story elements, but F.E.A.R.'s editor did let me because it was pretty much just the dev tools. I could add new radio messages, objectives, and scripted events. And also, their editor -- compared to the Source editor, "Hammer" or whatever --

RY: Woah woah hey! Don't knock Hammer!

SG: Don't tell me it's not old and busted, especially in 2006.

RY: It... it does what it needs to do...

SG: [unconvinced] There's a lot of value to maintaining your foundation. The Call of Duty guys have just been iterating on their same engine since, what, 2005? It's better to do that, and not dump your technology, but that also means there's a lot of janky legacy stuff. So besides just being a lot more interested in F.E.A.R. and liking its toolset, I just wanted to make my own level and put my own stuff into it. And then a friend at Timegate Studios saw my levels and told me, "hey cool you make F.E.A.R. levels and we need more F.E.A.R. levels, you should apply to our studio." I got the job because I didn't need to be trained. They just told me, "we have 6 months, sit down and do what you were doing before, but for us."

RY: I'm going to show you a screenshot of a level you made; tell me what you see / what's going on in it:

SG: Okay, uh, this was a level in the expansion pack that shipped? I worked on this area? I think I lit it? I made those pipes? [laughs] I didn't build the BSP shell, but I detailed it. This game did not have environment artists... it had artists who made assets, and then level designers placed all the textures and models, so it was very old fashioned, very lo-fi.

RY: What can you tell me about making rounded things, in F.E.A.R.? Hard or easy?

SG: It had pretty standard BSP tools. I... I don't know. I'm generally not a big fan of rounded stuff in levels. It's attractive when you're new at level design, "oh I'll make a big missile silo, I'll make curved hallways with concentric rings." When I worked at Irrational, we'd have level design applicants do tests, and if they started drawing these big circles -- it was a big red flag.

RY: [laughs]

SG: You're not going to want to build that; all our assets are rectangular; it's not good for navigation, to literally go around in circles...

RY: It's not even that interesting, really.

SG: It's not, and the engine isn't built for it. But if the applicant draws all these boxy rooms connected by 90 degree hallways, then I know they've made a level before. It's not like organic forms aren't useful, but you have to be really conscious of what you're doing.

RY: I see that attitude still, in a lot of current Source, Unreal, and Unity work. But what makes me go, "oh you've been mapping for a long time," is when I see a BSP box room, rotated by 45 degrees (or even 30 degrees) with custom modeled joins at the corners -- "holy crap, 30 degrees!"

SG: There was this one trick I learned from some guys who worked on Fort Frolic from BioShock 1 (the mall level, with the crazy theater guy): that when they built it, they originally had these long hallways with doors leading to shops, but Ken Levine was pushing for them to change these 90 degree corners into 45 degree bends so that it's not obvious that it's just box to box to box. They came up with a really economical solution, without re-building everything at an angle: they just took the front wall and front door and sliced it at 45 degrees, so that you enter at an angle even though all the rooms and shops are still at 90 degrees, on the grid. It feels at an angle, but it's not. Stuff like that comes from development experience of doing stuff sustainably, instead of doing things the hard way to make your life hell.

RY: Do you think players have a sense of boxiness or map complexity like we do?

SG: It's subconscious. They do feel the space is less regimented. I think what it demonstrates more is that players have a very localized understanding of a first person space. You go into a space that is rotated 45 degrees... and you immediately re-orient and re-align yourself so that it's no longer at an angle. I think it's true of level design generally: players have an intuitive understanding of space and connections, but the broader layout and distances is much more abstract. Each space makes local, immediate sense.

It's like Alfred Hitchcock's concept of "fridge logic." If the player says, "wait, this room connects strangely to that hallway," then you've fucked up, but it won't occur to them until after the game to think, "why would this hallway be so long, wouldn't they just put all the bedrooms closer together?" That has much less of an impact. It's much more abstract, the whole picture of the level. That's why BioShock worked. It's a city built like a submarine where you recognize offices and restaurants, but when you zoom out, suddenly you'll think, "why did I have to go through there, to get to here?" Immediate believability is more important.

RY: I agree. We internalize the gameisms.

SG: We had playtesters call this out in Gone Home too. "A real house wouldn't be laid out like this." We make many concessions for player flow. That's why we made it a house built in the 19th century, so it can be more sprawling. But the immediacy of each space is pretty believable, to support the way we told our story.

RY: But we know it's bullshit, right? Like... it's okay to spoil the Gone Home a bit, right? This interview isn't going to run for a while.

SG: When is it running?

RY: [pauses] September.

