How Gone Home's design constraints lead to a powerful story

The Fullbright Company's Gone Home is elegant narrative, but as a work of design, it's equally so. Steve Gaynor explains the human story born from a history of environmental design. Spoiler-free!
As a story and an experience, Gone Home is incredibly subtle, delicate as old paper or an electric filament. As a work of game design it's equally so, the product of a small team with a heritage of big-budget environmental design stripping down to the heart of what its members have always wanted to do with their work. The Fullbright Company's Steve Gaynor long worked on the BioShock franchise, and most famously led the Minerva's Den DLC for BioShock 2 -- known for its strong story, carefully paced and told through discoveries in the game world. But in 2012 he went indie, picking up sticks and returning to his hometown of Portland, asking colleagues Johnnemann Nordhagen and Karla Zimonja to take a leap of faith with him. They all moved into one big house, and began a journey to answer a curious question: What would environmental storytelling in games be without the big budget, without combat, or a climactic boss battle? A pretty personal experience, as it turns out. The game needs playing: Even small details of the story might spoil it. So much of Gone Home's significant magic involves going in with certain expectations or curiosities, and then slowly learning about everything it has the bravery and restraint not to be, not to do.

Exploring the space

"With Minerva's Den, there was all the sci-fi stuff that made the story possible, but the heart of it was about a guy, his wife, his past," Gaynor says. "We wanted to take the games we worked on and remove everything except for exploring the space, and finding stuff that tells a story and lets you piece things together in your mind." Gone Home opens with a young woman returning to the States after her summer abroad, to the doorstep of the enormous wooded home to which her family's just moved, a place new to her. Yet no one's there. As Katie Greenbriar, the player explores the place, still packed with moving boxes and spilt-open notebooks, sifting through the transitory chaos to find out what's happened on a night shot through with quiet thunder and rain. The initial possibility space is enormous: On the front door, a troubling note from your sister Sam. In the foyer a plaintive, tear-choked message blinks out of the answering machine. Lightning flickers through the uneasy architecture, the house inherited with a strange story behind it. It even feels somewhat like a spoiler to say that unlike the environment-led action games that are the Fullbright Company's heritage, Gone Home's story quietly grows ever smaller, more intimate, rather than ramping up to a skull-rattling climax. The elegant story, which centers on Katie's sister Sam, was ingeniously hewn as much out of design necessity as it was out of a desire to try many things narratively that aren't commonly seen in games. "We started as three people and brought on a fourth [environment artist Kate Craig] soon after we started the project. With four people, we had to make a very small environment; we can't make a whole city," says Gaynor. "So a house that people live in would be small enough, but dense with artifacts people leave behind in their daily lives." Even the mansion-in-transition was a setting that made ideal design sense: A house occupied by the same family for years upon years would need to be richly layered with the sediment of their lives in order to be believable. Not only is that an impractical amount of asset detail for a small team, but it would obscure the game's core verbs of observing and exploring objects, as it would be harder to sort out notable items related to the present situation from the rest of it all. A new home in progress inherently feels less lived-in, and any visible objects are liable to be immediate, with information to communicate about the current situation rather than about the far-gone past.

"Having immovable constraints is really important"

Casting the player as a member of the Greenbriar family addresses the narrative dissonance that sometimes comes with first-person exploration -- games have a tendency to allow us to guiltlessly enter any unlocked home, to rifle through drawers, to pick up and take objects without penalty (at best, the punishment is an angry homeowner or city guard triggered to attack at your presence). And the expository element of the story whereby Katie's been away, and has never been to this house before, removes the question of why she'd feel lost in it at all. But from all these intuitive design circumstances the story is born -- while the older sister is enjoying Europe, where does that leave the younger one? "Let's say there are parents and a teenager at home -- that's a conflight-fraught stage in a family's life in a lot of ways. What would the conflict be between different generations of the family, and how do you find out about that through the core verbs of exploring and reading?" Gaynor says. "It was really a question of being reductive. I'm a strong believer that having immovable constraints is really important to doing something that is worthwhile." "Our production abilities and the amount of content we could make required us to constrain our feature set a lot. Even if we were interested in doing combat, or open world or something, there's just no way we could have produced that," Gaynor continues. "Yet we wanted to make something that [used] our existing experience... so we took the maximalist exploration, the combat and loot, and removed those elements to the point where it was just exploration and finding stuff, and it freed us up to tell a kind of story that you would not be able to tell in a game that had all those other features, where you'd have to figure out who you were fighting." Committing to those constraints gave the team freedom. "At that point, we ran with it. It's just a house, just people, just a story of this family... we had to get there by removing as much as possible."

