Steve Gaynor on 'Tacoma,' 'Sleep No More' and What it All Means

"Through changing the game world, you are changing your consciousness of what it contains and what it means."

Fullbright co-founders Steve Gaynor and Karla Zimonja Credit: Fulbright

A few years ago, Steve Gaynor and I were in San Francisco, talking in the halls of the Moscone Center during the annual Game Developers Conference. Every time I asked him a question, it seemed like we were interrupted by a young designer or an aspiring designer who wanted to meet him, or thank him for his work, or take a picture with him. I felt like I was talking to the pope of indie games.

Gaynor founded the video game studio Fullbright in 2012 with two fellow veterans of the BioShock series. A year later, they released Gone Home - “a combat- and puzzle-free game,” as one writer put it, “of thoughtful exploration, mundane realism, and low-key queer romance.” It changed the way many players and designers thought about video games and their potential. Only a few hours long and set in the 1990s in Portland, Oregon, Gone Home was the kind of game that would prompt The New York Times to compare it to “literary realism.” (Disclosure: That was me.)

Gone Home also alienated some players, who derided it as a “walking simulator” or as something less than a video game. Even so, Gone Home was one of five games nominated for Game of the Year in 2013 by Gaynor’s peers at the Game Developers Choice Awards, alongside blockbuster titles like The Last of Us, Super Mario 3D World, and Grand Theft Auto V. Fullbright won the award that year for Best Debut.

Now Gaynor and Fullbright are back with Tacoma, released earlier this month for PC and Xbox One. Like Gone Home, Tacoma asks players to reconstruct what happened in an abandoned place by exploring the environment, reading notes, and digging through desks and lockers. Unlike Gone Home, Tacoma is set in a space station in 2088, a time when augmented-reality technology allows for a kind of interactive cut scene, as players pause, rewind, and fast-forward the action in order to learn about the game’s characters and solve its mystery.

During a 90-minute conversation just before the game was released, Gaynor talked about why Tacoma was so hard to make, what he learned by working with Ken Levine on BioShock Infinite, and whether he sees Fullbright’s work as part of a video-game movement.

What did you want this game to say?
We really don’t start from a message or a takeaway. We start from a core player experience. Coming off of Gone Home, we were like, “OK, we make these games where you explore an environment, and you find clues, you find documents and objects, you hear pieces of story, and you put together the story from that.” We wanted to see how we could bring you closer to the characters. And so we worked to find a central mechanic that was about this more direct connection with the events of the story as they happened. From there, it’s, “What story are we telling through these means? What exactly happens, and what does the player encounter?” What I hope is people will play the game and say: “I haven’t really experienced a story in a game that was told quite this way before. This makes me think about the possibilities.”

And also hopefully that they liked the actual story that we put in the game.

Was Tacoma easier or harder because you had already made Gone Home?
Harder, for sure. We weren’t just making more Gone Home, but we didn’t know what shape that was, for a while. It’s a layer on top of the foundation that we built with Gone Home. But we can’t rely on a real world time period. We’re making up the fictional universe of 70 years from now. What do the aesthetics look like? What does the station look like? What do the objects that you’re finding look like? We can’t just look at pictures of old Victorian houses and old Sears catalogs from the ’90s and say, “It looks like that.” We have to figure that stuff out. There was a lot less that we could rely on and a lot more that we had to create, both in the design and in the fictional and visual space.

And you were in a serious car accident during development?
Motorbike accident. My wife was in a wheelchair for a while, and I was on crutches and on a cane for a while. We’re better now. Both of us survived it. But we came real close. Gone Home, the development, relatively speaking, went so smoothly. We lived cheaply. We made the game that we thought we wanted to make - just made it, released it, it got a big response and was a success for us. Throughout Gone Home’s development, none of us had health insurance. Because we were all just like, “Well, that’s expensive. We can just cut that out.” And everybody was fine.

