Last summer, I sent out an email that changed my life. That email was to Steve Gaynor, creative director at Fullbright, formerly of 2K Marin and Irrational. In the email, I asked Steve if I could have a tour of his Portland-based studio, as I was vacationing in Portland at the time. I never thought he’d respond, but two days later, we had a date and time arranged. During my hour-long visit, Steve and I talked about the industry, his writing with particular respect to Gone Home, and my aspirations as a member of the games press. That day, I discovered that I am truly in love with this industry in addition to making a valuable contact. Steve gave me permission to use his name as a reference, which I have done with virtually all of my interviews since. Last November, I reached out to Gaynor with regards to a formal Skype interview, which he was more than willing to do! Though the interview is dated, and Fullbright has since announced their next game, Tacoma, the content of the interview is still quite relevant, and I sincerely hope that readers can get a glimpse into the humble genius that is Steve Gaynor, as I have.
How’d you get into the industry?
My first job in the industry was as a certification tester at Sony. That was 2005. I was doing QA on PS2 and PSP games. From there, I continued being a tester at a smaller studio for about a year. While my day job was QA, I was working on my level design portfolio after hours. I met someone online who worked at a studio in Texas called TimeGate. At that time, I was making my own levels for FEAR, a first-person shooter. They were simultaneously working on an expansion for FEAR, and looking to hire a level designer. It made sense for me to apply, and I got my first design job at TimeGate in Texas. That’s where the design track of my game-making career started.
Did you go to Irrational from TimeGate?
No. While still working with TimeGate, I moved back to the Bay area and worked with them remotely. I ended up meeting some ex-Irrational folks at GDC that year, who were in the process of founding 2k Marin to make Bioshock 2. I interviewed with them and was hired as their second ever-level designer. I started the same week as Tynan Wales and Leon Hartwig, who are both now with me at Fullbright! I was at 2k Marin for two-and-a-half years, where I was a level designer on Bioshock 2 as well as the lead writer and level designer on Minerva’s Den. After that, I moved out to Boston to work with Irrational. At Irrational, I was senior level designer, which meant I was doing a lot of design documents and early first-pass layouts of levels in the campaign. When I got there, it was early enough that not many of the levels were established. Ken knew the basic arc of Booker and Elizabeth’s story, and had some locations in mind, such as the factory, Liz’s tower and the welcome carnival. I was working directly with Ken and some other folks in the design team to take those pieces of direction and come up with design documents. I had to come up with how we get from one story beat to another, as well as coming up with quest designs meant to teach the player certain gameplay mechanics. I was there for the year of 2011, and the game didn’t ship for another year-and-a-half, so the people who stayed on the team to ship the game constructed most of the work you saw onscreen. It was really interesting being there early enough to be involved in figuring out some of the broad strokes and being away from the project while the serious time was spend making it real. I was able to play the game with the unique perspective of knowing what changed from the beginning, and how the project evolved over time.
At what point in your career did the idea for Gone Home form in your head?
I think it was while I was working on the second Bioshock. I remember a few of the ex-Irrational folks talking about how people loved exploring Rapture and finding the audio diaries and discovering the story of Rapture, but that they often didn’t like being attacked while they were trying to find the story. The environmental story telling in the three Bioshock games has really set the precedent for how stories are currently told through the environment in a game. I really love Bioshock for the full breadth of what it does, including the ADAM economy and combat, but that sits alongside wanting to be a part of Rapture and explore the environment. That’s what the last few minutes of Minerva’s Den were like, they were combat-free; it was about being in this person’s living space and discovering who they were. After I’d been at Irrational for a year, I realized it wasn’t the scale of game I wanted to be working on anymore. It’s so huge that you get lost in it; you can’t see the full size of the project when you’re inside of it. In contrast, Minerva’s Den was a DLC project that took nine months with twelve full time employees. I wanted to get back to small enough projects that I could wrap my head around them. When I moved back to Portland and started talking to Karla and Johnnemann about our own indie thing, that was when the opportunity for the core experience of exploration and storytelling without combat culminated.
People talk about the first hour of Bioshock Infinite as it’s best: without combat, just exploration and environmental storytelling. I think if that’s where games are headed, they’re headed to a good place.
Being able to be a tourist is a very interesting experience in the context of a game. I think there is still a question of how much screen time you can support with just that experience. Gone Home, is you are slow and methodical, takes about three hours. A lot of people took about an hour and a half to two hours to finish. I don’t know if games like that will scale well to a twelve-hour experience, because they don’t necessarily need the breadth I talked about the first Bioshock as having. In the case of Gone Home, we didn’t have the resources to make a 12-hour game even if we wanted to; we focused on making the experience of exploring one place carry the playtime. It’d be an interesting experiment to take that core set of interactions and spread it out into the traditional AAA length.
