Gone Home: forging connections without characters

Gone Home is a personal experience. It's personal to The Fullbright Company, the small team of independent developers who left Irrational Games to work on something with a more intimate scope. It's personal to the individual developers involved, who draw from their experiences of growing up in the '90s to inform the game's story and setting. And, according to designer Steve Gaynor, if the studio gets it right, Gone Home will be a personal experience for players.

Set in an Oregon family home in the '90s, Gone Home places the player in the shoes of Katie, a college student who returns home to find that her parents and sister aren't there. At first, there is nothing obviously wrong with the situation players find themselves in. There's no ransom note, no exterior motive to find out where the parents are and no radio or commander offering direction. Players are in their family home — they can do whatever they want, or they can do nothing at all. With the right setup, Gaynor hopes player curiosity will drive them to do exactly what feels most natural to them.

"Every game that connects with people has what some developers call a core fantasy — something that gives you the ability to do something you don't get to do in your everyday life," Gaynor says. "So in Grand Theft Auto, it's like you're driving around and you think, 'Oh I wish I could just drive up the sidewalk and around all this traffic.' In any kind of game where you beat a bunch of enemies, there's this power fantasy of I can be the strongest dude or whatever.

"In Gone Home, I think the aspect of that is there's a feeling of voyeurism to it."

"When you're in someone else's space, there's always this inherent draw to say, 'I wonder what they keep in their dresser drawers?"

Gaynor says there is an inherent curiosity within people to find out more about those who they know. "They say that everybody who has ever had guests over their house has had someone go through their medicine cabinet," he says. "When you're in someone else's space, there's always this inherent draw to say, 'I wonder what they keep in their dresser drawers?"

Gone Home gives players the freedom and permission to go through every aspect of this family home; to open drawers, to read notes, to look at things people left behind and find out who they are. Gaynor says it's a transgressive act, which is part of the reason why the player is made a member of the family.

"We wanted to make it clear upfront that something isn't right and there's a mystery to be solved. There's something urgent you need to figure out, so you feel like, 'OK, I'm not purely an intruder in this house, this isn't like a home invasion game. I need to find out what happened, so it's OK for me to go through to try to find everything I can to determine what led up to the point where we're at.'"

ENVIRONMENTAL STORYTELLING

The Fullbright Company consists of developers who worked on BioShock 2, with Gaynor being the lead writer on the game's downloadable content, Minerva's Den. He says the development team wanted to capture the sense of immersion, exploration and discovery from the BioShock series but, rather than have it as a sideshow to action, mission objectives, leveling up and enemy-killing, they wanted to make it the focus of the game.

"For us, there was no place for combat or crazy puzzles that are abstract and weird, because we knew we wanted to set the game in a very believable setting," he says. "We wanted to make a story about people. Just people. People you might meet in your actual life."

"We wanted to make a story about people. Just people. People you might meet in your actual life."

The player never encounters any other character, but through finding photos, notes and various objects around the house, the stories of the individuals and the bigger story about the family are slowly pieced together. Early on in the game, the player learns through notes from a publisher that their father is a published author. They also learn that he writes reviews for a home theater magazine, presumably to pay the bills. At some point, the player wanders into the music room to discover boxes of their father's unsold books. Gaynor says the juxtaposition of objects within the environment tells a story without the designers having to explicitly explain to the player that the father character might be a failed author.

"That's not a sexy, exciting example," Gaynor says. "But we've had a lot of people who've played through and found those three points and made a shape out of them. The fact that the player puts it together in their head instead of being told it is really powerful."

Gaynor likens the discovery of these stories to visiting your family and hearing your grandmother tell a story about anuncle you've never heard of before. "It's not like it's a story that would be on This American Life or something," he says. "But it's like, 'Oh, that's something I never knew about my uncle before.'" He says the process of finding out something about a person makes them that little bit more real and a little more believable. There's an inherent human interest in gossip and in finding out about people who we might actually know, and Gaynor wants to see that kind of characterization in games.

When players experience Gone Home, Gaynor hopes they will find a connection to the characters they never meet, and unravel a story through their own sense of curiosity and discovery. "As far as we the designers are concerned, you don't have to do shit," he says. "We're not going to tell you what you have to do — you should only do what you want to do because it's inherently interesting to you."

And if the developers do their job right, when players scratch the surface, everything they do will make them "a little more curious about where this will lead to, and where the rest of the story goes."

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