9 min read

The story behind Gone Home, and what makes a 'great game'

Fullbright Company's Steve Gaynor offers background on Gone Home's development, and offers his thoughts on what makes a great video game.
The Fullbright Company's Gone Home, steeped in memories of another time, has inarguably become one of 2013's most talked-about titles. The game, focused on exploration and environment-led narrative, explores the story of an American family's trials, and centers on the adolescence of its youngest daughter, Sam, as she finds her first love with another girl. "Video games predate memories, for me," says Steve Gaynor, who had a Commodore 64 in childhood. He grew up with strong memories of playing Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego with his father, on a trajectory alongside consoles and PC adventures alike. Early game magazines played a big role -- every year on his birthday, his grandmother would renew his Nintendo Power subscription. He practiced level-editing throughout his youth ("I made a really epic level for Duke Nukem 3D when I was in middle school"), but went to school for sculpture with a minor in art history. "I had drawn a lot of comics, and done writing and illustration, and so I was studying sculpture to understand working in 3D spaces better," Gaynor recalls.

"In a great game, you can feel the presence of the person who made the game"

Gaynor was at the 2013 GameCity festival in Nottingham, discussing his work and background with fellow writer Lucy Prebble in an onstage Q&A. "I had a notebook where I kept ideas for comics and stories, and I just realized they were morphing into ideas for games," he says. "It was all games stuff starting to populate my notebook, and at some point I had the realization that games are the entertainment that have meant the most to me throughout my whole life, not comics or film, and that that's really what I should be working on." For Gaynor, there are some generally-universal aspects to what makes a "good game": "In a great game, you can feel the presence of the person who made the game, you can tell it meant something to them," he says. "That takes many different forms, but I think that [it's] a feeling [that] you're doing something because it's what's right for the game, and for you as a creator. I think people connect with that, because they can feel that." A friend he met online suggested he should apply to work on expansion packs for F.E.A.R., as Gaynor had been making levels for portfolio pieces. From there he went onto 2K Marin. Hired as a level designer, he put himself forward to do more writing work, and contributed some of the audio diaries to BioShock 2 in addition to some levels, where his contribution helped create a game world that had an emotional texture, rather than just enemies that signal the player in the traditional way. "BioShock 2 was a challenging project because they were building the studio at the same time they were building the game," he says. "I was employee number sixteen, or something, and it grew to 80 or 100 people by the time we shipped. It was hard to do, but it put us in a position for making all the DLC -- we'd done all the problem-solving, and then just had the freedom to put all of our time into building the content and polishing it."

"Do you want to quit your jobs and come out here with me?"

After finishing the celebrated Minerva's Den expansion pack, Gaynor was a senior level designer on BioShock Infinite, but more than a year ahead of the game's ship date, he moved back to his roots in the Portland area to start the Fullbright Company with co-founders Karla Zimonja and Johnneman Nordhagen. For a year and a half they rented a house together, working on the game and paying for it out of their own pockets, an endeavor that would have been impossible with the cost of living in the Bay Area.

Did it take courage? Gaynor laughs a little. "I guess," he says. "Probably moreso for the other people in the company. I was going to quit my job anyway; [my wife] Rachel and I were going to move back to Portland anyway, and I said to Karla and Johnneman, 'do you want to quit your jobs and come out here with me?' That was a bigger leap to take, and for the project and because they believed in it. Our 3D artist Kate joined a few months after we started, and she quit her job." Finding the game in Gone Home was "a little bit of an exploratory process, but we definitely had a strong idea of it early," he says. He'd made an early prototype of the game using Frictional's level editor for Amnesia, made in late January 2012 -- official work on the game began in March. The small team, and its experience in immersive first-person games, helped them to decide what to make based on their skills and resources.

"It's important to start from 'what is the player doing, and how is that compelling'"

"I think that it is really dangerous to say, as a creator, as a developer, to say, 'I have this story I want to tell and I'm going to figure out what kind of game to tell that story with,'" he says. "When you start from [that point], or 'I want to show the player these images in this order,' that's a very static place to start from. You're starting from what you want the content to be about, but not how the game expresses it." "I think it's important to start from 'what is the player doing, and how is that compelling,' regardless of what content is in it. And then go with your own impulses from there," he continues. "We definitely didn't start from, 'we want to make a game about the 90s, and about these specific characters.'" "A lot of the problems in big mainstream games [come from the sentiment], 'Okay, on the one hand we've decided we're going to make this shooter genre game, and I also want to tell a story about 'this,' so let's cram those two together. And the mechanics are not about the story, because they were conceived in parallel." One of Gone Home's best traits is its combination of specificity with universality -- a wide group of different players from a variety of walks of life seem to feel that the game is "for them." Playing a game that summons adventure game mechanics and is simultaneously set in a time when today's adult players would have actually been playing those games can be very striking.

Why the 90s?

The team didn't set out to make something that felt like an adventure game, or to create that juxtaposition intentionally: it became the natural result of stripping out combat, loot, health systems and other mechanics and focused on first-person exploration. "We started from, 'we want to make a game that's about exploring a place and finding bits and pieces of the story scattered everywhere.' If it was more recent than the 90s, so much of that stuff would be in devices. An email message, a text box," he says. "It was a very practical decision of, 'we'll choose this era because that means people would be actually writing notes and leaving them for each other.' That physicality is important to the game." It came from the team's own memories -- what could they recall about their living rooms in 1995? Recorded VHS tapes off TV with written labels, two recordings on one tape to save memories, for example. Such details give the game its very lifelike and plausible texture. Gaynor also read blog posts about experiences of people growing up in that time, and was influenced by the memories of others. The diary entries of the games are funny, moving and recognizable -- why are such emotionally-important but simple things so rare in video games? "A lot of it is about dependencies," Gaynor says, "what games have to fulfill that other media don't." Many games are about the designer challenging the player to "prove" they're good enough to keep playing. Game designers usually have to find ways to answer questions like "who are you shooting?" and "who put these puzzles here?" and those kinds of factors within the player's experiences usually loom large. Removing them allows smaller, human elements to come in. "Combat wasn't something that we as developers were excited about making, and it wasn't within our means as a small team. I don't like puzzles in games, personally; I've never designed a puzzle, and I don't plan to start," he says. For the Fullbright team, constraint was an opportunity: Having to make that simple, clean exploratory element compelling enough to sustain a game essentially required investing most of the team's energy in emotional texture and detail, and also left plenty of room for players to invest in the game with their own experiences.

"I went to art school, so I burned out on 'what is art' questions"

What about the endless questions about what a game is, and whether Gone Home is one with puzzles, combat and conflict removed? Gaynor's disinterested in the question ("I went to art school, so I burned out on 'what is art' questions," he chuckles). In his view, attempts to apply definitions to things are just other ways of people trying to validate their personal taste and invalidate others'. Trying to decide what is and isn't a game is simply a way to try to shut some things out of consideration in favor of others, he says. Gone Home is not challenge-based, but is deeply interactive: "The experience cannot exist without you driving it all the way. Everything that happens is intentional on the part of the player, and with most of the story, you have to connect the dots yourself," he says. "On that level, that was ... why this has to be a video game, an interactive thing. It's not something you can just read a novelization of and get the same experience. Gone Home couldn't be what it is in any other form." To fully use the interactive medium to explore an idea or experience that couldn't exist in any other shape is an ideal goal for games, Gaynor suggests. As for his own goals, "I'd like to actually have the opportunity to write two characters talking to each other," he says. "With Gone Home, the team now has a framework for being in a space and gaining information from it that can be extended in a wide variety of ways, and built upon -- I think that's really valuable," Gaynor says.

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