SG: Alright, yeah, sure. But put a spoiler warning.


RY: In Gone Home, the door to the east wing starts locked. That's totally an artificial gating mechanism. Does it make sense to rationalize it, or to lampshade it and move on?

SG: The best suggestion about that door, which I think we're going to go through with, is just about dressing it differently, saying, "don't close this door all the way, it gets stuck."

RY: Ah, functionally the same? So you just change that text, instead of saying "it's locked"...

SG: "Stop letting this door close!" And then maybe we put a doorstop off to the side that's been kicked out? I think stuff like that is worth rationalizing, or ideally, removing. If we could've just let that door remain unlocked, we would've, but it just blocks so much story content that we couldn't just let the player go in there at the beginning.

RY: I think that's the right move.

SG: When we were playtesting the first part, we had a lot more of the house locked. And everyone was wondering why so much was locked.

RY: The family was really paranoid and didn't trust each other.

SG: It helped me realize that most of those locks weren't necessary. We wanted the information to flow better, and we realized we could just arrange stuff so that 90% of first-time players would get it in the right order. Context was important. Now we only have... 3 locked doors total? We locked the front door to do some basic training about how the game works, Sam's locker is locked, the basement is locked, and the east wing is locked. Again, we used the layout and lighting to get 90% of players to follow the cues we setup.

RY: Aren't there other locked doors though? There are secret passages. Do you have to read a note before you can use it?

SG: You can open them from the beginning.

RY: Really? I remembered the false wall in the mom's closet from a previous playthrough and tried to open it, and could've sworn I couldn't trigger the hotspot.

SG: The level design trick going on there -- I do increase the interaction distance, for the secret passage, after you read the note. It's easier. We don't want people to accidentally open it while looking for stuff, but we also want to let people wonder and actually open it from the beginning. Because... I think the core loop here is "explore to gain knowledge to explore to gain knowledge" and so on. Our game is not about hardcore challenge or puzzles, but I still think there's an opportunity for mastery. By the end, you've gained all this knowledge about the house and how everything connects. It was important for me that (spoiler:) you can just walk up to the secret panel in the foyer and get the attic key and speed-run our game in 90 seconds.

RY: There'll be faster ways, I'm sure. Like, put Christmas Duck in a wall to glitch through the ceiling.

SG: We want to give access to players that's based more on their understanding than jumping through the hoops. That's why we don't have a randomized combination lock system.

RY: I face-palmed when I saw the 0451 code. It was like the game was winking at me.

SG: Hey man, we've got to continue that shit! It's earned! I did my time.

RY: No, you're right, it was earned! It was cute.

SG: Honestly, no one really knows about that stuff. I didn't even know about it until I worked on BioShock and the guys at the office were like, "yeah, it's a thing." Now it seems like a lot more people know, but still, you've got to be a real mega-nerd to...

RY: [laughs] Hm. Do you ever feel like we're in this developer-bubble thing?

SG: Yeah, kind of. Sometimes I'm aware of the stuff that goes on, on my Twitter list -- is pretty much completely invisible to anyone who's not on my Twitter list, basically. [laughs] Are we all just pretending this shit matters? But some games like Dear Esther and Antichamber totally sell hundreds of thousands of copies. That's so many people who've seen that! So on one hand, the conversation can sometimes feel kind of insular, but I think the work goes outside of that bubble, and that's really cool.

RY: I'm trying to figure out how relevant my sensibilities are. Like in Gone Home, the basement felt more like a video game level to me. The path was more bendy and twisty than the other rooms, and that's a level designer-y thing to do.

SG: Most of the basement is just a box, in terms of its actual architecture. We created a lot of flow with boxes, furniture, stacks of newspaper, the player path is super twisty... but architecturally, it's just 4 rectangles next to each other, filled with stuff. So you're saying that space feels game-y to you, when it's technically the most realistic? Maybe that shows how player experience trumps accuracy?

RY: I'd contrast that with the foyer, which to a level designer -- that big open space feels "wasted." Where's the cover? Where's the clutter?

SG: Luckily, in Gone Home, we don't have to worry about cover.

RY: I like the risks you take. I'm a bit of an "environmental storytelling" skeptic, but you've also talked about "distributed story" in Gone Home, which I like better.

SG: I think "environmental storytelling" is much more about seeing a scene in the environment that tells you what happened there. BioShock did a lot of this, like at the beginning of the fishery levels where you see these bodies strung up and these crates full of bibles and the word "smuggler." It tells you right then and there, immediately, that bibles are contraband that get you executed in this world.