Very soon afterward, my wife and I get into a serious automotive accident. We had just bought health insurance a few months earlier. The contrast of, “Oh, Gone Home went so smoothly, you’re starting your second project, huh? How about you spend some time in the hospital? We’ll see how smoothly this one’s going to go.”

Tacoma is literally a radio drama in space. And I mean that not just extraterrestrially, but also geographically and architecturally.
It sounds a little haughty, but I’ve thought about how the AR scenes, when you're interacting with them, you’re interacting with them in 4D. You’re thinking about yourself and the characters and what’s happening in terms of space and time, and where you need to be, in order to be where the characters are going to be at a specific point in time. And you’re manipulating all of those factors.

There’s something interesting about parallel narrative. One of my favorite pieces of fiction that has been released in the past few years is Building Stories by Chris Ware. By design, it’s basically a board-game box, and you open it, and it has 16, I think, separate publications inside it. It includes a broadsheet newspaper and a hardback book and a more traditional softback pamphlet and some smaller collections of comic strips. And they all take place surrounding the people who live in this small apartment building. But the stories all take place over, I don’t know, 150 years or more. By design, you’re supposed to be able to read any of those books in any order. What matters is they all add up to the entire picture of all these people’s lives that were connected by this one place. Every time you add something, it’s recontextualizing everything else.

Is it true that you didn’t start with the rewind mechanic in Tacoma?
That was one of our big reassessments. We worked on the game for about a year, and it became to clear to us that we weren’t getting to where we wanted. We had AR characters in the game, but they they were much more isolated. They were much more like a visual audio diary. You started one, and it was localized, and it just played through. You could play it again, but it was more of, “Find one, watch it, move on.” It didn’t speak to what we were trying to do with the game, which was to involve you in these scenes.

That was where we took inspiration from the immersive theater production Sleep No More. Which is this production where you as the audience are sharing the space with the performers, on three or four stories of this hotel that they’ve reconstructed. The performers are moving through the space - it’s all pantomime and dance - and you as an audience member are just kind of wandering through it. Some performers might come through, and they might cross paths and do a scene together. And then somebody else comes in, and they all split off. You as the viewer can obviously only be in one place at one time. So you follow the first person to see where they went. You have no idea where the other people went. But then you realize that the evening is three hours long, but the performance loops three times over the course of the night. So as you realize what’s happening, you might go back to that scene and follow the other people, and kind of build a picture of what’s going on.

We wanted to have that Sleep No More feeling. We had to get partway there before we realized what we were really trying to do.

And you originally thought you would have some kind of gravity mechanic that involved traveling between the floor and the ceiling?
That was theoretically interesting. But it’s probably more interesting in a puzzle game. What we mostly realized is that it didn’t reinforce what we were focused on as a studio. We want to show people spaces that feel believably lived in, that tell you about who lived there, and what their lives are like, and what they’re like as individuals. These big cavernous spaces didn’t have the scale to make you feel like, “Oh, I can believe that someone spent their days here and I can get a picture of who they were.” So we pushed in the opposite direction.

What did you learn from working with Ken Levine on BioShock Infinite?
When I worked at Irrational, I was a senior level designer. The level designer’s job is, “How do we get the player from, you know, ‘Elizabeth is in the tower’ to ‘You’re escaping the tower with Elizabeth and now you’re at the boardwalk.’” Here are these major moments, here are the places we’re working with, what’s the micro of what the player does in between these points? Pitching those things, talking through them, iterating on them, and then working with the level artist to do an early grayblock - a playable, walkthrough-able, super-rough blockout of the thing we discussed.

My job was to pitch Ken and then talk to him about what he thinks of it. He always was coming from the player’s perspective. How does the player know that? How are you putting that across to me if I have no idea what’s going on?

He also was really invested in researching the concepts that you’re working with. A lot of it was really practical. I was pitching stuff for the factory level. At some point, early, you needed to fix this zeppelin so you could steal it and fly away. It was a very basic quest objective. He was like, “Have you looked up how a zeppelin actually works? Are you just making stuff up?” I hadn’t done that research. He was like, “Go look up how a zeppelin works, understand it, and then make a game out of it.”

