Gone Home: A Featureless Game, or an Avant-Garde Story?

In 2012, three AAA video game developers left their jobs and started an indie studio in Portland, Oregon. They called themselves Fullbright. Their goal was to create a new way to experience video game stories. Their games Gone Home and Tacoma would help lay the ground work for a new controversial genre, the bane of many hard-core gamers in the mid-2010s: the “Walking Simulator.”

Fullbright’s most recent logo on their website

Walking Into a New Genre

The three developers, Steve Gaynor, Johnnemann Nordhagen, and Karla Zimonja all worked together at 2K Marin, where they worked on the BioShock series. Gaynor began as a QA pawn but worked his way up to becoming a level designer and even a lead designer for the Minerva’s Den DLC for BioShock 2. While working at 2K Marin, these three developers gained experience in telling a story through level design and environmental cues, allowing the space to tell much of the story, making the story itself into an object to be interacted with. As development began for BioShock Infinite, Gaynor left to live in Portland, bringing Nordhagen and Zimonja with him. Within a few months, they hired Kate Craig as an environmental artist, and together the four of them created their first attempt at streamlining the stories they had worked on at 2K. They would do away with combat or puzzles; instead, the unraveling story itself became the gameplay hook.

From left to right: Steve Gaynor, Johnnemann Nordhagen, Karla Zimonja, and Kate Craig at the BAFTA 2014 Awards

In 2013, they finished. Gone Home was released initially on PC with later ports to consoles. It won the 2014 BAFTA award for Best Debut Game, but it wasn’t universally praised. In fact, as stated before, it soon became the target of many critics who refused to call it a “real video game.”

It’s true that Gone Home lacks many traditional game elements – there’s no Game Over, and there’s no challenging obstacle to overcome. Not every player will enjoy that kind of experience. What I find amusing, though, is that these critics created the derogatory term “Walking Simulator” in order to gatekeep others from enjoying them, as if Walking Simulators were some plague that would ruin the games that they liked. It’s absurd. The games industry is big enough for all different types of experiences — from twitchy esports, to massive open worlds, to story-driven Walking Sims. Perhaps some people felt misled or disappointed by how Gone Home subverts expectations. From the title screen and initial premise, you’d think it was a horror game. However, Fullbright was aware of this and wanted to surprise the player by going in a different direction.

Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself. It’s not time to review the game yet. Let’s move on.

Going Where No Video Game Has Gone Before

After the release of Gone Home, Nordhagen left to work on his own project and Fullbright hired new staff to take his place. They continued to experiment with video game narratives, this time crafting a game loop where the player would eavesdrop on conversations, and the player’s physical location would affect whose side of the story they heard. Fullbright married this mechanic with a futuristic setting, putting the player in an abandoned space station. The player would have an augmented reality interface that would allow them to freely watch, rewind, and fast-forward through recordings of characters interacting with each other. Once again, they knew an empty space station was a classic set-up for horror, and once again they subverted those expectations. They called their newest project Tacoma, which was released on PC and Xbox One in 2017 and on PS4 in 2018. It won even more awards than Gone Home did.

This grungy Feminist zine was one of my favorite finds in Gone Home

Instead of scaring the player, Fullbright’s stories are more interested in examining the conflict between social norms and trends and the individuals that it affects. In Gone Home, Fullbright examined issues of the ’90s with rigid gender roles and anti-establishment feminism. Tacoma, on the other hand, extrapolates our current trends of automation, A.I. integration, and neoliberal capitalism. Because economics were on my mind at the time, I found myself personally relating to Tacoma’s characters more than Gone Home’s, despite Tacoma’s more fantastical premise.

Okay, I guess if I can’t avoid inserting my opinion, then it’s time to just review the games.

My Impressions of Gone Home and Tacoma

Like I said before, I think the “controversy” surrounding Gone Home is ridiculous. However, what I do find interesting is how Gone Home makes us ask what it means to play a video game. Why play any game? On one level, a gameplay mechanic is fun to figure out and master on its own merit. On another level, gameplay increases a player’s immersion and emotional commitment to a story’s setting and a story’s characters. There comes a point, like in Gone Home, where the story and the gameplay are so interconnected that it can be hard to separate the two. You play as Katie Greenbriar who returns home from a year-long trip around Europe to the new house her family had moved into while she was away. However, when she arrives home, no one is there to greet her. Katie has to explore the house to find out what happened. The house is filled with clues such as notes, books, memos… every object unravels another detail about these people and what happened during Katie’s absence. The main plot revolves around her younger sister, Samantha, though her mom and dad also have their own stories if you look hard enough. Reading notes and wandering around a house aren’t challenging tasks in real life, so why would the gameplay have a challenge to it? However, if you don’t search thoroughly, you can miss out on details and events, so the story still needs you to find all of its pieces. I find it a seamless blend marriage of story and gameplay; you can hardly tell them apart.

As impressed as I am with Gone Home, I’ve still experienced good environmental storytelling in other games. This kind of storytelling is rather static; the story lies in the objects lying around, written down, or spoken to you via journal entries. Tacoma, however, felt truly innovative. In addition to combing through the environment, you watch the holograms of the crewmembers and use those observations to progress through the station. With new elements such as body language to take into account, you have additional layers of meaning to decipher. The plot is still very linear and “after the fact,” but you have a more dynamic way of piecing it together.

Steve Gaynor and Karla Zimonja during an office visit with Game Informer

I also appreciate how both games set you up to expect one story, but then give you a completely different one. The endings legitimately surprised me both times. The real-world social issues gave me a lot to sit with once I turned off the game. However, I don’t think Fullbright fully develops or commits to what these social issues mean for the characters and the game world as a whole. They may give a slice of the issue but the way the characters act, it’s as if the writers didn’t think about what those actions would fully mean, or they did think about it, but decided to wrap the ending in a neat little bow. I like their fresh approach, but not every story beat works for me.

During The 2020 Game Awards, Fullbright announced a new project, Open Roads, which will release on PS4, PS5, Xbox, and PC. Based on Fullbright’s pedigree, I anticipate that it will be yet another emotional story told through this ingenious, narrative-focused genre.

Further Reading / Sources

  1. https://fullbright.company/
  2. https://web.archive.org/web/20181128231650/https://fullbright.company/about/
  3. https://stevegaynor.cool/
  4. https://youtu.be/vKmFF033I9E
  5. https://youtu.be/SMV4Etp9Exo
  6. https://youtu.be/l3juRQvTX-U
  7. https://youtu.be/1N0qNhOHjWw
  8. https://www.gdcvault.com/play/1022112/Level-Design-in-a-Day
  9. https://www.gdcvault.com/play/1020376/Why-Is-Gone-Home-a
  10. https://youtu.be/Pbe9BIclDrg
  11. https://youtu.be/rm8pNhA7IVs
  12. https://youtu.be/eO9ehwDt-yk
  13. https://www.polygon.com/2016/9/28/13076654/the-problem-with-walking-sims
  14. https://www.salon.com/2017/11/11/a-brief-history-of-the-walking-simulator-gamings-most-detested-genre/

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