RY: When I played that, I was near the end in a rock tunnel to the submarine -- I took cover behind a crate, shot a dude, and then I actually looked in the crate for the first time and noticed that there were bibles inside. I was oblivious the whole time, I just treated those crates as cover! I only got it in the end because of the repetition of so many crates in the chapter.

SG: We do environmental decoration like that, but a lot of Gone Home's story comes from reading notes and listening to the diaries. We're not really an environmental storytelling game... you walk into a dining room and it's a dining room, you don't have an epiphany just from looking at it. You have to dig deeper. Maybe there's something in that cabinet, or under that purse? Most games don't let you do that. It's about finding these small digestible puzzle pieces distributed throughout the world. We mess with that a little, like the bath tub with the red stains, that's your classic environmental storytelling scene with blood decals and a ragdoll body. Our game is much more about opening drawers and finding tapes.

RY: I liked Gone Home more than I thought I would. I was afraid it was going to be painfully literal. "Here's the broken fish bowl, and the glass shards, and the cat fur, and the open window!" I just know BioShock 5 is going to have bodies impaled on walls with "TRAITOR" written in blood and spotlights.

SG: We just wanted a "normal family's house." No one killed everyone. It could be your neighbor's house, it's not a crime scene with braided bedsheets hanging out of windows. It's about these people and what happened to them.

RY: Hmm. How did you pace the player's experience? There's no combat-puzzle-cutscene rhythm.

SG: I guess it was mostly... "density." We can't force the player to engage with anything other than a key to open a specific door. The TV room could be 10x10, and the library could be 10x10, but for instance there are 3 times the things to interact with, in that same space. When you go into Sam's room, I'd bet most players would spend 15-20 minutes just in that room.

RY: There's so much stuff, yeah... and the electric cords! For every light! I can't believe you did that!

SG: [laughs] I did that! I modeled them! Before we submitted to IGF, I was up all night, filling out those cords.

RY: Those cords were vital for IGF.

SG: They were, goddamnit! I'm glad, I'm.... [aside to other people in background] hey guys, Robert Yang just called out the unique electrical cords. [inaudible yelling] He was like, "oh my god, I couldn't believe you did that." [inaudible]

RY: And the sewing machine animation? Usually you pick up stuff in Gone Home and it just sits there, but this sewing machine opening was like Optimus Prime turning into a fighter jet. A sewing machine blew my mind.

SG: The thing about games, I think, is that they can draw people into almost any context. We can communicate what should be surprising, and the "scale of reaction" can change wildly. You can run people over in Grand Theft Auto and not feel bad at all -- and then we had Gone Home playtesters confess that they felt really bad about taking the bookmark out of the mom's book. [laughs]

RY: Oh, I did it without a second thought. I'm such a bad person.

SG: It's a question of context. You're in a space where this small thing matters. The game can tell you that blowing up cars isn't a big deal, or it can tell you how your relation to your mom's book is a big deal. They don't say it outright, but these games communicate it through the context of these experiences. Games don't always need to rely on hostage situations with babies. I feel that a story about saving the world is very abstract, but a story about making sure your sister is okay -- is very relatable. Finding your bookmark thrown on the ground is something that happens to you, but resolving a hostage situation is something you only see on TV.

RY: And put that bookmark in the incinerator.

SG: Small situations are very valuable. Those character moments are some of the best parts of The Last of Us, which is a "save the world" story, but they were smart in making it about these characters' stories too. In Gone Home, I think we want to add one more thing to the mom's story though... it was actually your feedback about how the dad's letter to the publisher gave closure to his arc, but the mom's story tails off, you get the facts but it doesn't feel personal. We're thinking of adding an unsent letter from the mom to her friend, and giving the mom the last word. It's on her work table in the kitchen and lets you hear her story in her words.

RY: I liked the subtlety of the mom's ending. The plot is clear, but you have to think more about "what it means."

SG: It still feels a bit dangling to me. It doesn't feel very satisfyingly resolved, as far as representing the mom's experience. I think players feel the most distant from the mom, rather than Sam or the dad.

RY: Really? I felt close to the mom, but maybe that's because I'm close with my own mom and read into it. It's so hard to playtest narrative like that, you know? Do you have any analytics or heatmaps or anything?

SG: No, all we're tracking is your total playtime and how many diaries you found. All we wanted to know is if there was an audio diary that no one ever found, and if no one's finding it then I better move it.

RY: What helped me was that I never knew which readables would trigger a diary. It was operant conditioning. I read everything to try to trigger everything.

