Steve Gaynor: Designing 'Gone Home'
Former BioShock designer Steve Gaynor discusses player psychology and interactive storytelling in his award-winning indie game.
Until 2012, Steve Gaynor was best known for his level design work on blockbuster franchises including expansion packs for F.E.A.R., BioShock 2 and it’s expansion, Minerva’s Den, and BioShock Infinite. Then he gave it all up. In his newest creation, Gaynor employs a few classic BioShock techniques like slow-build storytelling and exploratory level design to take players on a decidedly smaller journey. The result is Gone Home, a game that is as defined by the limitations of the four-person development team who created it as it is by the characters and plot-driven storyline that give the game its literary feel.
Gone Home takes place entirely in one environment—literally a home—and relies on found objects like receipts, personal notes, ticket stubs, and phone messages to further its plot. In doing so, the game goes beyond the story’s central mystery and delves into the inner workings of teenage rebellion, marital strife, and love. Gone Home’s intimate nature, strong storytelling, and ambitious scope has garnered heavy accolades for both the game and The Fullbright Company studio, including an IndieCade Audio Award, two Spike VGX awards, and a 9.5 rating on IGN.
Even with the game’s success, Gone Home was still a financial risk, so much so that Gaynor and his team moved in together for the duration of the project to save money. Gaynor explains why he gave up a franchise many would kill to work on to take a chance on something new.
Steve Gaynor: Creatively, when you work on really huge franchises with very big budgets, A, you’re going to be required to do something in an established genre. You aren’t really going to be able to try to branch out very far from established norms at that scale. B, it’s like you can either invest yourself completely in being partially responsible for somebody else’s game’s success or you can invest yourself in being completely responsible for something smaller that you own entirely. You can sit in a room with the other three people that are making it and be able to talk to all of them. Everybody can understand every part of the game and really have that cohesion to the experience of making it and also the identity of, yes, we made all of this. …
SG: In our trailers and on our website, the tagline is “A story exploration video game.” I think that Gone Home very much, as far as I’m concerned, is a video game in the sense of it’s an interactive player-driven experience. It’s about the player being involved and driving what happens on screen. … I think that if you have a very narrow definition of what a game is and you say, “You have to be able to win or lose” and “You have to be able to be competitive at it or X, Y, Z,” then you’re ruling out a lot of interesting things that games can do.
To me, the thing that is important about a video game is the player has to be involved and invested to make the experience meaningful and Gone Home is very much a game where, at no point if you put the controller down, can you be passive and just watch a cut scene happen. It’s never a question of just walk forward and things will happen around you.
SG: I think it’s something that, at the very least, is a very useful tool to know what players will engage with. I think that the opposite side of that, where you’re in a very linear experience or a guided experience, the developer’s job is to make the content that [players] encounter when they walk along that straight line really surprising and engaging. In a way, that’s a much more expensive problem. It’s like you walk forward and then something awesome happens and then you walk forward and something else awesome happens. You just have to build that stuff whereas I think games like Bethesda’s games, like Skyrim on a much different scale from ours, show that if you give people a world with a lot of interesting, interactive stuff in it and say, “Go find whatever you want,” that’s incredibly attractive to people. …
SG: There really is no big-picture answer other than good level design. It all comes down to very specific combination of level design techniques, which I learned in the work I had done in triple-A up to this point. You use lighting to guide the player and you put things that are important to the story near things that the player is going to have to interact with. If there’s a lamp on a table, you can put a story element next to it because you know the player is going to walk up to the lamp and click on it to turn the lights on in the room and there’s the important thing. Stuff that’s less important, you can hide in a drawer under a cabinet because it’s only for the players who are really trying to explore as much as possible.
It’s just understanding player psychology. In the foyer when you walk in, there’s a huge staircase in front of you, but the chronological order of the story starts when you exit the foyer to the left through a door on the first floor and most players do that. It’s just one of those things where it’s like I know as a designer that most players when they enter that space, they’ll see that there’s a big set of stairs to leave immediately or they’ll also know, wait a second, I haven’t looked around in the foyer yet to find everything so I’m going to find everything that I can here before I leave. They explore around and they find stuff and they’re reading things and then they have spent ten minutes doing that and they find this exit door on the first floor. By that point, their brain has stopped thinking about that staircase that they saw back then so now they’re going to exit through this door on the first floor that I intended them to leave through.
All that kind of stuff where it’s like visual language and using the space and the lighting and the placement of objects to communicate and kind of predict where the player will go in basically what order … It’s mostly just a lot of nuts and bolts stuff that comes from years of building levels and playtesting them and seeing how players act and how to better communicate to them what they should do next.
SG: There’s a lot that you can just internalize by playing a lot of stuff and trying to think about why it works and what made you look to the left instead of the right and all that kind of stuff, being analytical. I think the next step is you have to start designing your own spaces and making them playable and then start playtesting as soon as you can and as early as you can with as many people as you can that aren’t just your best friends that are going to tell you that they like it even if it’s not that good. Get it in front of people that you can actually observe. …
As a professional designer, when I was working on the BioShock series, it’s like you make a level and you lay it out and you put the important stuff in it and you get it walkable as early as possible. Then you have a producer or an animator or someone that hasn’t been paying attention to what you’ve been doing and you watch them. At some point, they’re going to go left instead of right and you never expected that and you see why they got confused and you fix it. You can’t predict how to account for what players are going to do until you actually put some of your work in front of them and say, “Oh, I see. I thought it made total sense to lay out the room like this, but all the players that actually touched it, they played it wrong and I can understand now why that’s true.” … On Gone Home, we did four or five rounds of playtesting. …We watched live playtest video and had people sit down and play the game and there was a bunch of stuff where we just saw people not understanding where they should go next and we fixed it. If you don’t do all that playtesting stuff, I don’t think you’re going to be able to catch all of those issues.
SG: I think that one of the great things about developing games now is that there are so many different ways to get into what you want to be doing. I started by making my own levels for big, expensive games. You can still do that in a ton of different ways. Valve releases the level editor for all of their games, so for Portal 2 and Left 4 Dead and all of their titles there’s a level editor. Bethesda releases editors for all their games too. If that’s the kind of experience that motivates you, then you can make your own content and learn how and there’s a big community there to play your stuff and tell you what they think of it.
Also now, if you’re just starting out and you’re more self-motivated to make your own small things from the get go, there’s GameMaker and Unity [game engines] that you can get either for cheap or for free and be able to get your own stuff off the ground quickly without having to program the entire engine yourself. Unity has the Asset Store where you can just buy or find free art assets to use for when you’re getting your stuff working. If you’re interested in text adventures, there’s Twine, which is a really easy-to-grasp engine for doing interactive fiction.
I think that there’s really just a question of how and where you want to start. If you want to start small, I think there’s more support for that than ever. If you want to get a job making games so you can save some money and learn a bunch of the best practices in a safe environment and all that stuff, then getting into triple-A the way that I did is still a totally valid option. I think that something that’s great about where the industry is now and where it’s headed is … way more people can actually make something and make it good and get it in front of people and if the audience is into it, actually get paid for it. I think that we’re in a much better position for all of those things now than we ever have been.
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