“Gone Home,” the debut video game from independent, Portland-based developer Fullbright, caused a stir when it arrived in late 2013. Few indie titles before or since have been quite as divisive — the New York Times called it “the greatest video game love story ever told,” but it was simultaneously derided by some as not even worthy of the word “game.”
Fullbright (at the time called The Fullbright Company, LLC) was just a four-person team, a brand new studio formed of previous 2K Games employees who left their jobs to create narrative-focused games on their own terms. They would not remain obscure for long: The launch of “Gone Home” sparked a fervor that had players arguing about their favorite medium and the implications of Fullbright’s debut project on the form itself. The game’s success catapulted Fullbright to fame, and the small, scrappy team would eventually become what it is today: a full fledged studio occupying its own office.
The game tasks players with little more than exploring a rural Oregon house. Katie Greenbriar returns to her family household after an overseas trip to find a mysteriously empty home. Without any threats to contend with, the player controlling Katie is free to explore the household at their leisure, perusing each room and examining all that lies within it — pick up objects, turn them over, flip light switches, read notes, sift through drawers, look through closets, etc.
As players move deeper into the Greenbriar home, they begin to learn about what happened. What sets "Gone Home" apart is the nature of the mystery. Rather than sinister, it is mundane and human. It is a story of insecurities, young love, familial tension, small town boredom, the promise of rebellion, growing up and identity amidst a lovingly rendered 1995 America — all told in a pensive manner more akin to a novel than a typical game.
Some saw the game as the next step into the future of interactive storytelling. Others saw it as lacking the things that make up a game: There was no real challenge, no way to fail and the player mostly just looked at things.
In 2019, the conversation of whether or not "Gone Home" counts as a game has faded to a whisper. Instead, the influence Fullbright’s debut game had on the industry speaks for itself. Quiet, exploratory segments reminiscent of the group’s signature style have become so common in mainstream games that they can even be seen in bombastic action titles like “Uncharted 4” and “Wolfenstein: The New Colossus.” But when “Gone Home” first entered development, new ground was being broken.
Steve Gaynor, lead designer and co-founder of Fullbright, had recently left his job at 2K games.
“After having spent a good five or six years working my way up as a level designer, taking on bigger and bigger projects, there was a point where I just realized that I don’t think I want to work on games that were huge anymore,” Gaynor said. “Once you’re inside of a production like that … the game is bigger than you can see from any one point.”
Gaynor had led development for “Minerva’s Den,” a downloadable addition to “Bioshock 2” that focused on environmental storytelling over action.
“That was a much smaller team within a bigger studio. There was just something about the smaller team experience that I think really spoke to me,” Gaynor said. “Given the opportunity, my wife and I realized we just wanted to be back in Portland.”
Gaynor’s decision to found Fullbright was largely a result of that experience. He and his wife moved to Portland, where they rented a house that would double as the team’s development studio. Of the four person team, three of the members lived there together.
“The office was the basement of a house that we rented in the Hollywood District of Portland. It felt very much like a band recording their first album and being housemates,” he said.
The team’s eventual product was the result of 17 months of dedicated development. It was a game created among friends as much as coworkers. Long walks through the city, google hangout calls and conversations throughout the house played the role that conference room meetings would have at a larger studio.
Like any great piece of entertainment, the final product feels effortless. What feels like an organic experience, however, is carefully directed under the hood in intentional, subtle ways.
“So much of how it feels natural to guide yourself through a space, it’s just down to nitty gritty level design,” he said. “You really have to think in a granular way about, like, ‘okay, the player starts here. What exactly are they gonna see first? It’s important for us to feel like there is a natural self guided experience that you are having, but also for it to line up with and express the experience that we as the designers want you to have.”
It’s a tricky balancing act. "Gone Home" needs to be concise enough to deliver its story consistently to each player, but loose enough to make it feel as though each player discovered the story for themselves.
“As an example, it’s really straightforward to say if you make a room in a game level, and it’s generally dark, and then you have a lamp that’s lit in the far end of the room with something next to it, you’ll probably go over to that bright area and look at the stuff that’s near the light,” Gaynor said. Many small visual cues like that work together to wordlessly guide the player.
"Gone Home" never tells the player what to do, but Fullbright masterfully applies direction through simple context clues and visual cues. These are things the players won’t notice, but their brains will.
One of the most impressive elements of "Gone Home" is its authentic rendition of a 1995 Oregon home.
“With ‘Gone Home’ it was very intentional to make everything that we could from direct experience as possible,” Gaynor said. “All of us, at the time, were in our 30s. We were in high school in the 90s, so we could just think back to, you know, what were things we remember that we could put in? Trapper keepers, TV guides.”
When it came to laying out the house itself, the process was as much about game design as it was about environment design.
“If we have this big victorian house, what would need to be there?” Gaynor said. “Laying these things out and saying ‘okay if we have this set of spaces and this general path through the world, what notes and what items should you find as you explore these spaces to tell the story of these characters?’ But one can’t happen without the other...You have to always be in this dialogue about what the space is, and how it tells the story.”
The Pacific Northwest also shines through in "Gone Home."
“We can rely on making this place feel authentic by knowing what would be in a house in Oregon… the things that would be on the periphery of these characters’ experience. Whether it be the mom working for the forest service, or the girls going to Multnomah Falls on a school trip.”
Identity and authenticity are central to Fullbright’s games, so the team goes to great lengths to ensure that everything is properly represented. “Gone Home,” for example, deals with LGBT themes and riot grrrl music culture, so interviews were conducted with people who could help the team craft true-to-life stories and characters within those frameworks.
“For instance, with Sareh in Tacoma, she’s a Muslim character,” Gaynor said, referring to the group’s second game. “That is outside the personal lived experience of people on our dev team.”
A Muslim friend of the team showed Fullbright the items inside her parent’s home: tapestries bearing passages from the Quran and plaques with engraved scriptures. In the final game, a directly recreated version of one of the plaques in that friend’s house can be found.
“That particular plaque was in Sareh’s room. We had a playtester who played it who was like, ‘It was cool seeing that plaque, but you put it on the middle shelf of her bookshelf. Anything like that, with a passage from the Quran, should be on the highest shelf,” Gaynor said.
That attention to cultural and personal detail resulted in a duology of games that stand as some of the most accurate and loving representations of marginalized groups within the industry today. It also helped bring the conversation of representation in games to the mainstream.
Amidst a steady stream of violent and conflict-oriented video games, “Gone Home” released and captivated players with its quiet, reflective beauty. Some hated it, deriding its simplicity and understated conflict — but it was loved by as many or more.
Today Fullbright stands as Oregon’s premiere indie game developer. The team of ex-Bioshock developers has grown out of that shadow and started a movement that has left an undeniable mark on gaming.