If I'm trying to describe a certain kind of game, one where you wander, examine objects and use them to mentally piece together a story, 2013's Gone Home is the first example I reach for. BioShock, System Shock and Myst came before it, and dozens of similar games have followed after, but, as much as I hate using the word, Gone Home is the one that seems to me the most "pure".
Unlike dozens of exploration-based games, which cover their asses with sci-fi, magical realism and other accepted gaming narrative tropes, Gone Home wilfully disavows this industry's precepts. You explore an empty house, painstakingly detailed with real-world minutiae, and discover a romance between two teenage girls. In a culture where action, fantasy and male sexuality predominate, the fact Gone Home ever made it to launch, let alone sold enough to earn the attention of Microsoft and Sony, which are now hosting the game on their respective consoles, remains to my mind a small miracle.
"In some ways it was hard to tell what people were going to think about it," says Karla Zimonja, who along with Steve Gaynor and Johnnemann Nordhagen, co-founded Gone Home's developer, Fullbright, in 2012. "I personally just wanted to make our money back and pay off the credit card debt I'd incurred while making it. I didn't really know what the scale was going to be. Steve maintains that he knew it was going to do okay. But I thought it was surprising. It was like, 'that's a lot of people buying our game, our weird little game'."
'Gone Home', console launch trailer
Zimonja, Gaynor and Nordhagen had previously worked together at San Francisco's 2K Marin, first on BioShock 2 proper and then as part of a smaller team on its "Minerva's Den" DLC pack.
"There were only nine of us, and Steve was in charge. Out of that came our current paradigm," explains Zimonja. "I think we got spoiled working on this small thing where everyone could understand every part of the project. Going back to a big thing – 'a 2K PRODUCTION' – I just wasn't sure if I was into that any more. We wanted to get back to that world, and doing our own project."
The team moved to Portland, Oregon and set up shop in a rented house, each taking a bedroom and using the basement as an office. Development on Gone Home began around March 2012 and would last approximately 18 months. Using personal savings, Fullbright (which would later recruit 3D modeller Kate Craig) financed the game completely independently.
"Renting the house together meant we could take a year and a half to make a game and not take out a loan, or go to venture capitalists, not that a venture capitalist would have ever given us money for this," says Zimonja. "But we're pretty lucky. We had a fall back – if it didn't work out, we could have gone back to AAA and got jobs again, which isn't an option that everyone has."
And for full creative control, the financial risk was worth it.
"It feels good to me to have full ownership of things, to be in control of the thing we're making, as opposed to having a board that's in control," says Zimonja. "Not having higher-ups saying things like: 'What are you doing? Is that going to sell to males aged 18 to 35? Is it? IS IT?' That is worth so much to us."
That ownership also gave Fullbright a more clarified sense of what Gone Home would, or rather could be. An awful cliché, but creativity flows through constraints – Fullbright had to make practical decisions, but each one added to Gone Home's character.
"We only had four people so we knew it had to be inside a small area," explains Zimonja. "So we thought it could be a house. Then it was, 'Who goes in a house?' A family. 'What kind of stories and conflicts can happen in a family?' Inter-generational conflicts. 'What are some of the things you can do to piss off your parents?' Dating someone they might hate. Dating someone wrong. 'So, what's an interesting version of that?'"
Gone Home may seem narratively led, but its creation was shaped, often, by functionality. The design of the house, the layout of items and the way players would be led from one area to another were all the products of pragmatic, disciplined game-making.
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"The house is fake as heck," says Zimonja. "It's a video game level that looks like a house, not a house that works like a video game level. When you're working on a game, you don't want a level that has another layer or another floor on top of it, because when you're looking at it from overhead in the editor you can't see which floor you're touching. Also, it's sized the way it is so the pacing will work, not for accuracy.
"Every item we made had multiple masters. It had to be plausible, add something to the environment and maybe have a story beat attached to it. We did a lot of talking it over, since there was only so much we could actually create. For example, we have no shoes in Gone Home, not a one! We ran up against time constraints, and determined that having like two pairs of shoes in the house would be worse and draw more attention than just having none. So, no shoes."
It was a rigorous process, not just in regards to deciding what would go into the house but ensuring that the most important things – what Fullbright calls the "critical path" material – would be discovered and understood by players. The team found that regular video game players tended to explore the entire ground floor first, while people less familiar with games generally went straight for the brightly lit staircase. Zimonja attributes this to experience – if you've played lots of games, you're used to areas becoming inaccessible once you've left them behind, so grab everything you can while you're there.
Ensuring Gone Home's story made sense, regardless of the player's preconceptions, was a fundamental part of Fullbright's work.
"Things like lighting and layout: that's a level designer's job," explains Zimonja. "You know that thing about supermarkets, how they depend on you to turn right when you come in the door, there's a lot of weird shit like that, relatively codified human actions that can be relied on. But when you watch people test and they miss something, it's not like 'they fucked it up' – it's 'we fucked it up'. If something gets missed a few times, we know we need to fix it. It's not frustrating necessarily to see people miss things. It's very diagnostic."
It's those lessons that Fullbright is carrying into its next project, an exploration-based game set aboard a space station, called Tacoma. With an expanded team of eight, and now based at a dedicated office (though still in Portland), the studio's looking to chart new ground.
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"Initially we were going to do another house," explains Zimonja. "But Steve said one morning, you know, 'let's do space'. He called me and pitched it and I'm a big sci-fi goof so I thought it could be good. It's hard to do an interesting space game because there are so many tropes and motifs, and it's hard to avoid all of that – and we probably won't be able to – but hopefully it's going to be interesting.
"It was hard to move the challenge, from doing a kind of faithful reproduction like in Gone Home to something very different. But it's still definitely, primarily, about the characters. I'm personally a fan of character-centric sci-fi. So we're keeping it grounded, and human."
The console edition of Gone Home is out now for Xbox One and PlayStation 4 in North America. The European and Australian versions are coming soon.
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