Gone Home by The Fullbright Company
Published: June 18. 2013
The Fullbright Company fills our glasses with its singular suburban adventure, Gone Home
An independent videogame studio based in Portland, Oregon, The Fullbright Company is working hard on what is to be its debut title, Gone Home. Essentially, Gone Home is a game about exploring a house and in so doing revealing the story of the people who live there. It all takes place in 1995, and centers on one year in the lives of a seemingly normal family. There's no combat, no puzzles, no characters in your field of view; the entire experience is driven by your own curiosity to investigate the house, digging through drawers and medicine cabinets and diaries to find notes and clues that the family has left behind during their everyday lives, discovering the story of what's happened to them.
“We as developers, and Gone Home as a game, very much come from a traditional ‘first-person shooter’ background,” says The Fullbright Company’s Steve Gaynor, who co-founded the company with Johnnemann Nordhagen and Karla Zimonja in March of 2012. The three had worked on the BioShock franchise before founding The Fullbright Company, and cite it as a huge inspiration. “But to us,” says Gaynor, “the secondary aspects of those games—exploring an interesting place on your own terms, discovering story as you go—have always been the most interesting parts, compared to shooting and looting and leveling up.” So the trio wanted to take the expertise it had in making atmospheric, immersive places, and focus entirely on the player exploring and discovering the story of what happened there. “To make that the heart of the game, not a sideshow”
With team whose experience included various capacities on BioShock 2, Minerva’s Den, XCOM, and BioShock Infinite, there was no shortage of ambition going into the project. “The secret is scoping and focus,” says Gaynor, who points out that when they started work on Gone Home, there were only three team members—a level designer/writer, a programmer, and a 2D artist. “We decided on a premise that was both inspiring to us, and very ‘producible’—one house, gameplay that focuses only on environment exploration, no characters onscreen, no combat, no puzzles.” Soon after founding the company, the team started working with a 3D artist named Kate Craig to do the environment art for the game. “We stuck with a game that was small enough for four people with a specific range of skills to produce every part of well, and stuck to that idea through to ship,” says Gaynor. This [allowed] us to make something that we hope is of the highest quality throughout, without having to overextend ourselves or let any part of the game slip through the cracks.”
To make its vision a reality, The Fullbright Company also turned to Unity. Looking around at its options when the studio was first starting—as a small team with a very limited budget, and an expertise in the very specific area of story-driven first-person games—Nordhagen says Unity fit its needs the best. “It's proven to be a good choice,” he says. “It was easy to get our basic functionality up and running, and spend programming time and effort on features that make us stand out, instead of our basic needs. The vast availability of examples and plug-and-play packages from the Asset Store also helped—it's great to be able to spend less than a grocery bill and get a ready-made feature for your game.”
Nordhagen recalls the game’s initial prototype coming together very quickly. “We were able to use a lot of the standard Unity packages and scripts to piece together a vague idea of what we were planning, and from then on we simply iterated on specific areas until we had things we were happy with,” he says. “The profiler has been invaluable, of course, in helping us get the performance we need to be playable on a wider spectrum of machines.”
When seeing the game in action for the first time, one can’t help but be struck by how different it feels to the legions of first-person titles that have come before it. “Early on, Steve described the setting for the story as ‘unfantastical’, and the art style is meant to complement that feeling,” says Craig. “If successful, the house should feel approachable and believable, bordering on mundane, so the idea of creating a heavily stylized look or overly gritty world isn’t something Karla and I were shooting for this time around.” The proportions are realistic, the textures are simplified (though, importantly, not to a cartoonish degree) and the colors are a bit subdued. “We came upon the art style as a way to emphasize the story—something that suits the tone of a rainy family home where a family drama is unfolding.”
Craig says that as an environment artist, creating believable normal maps provided a major roadblock. “It’s something that can only be learned in the harsh, unforgiving flames of experimentation, and while some of the results have ended up looking good, others have actually made me laugh out loud at how terrible they were,” she says. “It’s something that gets better as you go, and it’s best to embrace it—fix what you can, but realize that your next piece will probably be better.”
Also adding to the distinctiveness of the experience is its “riot grrrl” soundtrack. “We thought that 'riot grrrl was a good thing for Sam [the game’s main character] to get introduced to by a cooler friend—something empowering and really strongly evocative of the time and place,” says Zimonja. “Plus, um, we all think it's awesome.” As there there are many cultural signifiers the team can’t use explicitly due to copyright situations, being able to license iconic music of the mid-90s has contributed a lot to the game’s tone and atmosphere. “Riot grrrl is also not a well-explored theme in games, so there's that, too,” adds Zimonja. The team is working with voice actor Sarah Robertson, who is our voice its protagonist, as well as Sarah Elmaleh, who plays Sam’s friend Katie. “Steve and I had put in some time at voice recording sessions at previous jobs, so that turned out to be immensely helpful,” says Zimonja.
Generally, the team has found great satisfaction in the texture and tone of the game they’ve been creating. “I'm most proud when someone notices a detail I put in some 90s asset that they hadn't consciously remembered—yessss,” says Craig. “Creating (or re-creating) authenticity is the best feeling.” She says that portraits were a difficult nut to crack—“probably since our superior human-recognizing brains are better at finding the flaws in my work than I am at fixing those flaws”—as was determining what was fakeable (read: a particular style of painting) and what was not (read: a mom's handwriting).
The team has been struck by the strong reactions of some who have played Gone Home in its early versions. “We've had people say that this is "the game they've been waiting for ever since they started playing games," or that the game "illuminated parts of themselves," or that have tearfully told me how much the game means to them, which is a surreal situation to be in,” says Gaynor. “I’m just happy and proud that we’re making something that people connect with in a way they might not have with other games, and that what we're making can mean that much to someone. It’s really humbling and more than I could have asked for.”
“We've had great luck with the Asset Store,” says Fullbright Company co-founder Johnnemann Nordhagen. “We now try to check there for anything that will meet our needs first, and evaluate how long it will take to create that feature ourselves versus the cost in the store. Most of the time the store comes out on top!” Nordhagen says the team uses uScript to provide all of its special-case and level scripting, NGUI for its GUI, and a package called "Ultimate FPS Camera," which provided the basis for its player movement and looking. “We've also found some temporary art assets, shaders and graphical effects, and so forth,” says Nordhagen. “It's great to be able to have a place to look for simple middleware solutions. “
When it comes to so-called “light bulb moments,” Fullbright Company co-founder Steve Gaynor recalls one particular moment early in the development of Gone Home. “I was actually in the bath, reading a book, and couldn't keep my mind from wandering to a design problem I was having,” he says. The team knew they didn't want to have tape recorders or torn-out diary pages strewn about the house, as that would certainly break the suspension of disbelief. The solution, instead, was to make use of “audio diaries”, whereby the player finds an object and then hears another character telling part of the story in their own voice. “So there I am, and I have this realization about how we can justify the existence of these voices in the game, and how they connect to the objects you're finding in the house, and I just sat there wide-eyed going, ‘Oh wow!’ as it dawned on me that I'd actually solved something really huge, and that it was going to work.” He called to his wife Rachel to bring him something to write on so that he wouldn't forget—and that realization is now a big part of the game.