Applied to a totally different vector, that was where I came from when I was starting to work on Gone Home. If I’m going to write this story from the perspective of a queer young woman, I can’t just go with my first assumption of, “Here’s what I’ve seen in movies. It’s probably like this.” I needed to read actual firsthand memoirs, interview people, do original research to try to build the perspective that allowed me to be working from a foundation of real people’s experience, to try to do a respectful job of expressing that part of culture and that part of a lot of real people’s lives. I really was thinking at the time: “OK, this is something I don’t know about. The process is: Do the research, and then put it in the game.” I’m really grateful for that.

Why are you drawn to female characters?
I don’t know. You dig deep enough with a psychotherapist, there are probably reasons. Some of it has not been deeply examined by me. Some of it is that I’m interested in exploring perspectives that are a little bit further from the default of what games do or who you usually play as. Some of it is that my studio co-founder and story partner is Karla Zimonja. She’s also interested in talking about female characters and exploring female perspectives. I think the two of us tend to be interested in saying, “What are women’s roles in our stories?” It’s in a lot of ways where we start. It’s our default. And then we go from there.

In a 2007 post on your personal design blog, you imagined System Shock 2but with an indie outlook.” Did you finally make that game?
I guess kind of! In a lot of ways, with the three titles that Karla and I have worked on, we’ve come full circle. We did our small, character-focused BioShock story (“Minerva’s Den”), and BioShock came from System Shock and System Shock 2. And then we took that experience and translated it into a mumblecore teen drama in a house. And now we’ve gone all the way back to applying that to a space station with an A.I. with a crew that has disappeared.

When you go back and play System Shock, the interesting thing is, it has a bunch of different difficulty settings, and one of them is combat. And you can just turn combat to zero. At which point, all the enemies just stand in place and don’t attack. You can kill them with one shot, because they don’t do anything. And it’s a space station with locked doors and audio diaries.

System Shock set to combat level zero is the original walking simulator.

You said “walking simulator.” I know Gone Home wasn’t the first one, but it popularized the form. Do you see yourself as part of a video game movement?
Honestly, I would say so. There’s a group of developers who are working to explore a shared design territory. When you look at The Beginner’s Guide and Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture and Firewatch and What Remains of Edith Finch and Thirty Flights of Loving and Gone Home - and, now, Tacoma - it’s a little bit of a zeitgeist thing, where a lot of groups from a lot of different perspectives around a similar time all got invested in saying: “OK, if we take these immersive, first-person environments, if we take environmental storytelling, if we take audio storytelling, if we take those things as our starting point and our foundation, what do we build on top of that?” We don’t have combat. We don’t have complicated adventure-game puzzles. It’s about being in a place and finding out what the place is all about, and making that interesting and unique. I think there’s a feeling of kinship. We’re all doing our interpretations of the potential of this space. That kind of stuff doesn’t generally happen on purpose.

You started as a first-person shooter designer, working on an expansion pack for F.E.A.R. and then on BioShock 2 and BioShock Infinite. Would you ever make a Fullbright game with a gun in it?
I’m much less concerned with the concept of a gun existing than I am with what it means in a game. The Walking Dead had guns in it, but it wasn’t a shooter game. It was like, “Oh shit, these people are mad at each other, and now one of them pulled a gun.” That was dramatic. Life-or-death stakes were on the table. There can be a gun in a story game that means something different than a gun in PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. I don’t feel like I have a binary answer to that, whether “I totally want to next time,” or “Never.”

