Exclusive Interviews

Tacoma Isn’t Just Another “Gone Home”, It’s Bigger, Narratively Complex and More Interactive

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Gaynor’s games have a reputation for their narrative-rich worlds, full of environmental storytelling with intriguing tales behind almost every object. Before striking out into independent development, Gaynor worked on projects with a similar emphasis on story, including the Bioshock series.

“My first job in the games industry was as a tester at Sony,” he says. “Then at a small studio up in San Francisco that was making MMOs. But at the same time, I was making my own levels for the FPS, F.E.A.R. and I got hired as a level designer on the expansion pack. I went from there to being a level designer on Bioshock 2 with Tynan Wales, who works at Fullbright now.”

“I was the lead on Minerva’s Den,” he goes on to say. “Which was the DLC for that game, and then I worked at Irrational for a while on Bioshock Infinite until I left that studio, and came back to Portland when we started our own studio. That was my arc in the industry before going indie.”

Fullbright continues to evolve as it moves from strength to strength. The success of Gone Home has allowed the company to expand, meaning that along with a dedicated office space, new faces have come into the fold. But despite its growth, Fullbright retains its focussed and committed spirit.

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“When we started out we were staying at my wife’s family’s house for a couple of months,” says Gaynor. “Then we were working out of the basement in a house that we rented, and now we have an actual office space and eight people working at the studio full-time. It’s become a little bit more grown-up, I guess.

“That was one of the things that was really inspiring for us, just working on the DLC for Bioshock 2. The team was around 80 to 90 people, I think, when that game shipped, and the team for the DLC was like nine full-time developers. So working on Minerva’s Den felt like working on a very small team, and what struck us on that project was the agility we had. When you’re on a team of 80, 100, 150 people, a) the project is too big for any one person to keep all of it in their head, even the creative director or executive producer whose job that’s supposed to be, it’s still just too much. The other side of it, is that there’s so many approvals and so many meetings that you have, and so many layers of, ‘I have this idea, should we do it? Well let me ask the design lead, and let them talk about it in a meeting, and then once all that happens, maybe we should try it’.

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“When you’re on a small team, whether it’s a small team that’s working on DLC or an indie development team, you can have ideas and just try them out. Twenty minutes later, you’re seeing whether that idea is actually going to work or not. That small scale also means that when I was the writer and designer on Gone Home, Carla and I worked on the story together, and she did the 2D art, we had one programmer, one 3D artist and one level designer, me. I had to keep the whole project in my head, because I was personally placing all of the things in the level and writing the scripting. That cohesiveness of the end product comes out of the fact that you’re not trying to wrangle this whole group of people, it can be one person who’s the filter that everything that ends up on screen goes through.”

He continues: “If anything, [developing Tacoma] is starting to feel more like working on something like Minerva’s Den, there’s not just a single programmer and a single designer, but it’s still a small enough studio that everyone can get in a room together and kick ideas around. It’s more fluid in terms of collaboration, which is definitely more like Minerva’s Den. It’s more of an ongoing collaboration between a larger group than last time, but still the right scale, especially for what we’re trying to do with Tacoma, which is increase the complexity, increase the overall scope of the game to the point where we’re doing things we couldn’t have done if we only had one person per discipline. But hopefully we’re keeping everything tight enough that there isn’t that unhelpful bureaucracy that you develop with huge projects.”

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Having a small team allows individuals to take ownership of certain aspects of development, and directly influence how they turn out. A bigger team can mean more collaboration, but some things, like story, aren’t always up for discussion.

“That’s going to be interesting in Tacoma,” says Gaynor. “Because for Gone Home, it was only really me and Carla. Even on Minerva’s Den, there wasn’t much collaboration on the story. They are even people on the team who intentionally avoid it. I remember once we were in a staff meeting at the end of development, we were going to send the game to certification in another week or month or something like that, and I mentioned a story twist, and a bunch of people in the meeting were like, ‘AHHH, spoilers!’ And I was like, “You didn’t know that? You’re making the game.” On a small team like that, I think a lot of people prefer to focus just on stuff that they’re particularly responsible for, and let the rest of the experience of the game come up when it’s finished.”

