How do you create a video game with no action or violence? Just ask Steve Gaynor, Karla Zimonja and the rest of the crew at Fullbright. Out of a large brick building in Southeast Portland, the small crew works together to build what they hope to be lasting, emotionally driven games that will resonate with audiences.
They’ve created two games already with a third on the way. It all started with their first video game, "Gone Home."
"Gone Home" can best be described as a story exploration video game. The player inhabits the main character, Kaitlin Greenbriar, who returns to her Oregon home after studying abroad, only to find it completely empty.
“The entire experience of the game is exploring this house, finding clues and hints, and what the family has left behind to figure out what really happened,” Gaynor said.
The mechanics are simple: move forward and backward with the joystick, press one button to interact with items around the house. But the real crux of the game is how the player pieces together the puzzles.
“We really depend on the player meeting us halfway for the whole game because so much of the game is interpretive,” Karla said.
In other words, the clues are there, but it’s up to the player to find them and piece the story together.
One of the key features of "Gone Home" is the setting. The game isn’t set in space, or a far-off fantasy world, but rather just one house, in one rural area of Oregon in 1995.
“We wanted to make something that felt authentic and that felt like it really took place in our own world,” Gaynor said.
Gaynor, who went to school at Portland State University, wanted to draw upon his past experiences when it came to making the game feel real.
Walk around the in-game world long enough and you’ll find a lot of hidden gems that bring the world to life: cassette tapes, telephone landlines, a magazine with Nirvana’s Curt Cobain on the cover.
“To say it takes place in 1995 in a small town in Oregon, that allowed us to really pull on things that we were familiar with and say, okay, in the story the characters are in high school, they go on a trip to Multnomah Falls,” Gaynor said.
"Gone Home" was Fullbright’s first foray into the world of indie video game development. Both Gaynor and Zimonja had previous experience working for the video game company 2K Marin as a level designer and an artist.
The two worked together on a small team to create "Minerva’s Den," the expansion for the game "Bioshock 2."
Eventually, they went on to bigger projects but both decided that they weren’t as creatively fulfilling.
“We both knew that feeling of working on small stuff with a small team. I think really kind of spoke to both of us more than being in the middle of one of these huge productions,” Gaynor said.
Gaynor, Zimonja and their friend and programmer Johnnemann Nordhagen, decided to move to Portland to work on their own game. The fourth member of their team, Kate Craig, worked remotely from Washington.
They rented a house in the Hollywood district, had an office in their basement and went to work creating "Gone Home."
Since there were only four of them, there were some significant challenges. They were working with a much smaller budget, which meant they couldn’t rely on fancy graphics and fast and furious action to keep the players invested. So, they focused on making a good story and a one-of-a-kind immersive experience.
A smaller budget also meant they had to wear many different hats and find clever workarounds for different problems, like recording their own sound effects.
The end result of their hard work was a game that resonated well with critics and gamers.
"Gone Home" was a success when it launched with many critics hailing it as the future of video games. For their efforts, Fullbright received numerous awards and nominations, including a BAFTA and an award from the Game Developers Conference for “Best debut.”
For the crew at Fullbright, the success is both a surprise and a delight.
“It was very unexpected that the game would hit that much of a nerve with people when it came out that we could have our work recognized in that way,” Gaynor said.
“It’s a personal story!” Zimonja said, smiling.
The team at Fullbright is currently in the middle of producing their third video game, but they haven't forgotten the success of "Gone Home."
“It’s not something we expected, but it’s something that we were very grateful to have been involved with,” Gaynor said.