I’m finding that I can’t play long games anymore. For instance, I played four hours of The Evil Within and lost patience for it, because I play for an hour at a time and the game is 20 hours long, whereas I played all four hours of The Vanishing of Ethan Carter in one sitting because it was so captivating.
I just finished The Evil Within, and it’s the rare game that legitimately compels you to grind through a 15 or 20-hour campaign. You get obsessed with it; but it’s a challenge. There’s some limit on how much you can do in one game.
Some games have the advantages of having more resources in one way or another to expand what you’re going to do. The obvious example is Grand Theft Auto, but another one is The Last of Us. They can switch things up through access to this amazing breadth of mechanics that keep the game fresh and interesting, such as the horse section. They use iterations of the same engine each time and can reuse mechanics from prior games to add more mechanical breadth to their next games, without having to build all the functionality from the ground up. Since Tango built The Evil Within from the ground up, they didn’t have access to the assets RockStar or Naughy Dog have.
It’s super interesting, especially with Steam, because there are hundreds of games that are completely unique that are often quite cheap. Many people gravitate towards those games after a few hours doing the same thing over and over again in a AAA game.
Back to Gone Home, do you think that there’s a growing importance of tackling tough topics through gaming as a medium? For instance, Gone Home tackles LGBT issues, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter tackles mental illness and family issues. That kind of thing shows up in film all the time, but it’s relatively new in games.
I think that it’s a natural thing to happen as the access people have to the methods of making a game expand and increase. Making a game is easier now than ever before, and more, different kinds of people are now making games. The same thing happened in film: As filmmaking technology became more accessible and you could make a movie without being part of the Hollywood system, more and more kinds of topics and scales of film were explored. In America, what became called film noir was one of the biggest turns. As methods of filmmaking and film going continued to evolve, there became a need for low-budget B-reel pictures to be the first movie in a double-feature with a much more high budget Hollywood film. Lots of immigrant directors from northern Europe were making films just about a few people in a contemporary setting because they couldn’t afford to build sets or have crowd scenes. That expanded to independent filmmaking and digital filmmaking. It’s a similar story with games; engines like GameMaker and Unity and digital distribution on Steam and using social media like Twitter to get the word out to a potential audience allows people who wouldn’t have had a voice in games before to make something and get it in front of an audience. That naturally means people with the ability to make games will gravitate towards making more personal, emotional games. Whether that’s in the art or the story or the mechanics or all of the above – what we’re seeing is this movement of different people being able to talk about different things in different ways. I think it’s inevitable that games will continue tackling tough topics, and that those games will find a balance with the Call of Duty’s and Uncharted’s of games.
I think it’s also very much a monetary conflict. Large, AAA studios like Sledgehammer or Electronic Arts can’t really afford to invest in a game that isn’t guaranteed to sell millions of copies. A game like This War of Mine had to be indie, because AAA studios wouldn’t take the risk of developing or publishing something like that.
I agree to a certain extent, but then you see companies like Ubisoft publishing games like Valiant Hearts and Child of Light. I think that’s a reaction from this large company that a lot of people in their organization want to make something smaller and more personal. Ubisoft has supported these people, and are therefore part of this broader movement in the industry to appeal to players looking for something small and unique.
I get into Twitter arguments all the time regarding whether or not Gone Home is a game. I think that there’s no real definition of what a game is, but Gone Home does fall into my own definition of a game. How would you justify Gone Home being a game, rather than some other medium?
I see what the high-level thought is, which is to say it’s a game where your agency as a player is in what you decide to engage with and what you get out of that. Players have the ability to explore the space the way they choose, and invest in it whatever significance they deem appropriate. The player’s role is more of an investigator or archaeologist, to find these clues and artifacts and piece together what they all mean. It doesn’t have this traditional game like structure of having on-screen mechanical challenges that they can fail and try again. There’s no reaction-based real time skill required for progression. That being said, you can totally fail at the core aspect of Gone Home, which is using observation and abstract thinking to take all these pieces of information and reconstruct them into something with meaning. The game can’t tell that you have a realization about Sam’s relationship. Its there for the player to extrapolate, the game isn’t holding your hand in that aspect. The game doesn’t care whether you read the note on the table, that’s up to the player. It’s a different way of using traditional game mechanics from the first-person shooter genre and applying them in a different way. I think that a lot of the negative reaction from a vocal group online came from the fact that the game got a lot of praise, and it felt like the critical response occupied a space traditionally reserved for the Grand Theft Auto’s and Last of Us’s. The cognitive dissonance sprouts not from the fact that the game exists, but that the game is being held up as something that occupies a space that games of this scale haven’t taken up in the past – which is not even really true, because games like Braid and Super Meat Boy have great critical acclaim. However, those games do have the traditional elements of challenge or puzzle-solving, or some kind of aspect that requires some sort of skill. Gone Home has taken that skill out of the equation, but still holds critical acclaim, hence the schism that some people are reacting to.