Steve Gaynor: Gone Home is a game where you explore a suburban family's house while nobody's home. More specifically, it's a first-person perspective game where you walk around a house that we've made fully interactive-- you can open all the cabinets and drawers, pick things up, examine them, read notes left behind-- so that you discover the story of the place and of the people who live there by interactively investigating where they live and what they leave behind. It's a game about discovering a story through exploration.
BR: Was the decision to have the game take place in 1995 aesthetic or as a way to keep the characters from communicating?
SG: Some of both! First and foremost, we knew we wanted to make a game about walking around a house and finding bits and pieces of these people's stories, and once you get into too recent history, all that information ends up in people's email inboxes and cell phones. So, the game takes place in 1995, the family doesn't have AOL yet, and you find tons of physical artifacts and notes left around. Once we committed to the year, it became an aesthetic challenge-- how do we accurately portray this year that all of us on the dev team actually lived through and remembered? Some of it is pure memory ("Oh hey, remember Magic Eye pictures?!") but a lot of it is researching what things looked like and what would have been in the house at that time. We have heavily relied on a 1990 Sears Home Catalog that we bought off of eBay early on . . .
BR: The player spends the beginning of the game exploring a house with complete freedom. Is the rest of the game as open to exploration as the beginning seems to suggest, or are there sections that must be completed in a certain order to progress?
SG: We do have parts of the house that start locked off, but we try to use locked doors as little as possible. For us it's just a way of communicating to the player, "This is the first place you should go." Because we are telling a linear story within this nonlinear space, and we're totally happy with having the player experience each section of the game in whatever order they want, but just so they don't get the story completely out of order, we say, "You can't go into the basement until you've found the basement key," just so they have a chance to explore chapter 1 of the story, basically, before skipping to chapter 2. But, to support players who want truly open exploration, we have a "Modifiers" system you can apply from the start menu. One of the Modifiers is "All Doors Unlocked," allowing you to start a new game without any locked doors. Other Modifiers turn off audio diaries, for a more "pure" simulation of exploring a house, and turn off the map so that you have to rely on your own sense of direction and notes you take to orient yourself in the house.
BR: I saw the post by your environmental artist, Kate Craig, about her archeological expedition of her family home. That got me wondering how many of the details in Gone Home were salvaged from old boxes in your attics.
SG: Ha, good question! A lot of stuff in the game does come from our own personal collections of artifacts. All of the family portraits in the house, for instance, are altered photos of my wife Rachel's family. As far as new stuff goes, all of the handwriting in the game is our own or from people that we know, which is weird and cool to see.
BR: While you are exploring this house and finding out details of what happened during the past year, the game seems to be unearthing the plot, rather than expressing it. Is this something that is consistent throughout the game?
SG: It's a little of both. Without any Modifiers turned on, most of what you're doing in the game is exploring the space, reading things, and examining objects. This allows you to piece most of the story together yourself. Some objects will trigger audio of Samantha, the younger daughter of the family, reading passages from her diary, which makes up the spine of the personal story you're discovering in the game. We thought that it was really important for you to hear the main character tell some of her story in her own words, to establish a connection with her as an individual. But, again, you can turn these off if you don't want this layer of storytelling on the experience.
BR: Congratulations on the IGF nomination for Excellence in Narrative and the honorable mentions in Excellence in Audio and for the grand prize. You were up against stiff competition in all the categories. Do you feel any animosity or burning rage towards the other nominees?
SG: Thank you! Hah, as far as feeling burning rage, I can't say we do. If anything we're extra grateful to have been nominated at all, considering how many other wonderful games we were up against. I really love 30 Flights of Loving, and Cart Life, and Hotline Miami, and so many of the other games in the IGF this year. We're really excited to be there in person, showing people Gone Home.
BR: This seems like it is more of a mystery than most games. How important is the mystery to the experience?
SG: I'd have to say that, in fact, the mystery itself is not the most important thing in the world to me. I think that experiencing the place and discovering who these people that live here are and what's they're like and what they've been up to and just getting to know them as people, and the history of the house as a place, is where the real soul of the game is. A big "ah ha!" twist moment, where suddenly this big mystery unravels, is really secondary to the experience of building an understanding of this place and its inhabitants.
BR: It seems that player trust is important to the success of Gone Home. I have watched all the videos I could find of the first minute or two and walking into the house still unsettles me. That’s not really a question, but a compliment.
SG: Heh, thank you! It's so interesting how Gone Home can make people feel really tense or uneasy. I think it's mostly down to the sense of familiarity that people have with the feeling in their own lives of being in a dark house, at night, alone, not knowing what's in the shadows, and just feeling terribly, irrationally unnerved. If we can put stuff onscreen that brings back that familiar feeling, we don't have to go very far to keep people off-balance. And, I think it is really important for people to feel a bit uneasy throughout-- that something isn't right, and that they "need" to discover what happened here. Since there are no enemies or monsters, something has to keep that level of tension up to make the game compelling, I think.
BR: Since we are Fanboy Comics, what are you geeking out over right now? Do you guys even get to play games when you are working so hard making one?
SG: Yeah, we still play stuff! And, watch TV shows and movies and stuff. Recently, we've been watching through original series Star Trek, and also rewatched the first season of The Wire at the same time. So, that was kind of a weird balance to maintain. I recently played this small, experimental, first-person shooter game called Receiver
BR: Are there any questions you wish I had asked?
SG: I wish you'd asked how Fanboy Comics' readers can find out more about Gone Home. Man, that would be a good question. Too bad you didn't ask it. Well, one can dream.
BR: How can our readers find out more about Gone Home?
SG: Good question!! Man, I'm glad you asked that. You can go to www.gonehomegame.com and follow @GoneHomeGame on Twitter AND/OR keep track of us on Facebook. Zounds!