This interview is part of our Road to the IGF series. You can find the rest by clicking here.
Tacoma immerses the player in 3D recordings of a starship's crew as they slowly face their own destruction, watching them bond and grow close together in the face of doom. As they explore the ship, they will watch this story unfold through these recordings, witnessing the crew's shared journey and deep personal connections happening all around them.
Tacoma doesn't demand the player watch any one particular moment of the story, though, allowing players to choose where to explore and what to watch as they wander the ship. This storytelling technique, which places a lot of faith in the player, earned the title a nomination for Excellence in Narrative, and Gamasutra spoke with Fullbright's Steve Gaynor to learn more about the challenges and benefits of creating a story that the player must choose to put together.
What's your background in making games?
Hi, I'm Steve Gaynor, one of the co-founders of Fullbright, a small indie studio based in Portland, OR. Before going indie, I worked as a level designer and writer on the BioShock series (BioShock 2, Minerva's Den, BioShock Infinite). In 2012, I founded Fullbright along with two other ex-BioShock series developers, and we made our first game, Gone Home. Just last year, Fullbright released Tacoma, which we're honored to have as a finalist in the IGF.
How did you come up with the concept?
Our games focus on discovering character and narrative through environmental storytelling. In Gone Home, the player only encountered an empty house and the voice of their missing sister; with Tacoma, we wanted to bring the player closer to the events of the story. That's what brought us to the augmented reality playback mechanic that's central to Tacoma.
The game takes place on a space station where the crew's every move has been recorded in 3D by high-tech digital monitoring. In the game, you play back these 3D recordings that move all around you as you follow the events of the story through the station. You can rewind, fast-forward, and move through these scenes to see the events of the story from every angle. It's the next step in how we involve players with discovering story in an environment.
What development tools were used to build your game?
We used pretty straightforward tech - Unity, Maya, Photoshop, Visual Studio and so forth. Most of our unique workflow was in the conception & recording of the interlocking story scenes, although this was mostly done on paper, in rehearsals, and via the ensemble soundstage recording methods we used for capturing the actors' performances. These then went into the game via proven software and tools.
How much time have you spent working on the game?
End-to-end we spent about 3 years on Tacoma. We expanded our team a fair amount (though we're still only 8 people), and spent a lot of that early time exploring the mechanics of what Tacoma would really be. So, like a lot of games, I'd estimate the real rubber-hits-the-road production work on the game took a bit less than 2 of those years.
Tacoma utilizes a non-linear narrative, allowing the player to discover much of the story through their own curiosity. What challenges does this create for you, as a developer?
It's always a design challenge to really put your trust in the player. There's the easy impulse to want to tell the player "go here, now go here, now look at this" and guide them along a perfect path. The way we build our games is very much the opposite - our hope is that we put a fascinating place in front of the player, and draw them into it, and give them the tools to explore the narrative as they play, and that that curiosity and engagement drives them to find every little detail they can. The flipside of this is that we can't just toss a bunch of stuff out there with no guidance at all and cross our fingers; it's a balance between letting the player drive their own experience, and giving them the feedback they need to be able to find what's rewarding about the game.
In Tacoma, a big part of this was the "data upload" mechanic, whereby the player's in-fiction goal is to simply plug in an upload device and wait for it to finish; in practice, the player naturally wants to explore the surrounding areas while they wait. While the data upload is offscreen, we update its progress based on how much the player has found in each area. This off-screen progress encourages the player not to worry about their success too much, while also having a marker toward when the game thinks they're "done" with an area, giving them permission to move on. It's that kind of oblique communication with the player that we had to iterate on to encourage people to spend the time with the game they wanted, without feeling like we'd left them completely adrift.
What do you feel the player gets out of this kind of storytelling technique? What more do they get out of the narrative?
There's something completely unique to video games when it comes to storytelling, and that's the player's involvement with the narrative. That can take a lot of forms, from branching narrative and dialogue trees to player-created content and stories emerging while playing together online. In our case, we work to deeply involve the player in the discovery of the story itself, and in the feeling of inhabiting a place that feels real and lived-in. There's something that I think connects with people very directly when they're there, themselves, immersed in this location, finding the details of the story and piecing them together through their own engagement with what they find. We try to reward the player for investing themselves in the experience, and hopefully that makes their time with the games feel more personal and impactful in turn.
Tacoma features many natural, nuanced relationships of people facing loneliness and disaster. How do you get these characters and their connections to feel just right? What thoughts go into these connections?
Part of this comes from the characters and their backgrounds - who they are, what they've been through, what relationships they have with each other, and what you find that reinforces that - and the other part definitely comes from the performance by the talented actors who portrayed the crew of Tacoma. Since these scenes were all about the personal relationships and interactions between these six people, all happening face-to-face with each other during the events of the story, we thought it was important to record all the crew's dialogue ensemble style in a soundstage setting.
Having the performers all together acting out these scenes, playing off of each other's energy, and building real bonds together during the recording sessions, lead to a level of naturalism and connection that we're really incredibly happy with. Our goal is to let players get to know our characters as people they can really identify with, and we're grateful that this group of actors were able to bring that humanity across through their performance.
Have you played any of the other IGF finalists? Any games you've particularly enjoyed?
Oh, most definitely! I've been lucky enough to find time to play a lot of the finalists, though like in every IGF, there are a number of titles I've only learned of recently. I was a huge fan of Brianna Lei's Butterfly Soup, which I thought was equal parts touching, personal, and completely hilarious. I was hugely appreciative of the way Night in the Woods dealt with issues of class, friendship, family, aging, mental illness and religion (among other very human themes) in an unvarnished, forthright way that's so rare in games. Getting Over It ruined my day. West of Loathing is a specific kind of equally genius and absurd thing that it's amazing it even exists. And there are tons of awesome games in the Honorable Mentions - Dream Daddy, for one - that are some of my favorites of the year as well.
What do you think are the biggest hurdles (and opportunities) for indie devs today?
I guess in some ways, the more things change the more things stay the same. If you're trying to get your game noticed on Steam and consoles, there's way more competition than ever for people's time and attention. I know I didn't even get through probably half the awesome games I could've played this year, and I played a LOT of them. But getting attention for indie games has always been a challenge! You have to create something special that connects with people in ways they can't find anywhere else. That's not easy, no matter how many other games are out there.
I think we're still seeing new, exciting ways for games to find their audience, or find their appeal - this year, for instance, I know that Getting Over It got a huge boost from its popularity amongst streamers all trying to see who had what it takes to climb the mountain, and providing hilarious reaction videos every time they failed. In that way, it's not unlike this year's big-name breakout hit, PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds, with its "100 enter, only one leaves" premise and its uniquely watchable and surprising material as a kind of spectator sport.
It's always hard to predict where the attention will be when your game comes out, and a ton of it is luck - but something that hasn't change is the first step: making something unique and powerful that connects with players, and getting it out into the world.