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With Tacoma, Fullbright haven’t played it safe. Starting with the setting, they’ve tried to re-evaluate and expand upon the ideas of their first game to create something fresh.

“Tacoma is a first-person game where you arrive on a space station, it’s the year 2088, and it’s supposed to be your first day on the job, but something’s clearly gone wrong,” Gaynor explains. “So you as the player-character explore the station to try and find out what’s happened to it and to try and get it back into working order, so that the player can be reunited with the crew.

“For us, so much comes out of the mechanics and what the player does. Generally, the specifics of the story and the premise come later. We knew that we wanted to make a game with Gone Home as a starting point, as far as the type of game it was, but we didn’t want it to be another family story, we wanted to push ourselves to make a game about a more diverse group of people who’ve been thrown together in this place. But we still wanted it to be about walking around, interacting with AI, all that sort of stuff. So we were trying to come up with a place that would make sense for those mechanics and I threw out a space station as an idea because we’d talked about some more mundane locations, in the real world, in the past, and we all felt that that’s what we made with Gone Home just with a change of date, change of location. We thought that if we pushed ourselves to do a sci-fi setting and come up with a world that provided a frame for the story, instead of it being 1994 so what was going on? What was on TV? It’s more like, what is TV in this universe? What has it evolved into? If we have TV now, what are people using for entertainment two generations from now?

“There’re a bunch of new kinds of questions that we have to answer, and that’s basically the approach we’re taking.  It’s a space station in the near future, two generations, 75 years from now, so why’s that station there? Who built it? Why is this small crew on it? And what state is it in that means you can just walk up and shake your hand when you arrive? Our fictional universe has to provide interesting answers to all of those questions.”

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To create a unique and interesting feel for the Tacoma space station, Fullbright have drawn on a variety of classic and more contemporary sci-fi influences.

“Part of what the game’s about is looking at the setting from both sides,” says Gaynor. “When you enter the facility, when you board Tacoma station, you see it as a passenger, commercial, tourist stop-over station between earth and the moon. So when you step in you see the way that the company wants to present itself to the passengers, and the passengers are the wealthiest people in the world, so it’s something between a cruise ship and a high-class casino, very gilded and bright. But then the people who work on the station are a small technical crew whose job it is to keep the place running until another group of tourists show up and it’s basically like an airport terminal in space. I think it’s somewhere between, ‘what would extreme opulence in our setting look like?’ and then there’s the much more utilitarian side of life on the space station.

“A really obvious point of reference for us is 2001: A Space Odyssey. We just wanted to have that kind of believability. I think there’s something really interesting about saying, ‘this is an extrapolation’, specifically from the late 60s. Like in Bladerunner, there’s Atari and Bell Telephone. That kind of approach of having really clear ties back to our present is really interesting to us.

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“I definitely use the dinner table scenes, and a number of the different character scenes, from the original Alien as a reference point. Something that they emphasise is that they’re blue collar people, more or less, there’s kind of a mix with the science officer and the captain, but there’s this interesting mix of people who’re in this unfamiliar, totally alien, as it were, setting; but they’re still very recognisable people. I think no matter where you put people they’ll still argue about how much they should be getting paid or telling dirty jokes to each other, it was really inspiring to see how grounded that made the movie feel – these are actually people that I can relate to, even though they just came out of cryosleep.

“And the movie Moon, which is maybe seven or eight years old now, directed by Duncan Jones, was really great. In that it only had one character for the entire movie, just alone on this lunar facility and it’s about how he copes with the isolation of living there on his own, but then also what he discovers when he starts investigating how the place really works. He has one companion, which is the AI on the station, that’s a really interesting point of reference. It has that HAL-esque, blank voice where you can’t tell what it’s thinking. What’s interesting is that you can’t tell its motivation the whole time, so it uses these emoticons, and then by the end you’re like, ‘oh, it just wants to help, that’s nice’. It’s fascinating that it was just nice, which I thought was really cool.”

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The player-character in Tacoma has been designed more to facilitate the experience than anchor it. While she is a character with dialogue, players are meant to project themselves into the game’s world, with Amy acting as a link between you and the fictional space.

