From stage to outer space with Tacoma's Steve Gaynor

Features
10 months ago by Max Covill

For its next game, the studio behind Gone Home is looking to the stars.

The Fullbright Company, the developers of the indie sensation Gone Home, are hard at work creating their next game, Tacoma. Players assume the role of Amy Ferrier, who is exploring the space station Tacoma to find out just what happened when the crew fled the ship. It builds upon the foundation of Gone Home and allows players to navigate the space station via first-person perspective. Players are able to interact with many of the objects they come across.

Also similar to Gone Home, Tacoma is really a game about missing people. Amy’s only means to find out what happened to the crew is by looking through old digital recordings. Colorful augmented reality holograms move through the ship showcasing previous events, extremely similar to being an audience member viewing a stage play with the addition of being able to rewind and fast-forward at will.

I recently spoke with Steve Gaynor, the co-founder of The Fullbright Company, about his studio’s new game and some things players can expect when they walk upon the space station Tacoma.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Steve Gaynor, Fullbright Company co-founder Steve Gaynor, Fullbright Company co-founder

How much does the success of Gone Home play into the development of Tacoma

Steve Gaynor: It’s defining. How Gone Home did or didn’t do would basically be the basis for what we could do with our next game. Design- and experience-wise, we are really moving forward from Gone Home with the kind of game we are making. [The success of Gone Home is] also a motivator, telling us to explore concepts in that vein and push ourselves to make a new experience. 

When we first saw Tacoma, the design elements looked like Bioshock's Minerva's Den, which you had worked on. How has the design changed since then? 

The aesthetic we originally had was based on what we thought you would be doing in the game. In a lot of ways, the earlier version of the game was closer to Gone Home structurally than what we ended up doing. 

[Before, the gameplay] was more like you were guided along a semi-linear path within a non-linear space which is similar to Bioshock level design. Using magnetic boots to change surfaces meant having large sweeping spaces to propel yourself through was important. When we moved away from that and we didn’t have a surface switching mechanics, we didn’t need to have these big, huge, cavernous spaces. The spaces where the crew spend most of their time are structured and built more like an everyday space. It speaks more to the what the core of exploring a story in Gone Home is about. Making the first version of the game really showed us everything that we needed to do differently, within the goals that we had. It helped us understand what we were actually trying to do. 

Where did the decision come from to make the crew holograms? 

Aside from their visual appearance, early on we decided that they should be AR [augmented reality] projections, because we wanted the player to occupy this space. You are in the room with the characters while these events are happening. This allows you to be involved with the scenes and explore them in multiple angles. We want you to be able to deeply observe these moments without actually affecting them. That was the highest level. There has to be this layer of separation between what happened and [the player] experiencing it in the present. 

The next reason is a practical one. We are a very small team. We have one staff animator and one contract animator. There’s a lot of animation in the game. How do we make characters, but simplified enough that our team can build them and make them convincing? We weren’t going to do facial animation and hair animation. We just wouldn’t be able to do that. Having these holograms as signifiers of what the crew was doing, it kind of speaks to the similar value of audio diaries. Just hearing the voice of the character in the moment allows you to project your own kind of vision of what that would’ve been like. It is potentially much more effective than actually showing it. We believe this is the visual version of that.

"Making the first version of the game really showed us everything that we needed to do differently."

Another change to the hologram design was an addition of a skeleton. Did that give you more flexibility? 

The skeleton actually started from the idea [of] motion tracking. Similar to the Kinect camera, [Tacoma's holographic representations] connect the points in the figure to a wireframe skeleton and extrapolate from that. Our starting point was just to make what was happening visually clearer. It gives you more visual information to respond to as a player. Along with the body skeleton, we added a crosshatch on their face, which delineates the center line of the front of their head and then the end goes where their eyeline would be. This helps players make the connection of where the characters are looking at a given point. 

The other big thing you’ll notice between older and newer videos is now the heart of the gameplay is in one of the station’s subsections. [The AR scenes can] have half a dozen characters going about their business independently. Any one of these captured AR moments is bigger than where you can be at any one given time. It took us a while to get to [the timeline manipulation] mechanic, but that’s because to us it is an expression of how these in-world character scenes can relate mechanically to the kind of experience you can have with Gone Home. You have a room and it has bunch of stuff in it. You explore it, find all the bits and pieces to put together in one whole image. Being able to do that with the characters as well [in Tacoma] was really important to us. Everything we put in front of the player needs to add up to the core experience of being an investigator. 

