“How are we going to allow the player to fully, interactively inhabit a role in this immersive space that is non-linear?,” Steve Gaynor asks us. He has the luxury of doing so rhetorically, having worked over the details at length with his four-strong team in Portland during the development of Gone Home - a game about rifling through an empty house to discover that it’s brimming with life.
The kind of studios that have asked this question before are mostly dead and buried. Looking Glass Studios met an ignoble demise at the turn of the century amid cardboard boxes and blank plaster walls unbothered by award cabinets. Deus Ex originators Ion Storm Austin took custody of their charge, Thief, but followed soon after. And great recent hope 2K Marin - founded by the level designer behind Thief: Deadly Shadows’ infamous Cradle and BioShock’s Fort Frolic, Jordan Thomas - succumbed to the very vocal critics of their first-person XCOM before folding themselves.
“We decided that we wanted to have that human connection of the voice, and have Sam telling her story in her own words,” said Gaynor.
Sam’s missives provide the only human sounds in the game aside from the Riot grrrl tapes found in the house’s various nooks and hideaways. But beyond that crucial point of empathy, the diaries also offer a structural core, a tacit contract with the player: “If you find all the pieces, it’s told to you.”
“And then for everything else [it’s] along a spectrum,” said Gaynor. “The further away that core story is, chronologically or character-wise, the more work the player has to do to add it up and put it together themselves.
“So, like, the parent’s story is still very calculable, if you’re paying attention, but it still requires you to say ‘Oh, the concert ticket and the poster in Mom’s room and the date on the calendar’, and you need to pay attention to make those connections yourself.
“The story of the game is essentially like a puzzle that you’re putting back together.”
Gone Home has that loose narrative structure in common with Dishonored - the other notable contemporary proponent of the immersive sim genre Looking Glass and Ion Storm defined. But where Dishonored pulls with it many of the trappings of Thief and Deus Ex, Fullbright sought to reduce their game to its barest elements.
“I feel like the idea of an immersive sim has built up and accreted a lot of elements over time,” Gaynor said. “Where’s it’s like now there’s going to be powers and weapons and upgradeable abilities and loot and an economy to buy stuff, plus the overall open-ended level structure that you can explore and so forth, and environmental storytelling and everything.
“Part of our strategy was to say, ‘How much of that can you remove and still deliver what I feel are the core tenets of our design philosophy?’.”
The revision started with protagonist Katie. The dearth of mirrors in the Greenbriar household won’t stop us from noticing that she’s no test-tube cyberninja - merely a “normal person” who comes to a house she doesn’t know to see the people she knows best.
That fictional conceit informed all of the game’s mechanics. Where JC Denton hurls whatever he’s holding against the wall opposite by default, a respectful Katie is offered a gentle prompt to ‘put back’.
“We say you can open all the drawers and cabinets and you can read everything and look at everything, and you can actually have that relationship with the environment that allows you to pick up a tiny scrap of paper and actually get value out of it,” said Gaynor. “Because in that role, that’s what you would want to do and be able to do.”