Steve Gaynor’s Gone Home Followup Tacoma Takes Off to Space
Cody Mello-Klein talks to Steve Gaynor about the success of Gone Home and what it means for Tacoma …
When Gone Home came out in 2013, it was in the middle of the lion’s den. With a release date nestled right between Naughty Dog’s post-apocalyptic, emotional roller coaster ride The Last of Us and Rockstar’s open world billion dollar blockbuster Grand Theft Auto V, The Fullbright Company’s freshman release looked like it would get lost in the AAA shuffle.
Instead, Gone Home caught fire, connecting with audiences and critics in a way few games have since and even helping kick off a movement of small, first person narrative-focused games. A large part of that has to do with the team’s approach to storytelling: an intimate, heartbreakingly personal focus on the lives of ordinary people.
It’s something Steve Gaynor, co-founder, designer and writer at Fullbright, and the rest of his six-person team wants to continue doing with their sophomore release, Tacoma. Set for release on August 2, Tacoma will take players out of Gone Home’s vintage 90’s Pacific Northwest – and off of Earth entirely.
“Even though we’re doing a sci-fi story, even though it’s much more about being in this… non-every day location and engaging with it in a way that isn’t grounded in the reality that we live in, what you’re actually receiving is a picture of how these people in this very unfamiliar set of circumstances are still people,” Gaynor said during a Skype interview.
Set entirely on Tacoma, the titular space station, in the year 2088, the game will task players with discovering why they were called to the space station and why the small, six-person crew was evacuated. Like Gone Home, the game is based around exploration, environmental storytelling and a vivid portrait of a small cast of characters.
“The game is really about getting to know them as a group,” Gaynor said about the crew of Tacoma, “and what the group dynamic is and how they relate to each other and how they all react to the kind of shared crisis experience that they go through.”
If that sounds familiar, it should. Gaynor took a similar approach with the Greenbriars in Gone Home, and while the two games share the same basic foundation, it’s clear from the footage of Tacoma that’s already been shown that the team’s follow-up will be more than just “The Greenbriars Go to the Moon.”
The game’s art style is partially reminiscent of Bioshock’s Rapture and its near future world wraps its unfamiliar setting in a layer of speculative fiction that grounds the game in the here and now as much as the future.
“It’s interesting how when you do science fiction or speculative fiction so much of it is tied to when you make it,” Gaynor said.
He drew inspiration from the current movement of commercialized space real estate ventures like SpaceX, the privately funded aerospace program founded by Elon Musk, and Tacoma reflects this more contemporary outlook on space travel. Instead of a scientific research station, Tacoma is a cargo transfer point for a lunar resort for the rich. At the same time, Gaynor acknowledged that it’s impossible not to draw inspiration from modern sci-fi classics, referencing the familial dinner table scene in Alien and the everyman appeal and small scale, personal story of Duncan Jones’ Moon.
Building a world that didn’t just rely on the players’ sense of nostalgia or familiarity with a place and time period was a challenge for Gaynor and his team. But setting and style aren’t the only things that set Tacoma apart from its predecessor. Fullbright managed to find a mechanic that seems primed to give players a truly unique gaming experience.
If you’ve seen any recent footage of Tacoma, then you’ve probably seen the colorful, digital wire frame collages of sound and shape that make up its in-game 3D recordings. Unlike traditional audio diaries, these recordings, which occur in every major part of the space station, are scenes that play out across space and time. Gaynor playfully used the analogy of a party. One person is only ever able to experience their own conversation, but at a party there’s always more going on, more people talking and dancing in other rooms.
“I hope that people will have this experience that gives them a new way to think about the way that they’re relating to the events or the story in a game,”
“I think there’s something interesting about being able to say, ‘What if you could be anywhere at any time within that situation?’” Gaynor said. “And that’s basically what these moments in Tacoma are about…You’re thinking about these sequences in a four dimensional way, both your point in space and the scene’s point in time.”
The player can also rewind and fast forward through these scenes. This makes it easy to scrub through every scene in order to understand what every crew member was doing at the time. One group of crew members may be talking in the kitchen, while another crew member wanders off for their own reasons. This mechanic allows the player to experience one side of the scene, rewind and then follow the other crew member off on a whole separate narrative thread.
Every scene is a moment in the lives of the crew members, memories catalogued by ODIN, the ship’s AI. It’s a fascinating way to tell a story and Gaynor hopes it gives players a whole new gaming experience.
“I hope that people will have this experience that gives them a new way to think about the way that they’re relating to the events or the story in a game,” said Gaynor.
This unique mechanic, along with the deeply personal story, has Gaynor and his team just as excited as when they were working on Gone Home, which is interesting considering that this now central idea didn’t start as the focus of Tacoma. It was in early versions of the game, which the team at Fullbright started developing in 2014 only nine months after Gone Home came out, but, according to Gaynor, it was “very isolated.”
However, as development went on, Gaynor and the team realized that this was a truly unique and exciting idea to place at the heart of a game. And as part of a team faced with creating a follow-up to a popular, influential game like Gone Home, Gaynor wasn’t satisfied with resting on his laurels. The team’s need to change up their game came from an unlikely place: their success.
“Changing what you’re doing or doing something differently can sometimes come from criticism… But it can also come from the opposite side,” said Gaynor about his team’s response to Gone Home’s success. “Finding the right balance of what to change and what to keep and what to build on instead of just keeping it exactly the same is a big part of the process.”
Everyone’s heard of the sophomore slump. It’s a challenge for any creator to capture lightning in a bottle twice in a row, but without change and without challenge it’s not possible to create something new and exciting. It’s far too easy to sink into satisfaction and stick with what works. Gaynor understood that Gone Home struck a chord with people not only because it told a great, intimate story of self-discovery but because it offered a breath of fresh air in an industry dominated by genre standards.
“The reason that Gone Home was successful, above and beyond everything else, was that it didn’t feel like you could get that experience anywhere else,” said Gaynor.
Gone Home became a foundation – not a formula – for Fullbright to work from. And it took a lot of effort, along with some delays to get to this point.
In that way, the crew of Tacoma became remarkably like Gaynor and the team at Fullbright: a small, dedicated group of people working towards a common goal in the face of challenges and struggles. The crewmembers even match the team’s gender breakdown – four women and two men – which made it easy to rehearse and time out scripts.
And this isn’t an uncommon thing in development. Although it may not always be conscious, developers and storytellers always pull from what they know. Fullbright now has its own space in Portland, Oregon, but Gaynor remembered something similar happened during the development of Gone Home.
“We rented a house together and made that game in the basement. It was very much about a family in a house,” Gaynor recalled. “I don’t think it’s conscious, but I think it’s also like the space that you’re in every day.”
From a small house to an office space, from Oregon to outer space, Fullbright has still managed to keep the focus on ordinary people who are forced to deal with extraordinary situations. It may sound like conventional storytelling but in an industry that built itself on the backs of super soldiers, tomb raiders and moustachioed Italian men, it’s still a breath of fresh air.
One of Gone Home’s great successes was giving players the opportunity to empathize with the struggles, insecurities and successes of someone who may be living a life completely different from their own. With its sci-fi roots and extraterrestrial setting, Tacoma might exist in a completely foreign world. But, like with any great science fiction, Gaynor hopes that the human elements will shine even in an unfamiliar scenario.
“No matter the circumstances, people are people,” Gaynor said.
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