“In Tacoma, you play as Amy Ferrier, she’s a deep space technician who’s been called onto Tacoma to take over for one of the crew members on short notice,” Gaynor says. “You show up on February 29th, and expect to be greeted by the crew, but they aren’t there. All you see are these hologram recordings that’ve been left behind. A big part of the game is augmented reality, digital stuff being overlaid, what that means is that there’re these moments that’ve been recorded from the crew’s life before you got there, in a way that basically looks like holograms, give-or-take.

“What’s interesting for me is that Amy has slightly more agency in this fictional setting than Katie did in Gone Home. Katie’s only job in Gone Home was to try and find out what happened to her sister, she’s purely an investigator. But in Tacoma, Amy’s investigating what happened to the crew, but also she’s a trained space technician, so her role is also to try and figure out what state the facility’s in and how can she bring systems back online to try and get this thing running the way it’s supposed to. That’s the arc of the story. At the beginning, among the first things she ends up having to do is reinitialise the AI computer helper on the station, who then becomes the voice in her ear to try and figure out exactly what’s going on. One part of the story is trying to find out who the crew are and what happened to them, and the other part is trying to figure out the role of the station computer in all of this, how much awareness it has and what its relationship with the crew has been.

“She’s a lot more of a player-proxy. I think if you look at something like [Campo Santos’] FireWatch, that game is very much about Henry, the player-character, talking a lot. The player can make dialogue choices, but he is very present as a specific individual, with a voice and as a central part of the experience. Amy is voiced, but she’s much more about bridging the gap between the players’ experience and the environment. She’s closer to someone like Garret in Thief, he’s voiced but hardly talks at all in level, because he’s only there to be between the player sitting in a chair and the world that the fictional character inhabits.”

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“I think in a lot of ways she’s more present because she has a more defined role that has something to do with the player,” he adds. “With Garret it’s like, ‘take our word for it, he was a master thief before you got here, now you’re in his shoes’. With Amy, she knows her way around a space station, she’s a technical person, so you go ahead and step into her shoes, but she’s going to react to things that speak directly to her experiences as an individual; but not so much that she’s constantly gabbing while you’re walking around.”

Tacoma’s basic gameplay formula doesn’t deviate too much from the foundations that Fullbright laid with Gone Home, what’s really changing is the scope of the experience.

“It’s still very much in line with the core loop of Gone Home,” Gaynor explains. “Which is just to say you explore, you try to find as much as you can, but at the end of the day, what it breaks down to is explore thoroughly to open up additional areas, then explore more to open another area until you’ve gained access to the entire environment – then the story also resolves at that point.

“We’re still building it, so I don’t want to sign up for too much, but we’re interested having more big areas in parallel in Tacoma than in Gone Home. Gone Home was very much, once you’d unlocked all of the doors it was a more open environment, but you were guided through in a roughly linear fashion. That’s why there were locked doors, because we wanted you to go here-or-there, but in Tacoma we’re exploring a structure that’s much more like, ‘ok, we’ve introduced you to the experience, now we’re going to set you loose’, so you can go places in any order, but once you’ve explored all of them, you’ve gotten to the end of the game. That’s an untested theory for us at this point, so we’ll see how much we can really support parallel content and how much we have to close up.

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“The overall structure and the overall approach is still based on exploration, but it’s more about what kinds of abilities you have while you’re exploring. The entire station’s in zero-gravity, so one mechanic of the game is that, since there’re large, open cabin spaces, people use magnetic boots to walk along surfaces. When you get to one of these areas, you’re not just walking on the floor plane trying to see what’s available in your eye-line, but you can also look up and transfer to the ceiling, so you can get to other areas that weren’t accessible before.

“And there’re the holographic recordings of things that happened in the crew, which’re in 3D space with you and can be replayed at will. So with a lot of these scenes, it’s not like something’s happening and you have to stare at it, there’re two different conversations going on in parallel, or one character leaves half way through the scene and goes somewhere else. So it’s about how you place yourself in the space and relate to these scenes as they’re playing out. It’s still a game that’s about exploring to find out clues to what happened, but you have more tools to explore the 3D space than you had before.”

Fullbright are avoiding making Tacoma too ‘gamey’. Mechanics are only added if they make sense in the fictional work that they’re creating, and what is included is never at the expense of immersion.

