The Looking Glass philosophy behind Gone Home

Steve Gaynor never worked at Looking Glass, but it made a big impression on his career.

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As part of Polygon’s cover story on the history of developer Looking Glass, we’re looking at various projects and companies that spawned in Looking Glass’ wake. Here, we explore Gone Home developer The Fullbright Company.

In 2013, The Fullbright Company released Gone Home. It’s set in a large house in the Pacific Northwest on the day the protagonist returns from an overseas trip. But her parents are missing, along with her sister, without much explanation. And from there, The Fullbright Company weaves a narrative through environmental storytelling, lending the player clues in journal entries, love letters and throw-away notes.

None of the creators of Gone Home ever worked at Looking Glass. But they were influenced by its titles and the way the studio told its stories with contextual materials that made sense within the confines of the world they inhabited, rather than through exposition and excessive dialog.

To Fullbright co-founder Steve Gaynor, Looking Glass is a philosophy. Not so much a tangible thing that existed 15 years ago, but an idea that still resonates today.

In his work, Gaynor explores the same conceits that Looking Glass did. Work on Gone Home, the company’s debut title, drew heavily from the System Shock games, as well as BioShock. Gaynor himself worked on BioShock 2, and led development on the game’s acclaimed downloadable content, "Minerva’s Den."

All of these titles have DNA that comes from Looking Glass’ Ultima Underworld: a believable setting, complete with people who might really live there, etching out their existence in a digital landscape.

"It’s really about this feeling of being in a place and the designers trusting you to progress through it in a meaningful way," Gaynor says. "Not to be told what happens next, but to have agency, whether it’s a thief robbing a manor or a college kid coming home, trying to figure out what happened to her family."

Before Looking Glass, that was an odd notion — the idea of the players not having to do as they’re told instead being free to interpret things their own way. Looking Glass designers strove to create fertile situations, whether players discover them or not.

In retrospect, this approach is influential. But by today’s standards, none of the Looking Glass titles sold extremely well. All in all, the Looking Glass games just didn’t appeal to a broad market.

That’s because they weren’t all that accessible, Gaynor says. The controls were complex and the interfaces dense, and anyone with only a passing familiarity with PC games might have had difficulty breaching that learning curve.

Gone Home
Gone Home

Although he tried to play through System Shock several times since it released 20 years ago, Gaynor says he couldn’t finish it for the aforementioned reasons. But during his time as creative lead on "Minerva’s Den," Gaynor returned to System Shock and found it accomplished so much of what he was aiming for with his new project: player freedom, an immersive world and rich environmental storytelling.

Using a few mods to remove what he called "archaic aspects" of the Looking Glass title, Gaynor says he was finally able to make his way through System Shock’s Citadel Station. And like many other Looking Glass titles, it was a cerebral, rewarding experience.

"A lot of what Looking Glass did was ahead of its time," Gaynor says. "Complex physics systems, real-time lighting, and moving around in a 3-D environment. They were breaking new ground. It was amazing."

Creative work is often the sum of one’s experiences and the influences that came before. Gaynor, whose design acumen precedes him with Gone Home and "Minerva’s Den," wears those influences on his arm — 0451 is tattooed on his tricep to signify those who came before him.

It’s the Looking Glass philosophy, the practice of trusting players to make intelligent decisions. Not just making a game, but providing the player with agency as a hacker in cyberspace, or a thief sneaking past guards, or a young woman returning home to find her family missing.

"I definitely think there was something about that studio that knew how to bring talented, forward-looking people together," Gaynor says. "They also knew how to follow through on work no one else was doing from the very beginning." Babykayak