Of all the ways that BioShock changed video games, its influence on the so-called walking simulator may be the most unexpected. The first walking simulator – a onetime pejorative for story-based, first-person exploration games that is now embraced or grudgingly tolerated by their designers and players – is generally thought to be the Chinese Room’s Dear Esther. But the most famous walking simulator is surely Fullbright’s Gone Home, a game made by four people, three of whom worked on BioShock 2.
And in a sense, Fullbright’s first game was Minerva’s Den, an acclaimed expansion for BioShock 2 that is basically a Rapture short story. Like the rest of the BioShock series, Minerva’s Den has been remastered for PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC for BioShock: The Collection.
Steve Gaynor, a level designer for BioShock 2, was the game’s lead designer and writer, and his creative partner was Karla Zimonja, a 2D artist and story editor. Later, they would become two of the three founders of Fullbright, where they fulfilled the exact same roles during the development of Gone Home.
“In a lot of ways, it feels like the first entry in a trilogy,” Gaynor says. “That’s just a personal trilogy, in terms of me and Karla working together.” (Part Three is the still-in-development Tacoma.)
Like Gone Home, Minerva’s Den is a love story. Unlike Gone Home, it includes Big Daddies and plasmids and spearguns and all the other staples of BioShock 2.
Yet while the mechanics are BioShock 2‘s, the story stands on its own. Minerva’s Den can be completed in three to five hours. It’s set in the newly created computer center for Andrew Ryan’s underwater city, where a man named Charles Porter built a machine called The Thinker – and began using it to try to resurrect the memory, and maybe the consciousness, of his dead wife.
Gaynor wanted to take players to a new part of Rapture, with new characters. “I like when a TV series explores the story of a new set of characters each season,” he said. “Or I like when a sequel to a game isn’t the exact same character you already spent 20 hours with. Who else lives in this world? What else is happening here?”
The finished game is one of the best story-driven expansions for a video game, a contained vignette that is rewarding all by itself. Designers and publishers can certainly treat DLC as a “cash-in,” Gaynor conceded, but the lower stakes for downloadable expansions can also lead to “more interesting, weirder explorations,” he said. Among the DLC games he admires are The Last of Us: Left Behind, The Lost and the Damned from Grand Theft Auto IV, Mass Effect 2‘s Kasumi: Stolen Memory, and Dishonored‘s The Knife of Dunwall and The Brigmore Witches.
“There’s certainly a level of freedom when you’re making a DLC,” Gaynor said. “It’s like, ‘Well, we want to do a really good job. But if we don’t, it’s not the end of the world.’ It’s not a high-expectation venture.”
The challenge, he added, is to “figure out how to say something new with your game without fundamentally changing what it’s made of.” That can be done by introducing new mechanics (Dishonored); by finding ways to use old mechanics to express new meanings (The Last of Us: Left Behind, which turned the base game’s combat interactions into games of mischief for two girls in a shopping mall); by introducing unexpected elements into a familiar open world (Red Dead Redemption‘s Undead Nightmare or Far Cry 3‘s Blood Dragon), or just by introducing new characters (Grand Theft Auto IV and BioShock 2).
“I really liked that in the GTA IV DLC, you play as somebody else,” Gaynor said. “It wasn’t just, ‘Then what happened to Niko?'”
After Minerva’s Den, Gaynor moved to Boston to work for Ken Levine at Irrational Games as a level designer for BioShock Infinite. Before that game was finished, he decided to move home to Portland, Oregon, to start his own studio. That was when he and Zimonja put the band back together.
When Gaynor and Zimonja founded Fullbright with Johnnemann Nordhagen, they weren’t certain that they were going to make a walking simulator – a first-person, story-based exploration game that’s devoid of combat, puzzles, and other conventional video game challenges. That happened as they thought about their strengths and expertise, and what it would mean to remove guns, and plasmids, and leveling, and quest objectives, and loot. Could you make a “kind of a BioShock thing” with just audio diaries and environmental storytelling?
“I think when you play Minerva’s Den, especially the very end of the game, after we’ve had the character reveal and we’ve put the player’s weapons down, and you’re in Porter’s personal space, and it’s just you and the environment and an audio diary – that’s the part of the game that’s Gone Home in microcosm,” Gaynor said. “Even when we were making the DLC, there were people on the team who said, ‘Man, Porter’s office is such a cool combat space! We’re not going to put any splicers in there, really? What are you doing?'”
There’s a little Minerva’s Den in Tacoma, too. “With Tacoma, we’re closing the loop in a lot of ways,” Gaynor said. “Minerva’s Den was a callback and homage to System Shock 2, which the original BioShock was based on. What would an A.I. story be in Rapture? What technology would enable a re-examination of some of the original inspirations for BioShock? With Tacoma, we’re making a game on an abandoned space station, that’s about an A.I., that is even more directly re-examining some of those themes and tropes – but through the stuff that we’ve learned about environmental storytelling and player-driven narrative, both in Minerva’s Den and Gone Home.”
Is Tacoma another love story?
“We’re still in the middle of making it,” Gaynor said. “I think that Minerva’s Den and Gone Home have more in common in that sense, in terms of a story that’s really focused on one person and the person they love. Tacoma is much more of an ensemble story. It’s about this whole group of people and how they deal with a shared crisis.”
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