SG: We wanted the diaries read in Sam's own voice, so there's this human connection, but it wouldn't make sense for her to leave torn-out pages as a breadcrumb trail which quickly becomes the "find the sparking notebook page" game. So we attached diaries to any object that could've had significance to Sam.

The unscheduled rewards were a side-effect, I guess some classic player psychology emerged from the game we wanted to make. It wasn't a cynical ploy to compel people to play it. I hope that's just how human psychology reacts to the thing we're doing?

RY: I think Gone Home, and Dishonored, have done the most to innovate on the whole audio diary plot device, and both involved clever narrative framing instead of literal audio diaries.

SG: Yes, it's good that our constraints pushed us to do something different.

RY: And you did. I liked how the mom's purse was on top of mom's note, there were layers to it, the symbols anchor those things to the mom. It's a good innovation from the generic Thief readables with generic "book" models.

SG: Our background is... we are totally into those kinds of gamer games. We started from "there." It's cool when people see Myst in our game though! But personally we're coming at it from an immersive sim tradition, from the Looking Glass interaction model and player role in the world. I hope that's what makes it feel like a legitimate experience for players of all types, including point and click players.

RY: I think you did good. Maybe I should be more "concrete and encouraging."

SG: [laughs] The callback!

RY: Okay, so here's the game for us to add a new thing to. It's a mess right now, please don't judge it too harshly...

SG: You know, this push / pull movement mechanics reminds me of the "cyberspace" that I pitched a long time ago, where you'd have a grappling hook thing to pull yourself toward these nodes. Should I be able to pull myself to these rails, is this a bug?

RY: I think it's a bug. Probably something to do with how I'm raycasting to them. If you go to the other side, it's okay.

SG: It'd be cool if I had more momentum with this, so it was more like I'm swinging myself forward instead of dragging myself, maybe? So the idea is that I mess with this periscope, and then go back up to the surface to see the changes?

RY: That could be what happens, or something different could happen. Your call.

SG: What do you think of that momentum thing? Like if you could -- oh, wait, I figured out what was happening. I would let go of [W] when pulling myself and I would go much slower. You might want to try (1) training that skill, or (2) make it so that it always behaves as if I'm holding down [W], because I don't think there's anything valuable about keeping this slow drag thing. This is more a usability thing.

RY: My personal sensibility is to fake it and lie to players, so I think I'll implement the second solution.

SG: So what do you mean by "adding" things?

RY: We can add anything I can reasonably do, that hopefully reflects your design sensibilities.

SG: Okay, I'll restart and play this again. Hmm. Oh, there's something back here. It's a radio tower from Dear Esther. [laughs] Did Dan Pinchbeck put his little radio tower in here?

RY: No, he was in the last series...

SG: I'm just going to walk super slowly toward this radio tower. [pauses] You know what would be cool? If you could do more stuff with verticality, to branch off from the main path. What if you put these grabbables on the side of a tree, would I pull myself up the tree and fall back down?

RY: The trees currently have no colliders, yeah.

SG: So let's say there's a tree off to the side, and you see this tree has ladder rungs / hand holds, and you can pull yourself up it, and maybe we put some collision on the top of the tree so you can stand on it. There'll be something cool up there. I don't know what "cool" is, in this game, yet.

[pauses] How about this: one of these trees, the Dr. Seuss tree, has hand-holds up the side of it, and you might have to be good at it, and at the top there's this little glowing will o' wisp, those glowy little light bulbs. And from there, it just starts following you around and casts a little bit of light. There isn't any other effect, you just have a wisp that floats around you.

RY: How big is the wisp?

SG: The same size as the lights near the entrance at the bottom, like... a small orb.

RY: What color is the wisp?

SG: Traditionally wisps are blue... it could cycle through different colors? Green, blue, pink, purple... orange... yellow? Don't forget yellow.

RY: How close does the wisp follow you?

SG: It should have a "desired radius" to stay near you. If you just stand still, it should just float a few feet away. You can out-run it, but it'll catch-up with you. It'd be cool if it made a little noise, a glimmery humming noise, something soothing. I think it's cool to gain a little companion.

RY: Anything else?

SG: That sounds like enough work to me. You have to deal with vertical traversal and making that work; you have to script up this little guy to follow you. I don't think I need to pile-on anything else on you.

RY: Thanks for your time.

This transcript was edited for clarity and length, though it might not particularly seem like it.

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Robert Yang


Robert Yang is an artist, writer and game developer, and makes surprisingly popular games about gay culture, such as The Tearoom, Rinse And Repeat and Radiator 2. Previously, he taught at NYU Game Center.