Can you talk a little bit more about how the timeline manipulation mechanic came about?

We had this one scene that had a branch, and we wanted to do stuff that allowed players more control. I had an epiphany that I wanted to be in the middle of that big scene where all the characters are around me and I could follow all the threads. We needed to rewind and fast-forward the whole scene to enable that. 

Part of our inspiration came from a stage production in New York called Sleep No More. It's an immersive theater production where the audience is in the same space with the performers. We wanted to get that feeling of being inside of those scenes. A big part of Sleep No More is that it is an hour-long production that loops three times. Like in Tacoma, you can be following one actor and see where they go and then see another actor come in, have a scene, and then split off. You, as a viewer, need to decide which actor you are going to follow. At the end of the hour when it loops again, you can follow the other person. Thus you can add up everything you are seeing into one whole. 

Sleep No More, an immersive theater production in which audiences occupy the same space as actors. Sleep No More, an immersive theater production in which audiences occupy the same space as actors.

There’s a very lived-in feeling in both the demo for Tacoma and Gone Home. How much thought is put into random cereal boxes or certain items in your games? 

I’d say probably more than in most games. It cascades down from the fact the game is about being in these environments and about saying to the player: "you can interact with anything in this environment." The game is about finding details and about having a specific set of rules that are about allowing the player to find those details. The rule set has to say anything that isn’t nailed down can be picked up and examined.

If you can examine the family photo, you need to be able to examine the cereal box and the toilet paper roll [as well]. If there are fish sticks in the freezer, we need to make a fully detailed fish sticks box, so that you don’t pick it up and it says ‘fish sticks’ in Comic Sans. Even if nobody cares about the fish sticks, if we don’t do it right, the whole illusion falls apart. If it isn’t done right, we’ve broken our contract with the player; everything in this world needs to be ‘real.’

What is the song we hear in the Tacoma demo? Is there going to be more music peppered throughout? 

There's definitely more music in the game. The song in the demo is [a cover of Peggy Lee's] “Is That All There Is” that we got the actress who plays E.V. St. James [Dawnn Lewis] to sing.

Music in Tacoma is fairly different than how we used it in Gone Home. In Gone Home, every time you found an audio dairy, in the background there was the original soundtrack. In Tacoma, there’s only really in-world music; stuff found in recordings. Other than that, there is light environmental ambience.

"If there are fish sticks in the freezer, we need to make a fully detailed fish sticks box... Even if nobody cares about the fish sticks, if we don’t do it right, the whole illusion falls apart... We’ve broken our contract with the player."

Everything in the game happens completely in fiction. You aren’t hearing audio diaries that are happening in a framing device in the abstract. Everything you are finding is in the game. Any music you hear is playing in the world with Amy. There are no inventory, map, or journal review screens.

Certainly, a lot of what makes Fullbright tick is the team you have. Do you see yourself or any members of the team in the characters in Tacoma?

There are some character types that come more directly from me. As a writer, one tends to have certain characters they focus on; that come from yourself. It is more important to us that the characters seem like they come from more than one voice. There are six people in the home office at Fullbright, four of them are women and two of them are men. Similarly, Tacoma is made up of a crew of six people, where four of them are women and two of them are men. We are a small team on this game, we all have different disciplines, we have to learn how to rely on each other as a group and that’s also -- in a more dramatic, sci-fi way -- what the story of Tacoma is as well.

When you aren’t working on Tacoma, what games are you playing? 

I’m partway through a playthrough of Yakuza 0. I’ve been into the series since Playstation 2. I’m also playing Night in the Woods, which is really charming and interesting. Last year, some of my favorite games were Hitman and Dishonored 2. Way back into last year was Firewatch. I’d love to try the new Zelda.

Do you feel there is a very specific game we will see from Fullbright? Or are we going to see a 3D platformer next time?

I don’t know. It is very unlikely we will do a mascot kart racer or golf game, but beyond that, we don’t want to take anything off the table.

We really tend to take what we are doing one step at a time. On the one hand, I think it is important build on what you’ve done and expand on that. Despite the fact you are walking around in first person and finding story stuff, we hope that when you play Tacoma it feels like a very different experience to Gone Home structurally and in the moment-to-moment. 

Tacoma arrives this spring on Windows, Mac, Linux, and Xbox One. You can follow the game's development on its official website.