A house before AOL

The needs of the game design also informed other elements of the setting, like the tactile, nostalgic 1990s age of Riot Grrl music, X-Files, Super Nintendo, cassette players and Magic Eye that provides such a sentimental context for the experience of Sam's teenage years. "We knew that if we were going to set it in a family's home, we wanted to set it in a time we had lived through, that the player had been alive in," Gaynor says.

But a more contemporary setting might deflate some of the richness in a game about exploring a life through physical objects: Today, if we wanted to learn about a girl like Sam, nearly everything of import would be stored among her computer files, on a website, among her text messages and downloads. "We rewound the clock to the point where it would be plausible for this family not to have AOL yet," says Gaynor. "We landed on 1994, 1995, which let us have handwritten notes, where we could still remember what our living room was like at this time." So much of the game experience is born naturally, gently out of logical design constraints, but the story that emerges is unexpectedly nuanced and touching -- it's about a particular girl's experience, yet so much of it feels relatable more broadly. Gaynor says the response to early builds has supported the universality of the story, as he hears from friends with completely different upbringings and memories who say there's something in the game that feels intimate to them. That couldn't succeed if so many details of the game didn't feel so plausible they might as well be one's own memories. "Our approach to this whole game was that we had to commit to stuff, and not be too scared about our ability to pull it off," Gaynor notes. Even if the "density of stuff" required to make the Greenbriar home look like a "real" house was impossible, the richness of individual touchstones does much of the work. Subtle detail of the magazines of the age, the fashions depicted therein, the precise way the hinge on a cassette tape case swings open, the distinct oil pattern crummy local pizza leaves on a box left by the television set. Shopping mall hair dye, the haphazard folds of notepaper passed in class from one girl to another. These are all things the game summons with all the stunning, chest-tight clarity of my own memories, without capitulating to obvious nostalgia for its own sake. At one point, I found a bag of potato chips whose fine print advised unsatisfied consumers "return the unused portion" -- I didn't even realize packaged food doesn't carry that sort of promise these days until I spotted it. "Karla has incredible attention to detail," says Gaynor. "We had to rely on the higher-yield touchstones of recognizable things... so that [the living room] reads as a TV room that I totally believe in. In a way, it's an abstraction of the space, but it has all of the things your brain recognizes, and your mind fills in the gaps."

Complicated emotion

It's challenging to write about the story and characters themselves just yet, before audiences have had a chance to experience them fresh. It focuses on a light touch on an elemental conflict between parent and child, and "multiple immovable forces." It's not a story about finding one's identity, but about knowing who one is, and that's all that can really be said about it without disurbing the most brilliant thing about Gone Home: That from such pure design logic, from the urge to reduce and reduce the impossible, the unnecessary, was whittled such precious and complicated emotion. That it feels stunningly universal, even though from some angles it's unique, complicated, even difficult. "So much of this has come from people I know personally," Gaynor says. "Something I'm happy about is... I'm very grateful for the fact we've had a lot of different people say, 'I played this, and it's exactly like my experience, or like my life.' There could be two different people saying the same thing that had extremely different upbringings. "I think there are these individual points, bits and pieces, that can apply very strongly to a player, along with the over-arching themes." Gone Home is out now on Steam.

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