Would you ever want to lead a Triple-A team?
I would never want to build Fullbright into an 80-person team. And I don’t know what the life circumstances would be where I would be like, “Hey, Ubisoft, or somebody, do you want me to come lead a project for you guys?” I don’t even know if that’s a thing that happens. And I wouldn’t be in Portland. I don't know what the reality is where any of that stuff would practically happen. But in the total abstract? I think it could be a lot of fun to lead a big project, even just as a one-off thing. There is a lot of fun, cool, large-scale stuff that you can only do with 100 people. Maybe you have an idea that you’re like, “Well, there’s no way we’re making that unless we have a $5 million budget.” But the flip side is there’s a lot of ideas. Somebody else can make the big idea, and I’ll play it, and it will be fun. In a world where you’re just sort of fantasizing, it could be fun to make another big thing. But it’s not something that I’m angling for in reality.

Why did you name a character in Tacoma after Roberta Williams, the designer of King’s Quest?
I like when there are fictional characters who just happen to have the same name as a real person, like Sheriff Harry S Truman in Twin Peaks. They made a bigger deal out of it in Office Space, but like Michael Bolton. It’s a “coincidence”! Sometimes people have the same name as a famous person.

Something that defines our studio is that we have one foot in Looking Glass immersive sims and one foot in classic point-and-click story-driven adventure games. System Shock and Maniac Mansion are equally influential on how I think about games. And so a little homage to one of the people most responsible for one of the genres that has been a big point of reference for us was, I think, a nice tip of the hat.

Ten years ago, you wrote of your desires as a player: “I want to fully inhabit a single, human character within a believable and functional playable space, to express a complete and satisfying narrative arc by effecting change in the game world itself though my own meaningful decisions.” Do you think your work does that?
In the most overt way, our games aren’t about you deciding to side with this faction instead of the other one, and now there’s new stuff all over the world because of the decisions you made. But, in a game like Gone Home or Tacoma, the world is inert until you have an effect on it. The fact that you are opening a cabinet and picking up an object and rotating it isn’t important to the game world. It does change the game world because you’re changing the state of how the game world was when you arrived in it. What’s important is that through affecting the game world, you’re creating your understanding of it. Through changing the game world, you are changing your consciousness of what it contains and what it means. There isn't a lot of, “Walk through a door, hit a trigger, and watch this thing happen.” Everything that changes your perception of what the game means is through you interacting with what’s there and having an effect on the state of the world that in turn affects you.

From when you first appear on the porch in Gone Home to the time you’re going up the attic stairs, has the house been meaningfully changed by you? I would say that it has. And it’s mostly in your understanding of it. It’s mostly in your saying, “I’ve opened up a connection between mom’s bedroom and the library, and between the basement and the east wing, but I’ve also built a full understanding of what this place is and what it means.” Turning it into a place that has been affected by my presence, even though the changes that have happened to it, physically, are not the most important part. It’s not like, “Oh, man, this story is all about how those doors are open.” Or, “This is a story of light switches.”

I found Tacoma mechanically and structurally stunning, but I also thought the ending was abrupt. It felt like a twist ending that I wasn’t prepared for.
I don’t think of what we do as, “How do we make this a twist ending?” My hope is the game’s story will keep you guessing and doesn’t have you saying, “Oh, I know how this is going to end.” And then it ends that way. “Oh, like I thought.” But also that it doesn’t feel like a cheap twist that comes out of nowhere. As long as it feels like it adds up, and you weren’t being deceived unnecessarily for the rest of the game. I hope that’s where we land. We do want it to be surprising. We do want it to be a moment where you can say, “Oh, that’s what was going on.”

Did you want to make a statement about automation and the economy?
I think there is more in there about labor versus management, and the exploitation of people who don’t have many ways to defend themselves. There’s a lot of labor suppression that’s going on now. If we were making this game in the ’60s, it probably would have been a science research station funded by cooperation between nations. Now it’s SpaceX and commercial, for-profit orbital operations. So if these big companies are trying to make money through tourism, or through delivering things within orbit, or asteroid mining, then the people who work for them, what situation are they in? From everything that I can see, it doesn’t seem like those companies are going to be real altruistic about how much they favor their workers.

This interview has been edited and condensed. Chris Suellentrop is a host of the podcast Shall We Play a Game?.