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“There’s some additional complexity and some additional density just in terms of different kinds of traversal tools that you have and ways that information can come across,” says Gaynor. “You’re not purely finding objects, reading things and listening to audio diaries, but also tracking these scenes between characters and trying to put back together what happened, and the AR means that there’re different kinds of media and exchanges that you can interact with. But it’s not really about making more gameplay systems, we aren’t interested in having puzzles specifically, we aren’t interested in adding significantly greater challenge to the game. I think that something like the surface transfer mechanic is one step further in how you have to think about the game in different ways, but if anything, we’re in some ways we’re trying to pull back on the individual number of moving parts to try and keep everything in-world.

“In Gone Home for instance, when you read a note, it went full-screen and you were reading it. In Tacoma, at this point, we don’t have a concept like that, everything is in-world and you don’t ever leave. You don’t have any inventory, you don’t bring up a screen that shows your inventory slots or anything like that, so on one level, that’s a system that we’ve removed from the game, but hopefully it makes the whole experience feel more cohesive and uninterrupted, allowing you to focus on the stuff that’s interesting on-screen.”

Games like Tacoma that shun traditional gameplay systems, turn away from puzzles, and wouldn’t dream of combat, are often pejoratively dubbed ‘walking-sims’. However, as the term’s usage becomes more ubiquitous, it’s losing its negative connotations.

“It’s one of those things where it feels like it’s just the term that’s become the most recognisable when referring to the kind of game we’re making,” says Gaynor. “I don’t really know of a better one. You can’t force stuff like that.

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“I was talking to somebody else about this, and I remember that until the later 90s there wasn’t a name for the first-person shooter genre, because people hadn’t settled on one yet. The word for it was a ‘Doom clone’ as I remember, or ‘the next Doom killer’, just in reference to this one game that defined what that meant. Then when games like, Sin, Kingpin and Half-life started coming out, it was like, ‘those really aren’t Doom clones. So what is the thing that really holds them all together?’ In a lot of ways, I’ve seen people try to come up with all different phrases for this kind of game, and they’re always just too broad, ‘oh, it’s a first-person exploration game’, and that kind of sounds like Skyrim or something to me. There’re a lot of games where you explore in first-person. ‘It’s a first person experience, then’, well so is Half-life 2. I think that the terms that come to become the shorthand for this stuff, you don’t really have any control over. I don’t know if they need a name necessarily, but these things have to happen naturally.”

Whatever you want to call them, the benchmark for a great game that relies heavily on its story is a truly memorable setting with a striking sense of atmosphere, something that Fullbright are trying to create with Tacoma.

“There’re two sides to it, and some of it’s kind of unavoidable,” Gaynor says. “In Gone Home, we chose to set the game in an old Victorian house, in the middle of the night, in a rainstorm for a bunch of reasons that weren’t because we thought that would make for a great atmosphere. It was in an old Victorian house because then it could spread out and be shaped like a first-person level, as opposed to a modern house that’s all open plan and compact. It was the middle of the night and raining so that’s why she doesn’t just walk out of the front door and into town to try and call somebody, the phones are out because it’s raining. But then, at that point, that’s obviously spooky, and setting up a horror atmosphere, so you have to work out how to get into that and defuse it. I think we’re in the same place with Tacoma. You’re in this space station and you’re all alone; that’s creepy already. You can’t have a super happy, friendly space station that you’re on all alone, it’s just going to be extra creepy. That one side of it, that the settings that we’re in beg for an atmosphere.

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“The other side of it is personal aesthetic preferences coming at it from working on the Bioshock series, and being a fan of Looking Glass Games, as well as just liking games that have an overbearing atmosphere that you don’t feel that uncomfortable in. I think it’s valuable for a game like the ones that we make, where if there aren’t going to be enemies jumping out an attacking you, or you don’t have to be scared that a guard’s going to notice you on their patrol. If there aren’t practical reasons that you’re afraid, I think that if there isn’t a sense of tension and a sense of urgency, that it’s harder to connect with the experience. If it feels like you can do everything at your leisure, there’s nothing to worry about, that’s one aspect of the experience that can fall flat.”

“We want to emphasise suspense,” he adds. “We want to emphasise tension and mystery, we want to make it feel like there’s something worth figuring out here.”

For more on Tacoma, visit the game’s official website.

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