Interview: Gone Home focuses on player vulnerability

By Ozzie Mejia, Sep 17, 2012 2:00pm PDT

Steve Gaynor worked for 2K Marin, known mostly for its contributions to the BioShock 2: Minerva's Den DLC. After briefly working on BioShock Infinite, Gaynor decided to branch off with 2K Marin co-workers Johnnemann Nordhagen, and Karla Zimonjato to create their own indie gaming studio called The Fullbright Company. Today, Gaynor talks about taking players on a tour through an abandoned house for their first game, Gone Home.

Gaynor was the head writer and design lead for Minerva's Den, a plot completely separate from the main BioShock 2 story. What made him decide to leave the world of BioShock for a whole new venture? "We'd all worked together on BioShock 2 and Minerva's Den, and we really wanted to recapture that small team feeling we had on the DLC," he answered. "Being indie gives you a huge amount of freedom to explore ideas that big corporate games can't usually touch, because they have to stick to proven genres. Gone Home is a game we could only make by going indie."

Gone Home is described as a game that's all about exploring an empty house filled with mystery. The objective is to unravel the mystery of what happened to the house's previous occupants, a family that suddenly disappeared. The game does not feature combat or puzzles. Gone Home's main goals revolve around intense investigation, exploring every miniscule aspect of the house.

Despite the nature of the house, Gaynor assures players that nothing will happen after stepping through its doors. "Gone Home walks an interesting line," he explained. "We're saying up front, there are no other people in this game. There are no threats. You can't be hurt or die. You'll be fine. Take your time and explore the house and discover all you can. But at the same time, without a feeling of tension or unease, the experience could be very flat. So there are no ghosts or goblins or zombies in the game, the house isn't literally haunted, but we're drawing on the familiar feeling of being all alone in a dark house at night, maybe in your family's house when you were growing up, and feeling vulnerable and unsure about what might be in the dark. You know there's nothing there, but you can't help wondering. It's the fear of the unknown that we can't get away from, even if we try."

Gaynor said everything in the house is rife for exploration. Every room can be explored, though not all are immediately accessible at the start of the game. The house itself is hundreds of years old, expanded over time, and is filled with twisting corridors and passages. One of the goals will be to uncover the secrets of the house and how it originally came to be.

One of the challenges, he admits, is expressing the idea of the house as having been recently occupied. "It comes down again to the idea of tension and urgency in a lot of ways," he said. "We didn't want the house in Gone Home to be a tomb or a time capsule. We want that feeling of unease that you're snooping around the house while the inhabitants have just stepped out. We want the feeling that the story you're discovering is still ongoing, that you're one step behind the characters in the story, that it still matters in the here and now instead of just being idle archaeology."

While Minerva's Den was ready for BioShock 2's DLC cycle, Gone Home's development is coming along at a considerably more deliberate pace. Part of that is due to the nature of independent game development. Gaynor said there is a big difference between working on a smaller indie project like Gone Home versus a larger-scale project such as Minerva's Den.

"I'll tell you, you tend to gain a lot of respect for the experts behind the scenes in AAA that handle all the stuff you normally don't have to deal with on a daily basis," he said. "Paying contractors, managing publicity, navigating the hostile waters of licensing agreements--there's a lot to do. But the tradeoff is that you get to learn about all that stuff, gain a bunch of new skillsets, and be truly responsible for your own success or failure, which is incredibly valuable. From a developer's standpoint, the agility and flexibility afforded a small independent team is really central being able to explore the unknown as we are with Gone Home."

Gone Home is targeting a late 2013 release for PC, Mac, and Linux.

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