Before co-founding the Portland-based independent studio The Fullbright Company, Steve Gaynor worked on the acclaimed BioShock franchise for several years. Even after leaving the AAA space, Steve and his colleagues remained committed to the concept of environmental storytelling. However, for the studio’s critically acclaimed debut title Gone Home, Fullbright disentangled themselves from all action and RPG elements, while tightly connecting exploration with strong characterizations and a naturalistic family drama plot. As the developer’s second title Tacoma is about to be launched on PC and Xbox One in early August, I got hold of the game’ s writer and designer on Skype for an in-depth discussion. Read on as Steve shares plenty of game design insights, elaborates on why Fullbright's new explorational story game sends player to an evacuated space station seventy years in the future, and explains how Tacoma expands on the team’s previous work.
Ingmar Böke: Hi Steve, welcome to Adventure Gamers. It’s great to talk to you!
Steve Gaynor: Thank you!
Ingmar: Your new game Tacoma is about to be released. Please describe the story in your own words.
Steve: Sure! Tacoma is called Tacoma because it takes place on lunar transfer station Tacoma. The game takes place in 2088, and you have been sent to the station after the crew has been evacuated to recover the A.I. [artificial intelligence] that runs the station and return it to its owners. As you explore the station, you discover and interact with these kind of 3D recordings of moments that happened to the crew before you arrived. By doing that, you find out the story of what really led to their evacuation, why you were called there, what the A.I.’s role is in the events that led up to the present, and kind of unravel the mystery behind why you’re on the station in the first place.
Ingmar: So Tacoma not only has a totally different setting than Gone Home, it also takes place at a completely different point of time. What do these changes in terms of setting and time allow you to do when it comes to the game design?
Steve: You know, I guess there are a few different aspects of the sci-fi setting and the thought process behind it that went into what led us to that decision on Tacoma. One is that, with Gone Home we really focused on transporting the player into an era in the relatively recent past around 20 years ago, kind of recreating the feel of being in that time that we on the development team lived through and were familiar with. So we wanted to push ourselves to say, “okay, we can’t just rely on recreating an era; we want to go into a futuristic setting, so that we’re kind of forced to create more of the world, and to imagine more of the world than we would have if we had gone with a different historical period.”
Also, interactively, we wanted the player to be able to be more present for the moments in the story as they happened, but without saying, “okay, you’re really in a room with these characters,” as maybe something like The Walking Dead where you’re influencing what happens. It’s more like you’re an investigator who can kind of be there and observe these moments in real-time. But also, the way that’s relevant to the futuristic setting is that instead of them being ghosts or visions or something kind of fantastical in that sense, the way that you’re able to interact with these moments in Tacoma is through this augmented reality system that is integrated into the technology of the station you’re exploring. So basically, they’re these digital echoes of things that happened, and because they’re digital you’re able to move through them, and move the timeline of them, and manipulate them the way you would conceptually like a 3D video that’s surrounding you. That allowed us to make your relationship to these characters in these moments, and how you interact with him, and how you move through them, be a core mechanic of the game. So the futuristic setting basically allowed us to, you know, expand what we were doing, mechanically, with this kind of game.
Ingmar: I have read that you named Jordan Mechner’s The Last Express as one of the inspirations for Tacoma. Please elaborate on that.
Steve: Well, I think that there’s a few things that are relevant in The Last Express. The most straight forward one – or the most clear aspect – is that in The Last Express you’re kind of inside one continuous timeline that’s running through the course of the entire game. It’s basically in real-time, and you’re able to say, “okay, I was in my cabin, stayed there for this amount of time, then left and went to the dining car, and I saw this one thing happened there.” But either to solve a puzzle, to avoid getting caught or just to find more information, you can move back through time, back to when you were in your cabin, and take a different path.
In Tacoma, generally, it’s less for traditional puzzle-solving, and it’s certainly not about avoiding a game-over state, but within each section of the station, each of the scenes that the characters are going through are kind of one big scene that spreads through the whole section. Much like in The Last Express, you can only be physically in one place at one time, but you can then say, “well, I was in the kitchen with these characters, and this happened, and then they left, so I’m going to move back where all those other characters were, rewind time to an earlier point in the scene, and see what they were doing before I met them. Now I can see all these angles of what was happening with the characters, what was happening in the story, by manipulating my position in space, and my position in the time of the scene, and knowing that those things can move independently of one another.”
I think that The Last Express is one of the few games that I’m aware of that really made that a central part of how you thought about your interaction with the game, and the story, and the events on screen. You know, I played that game when it came out, and…
Ingmar: Same here! A super-fascinating game.
Steve: Yeah, it’s a very interesting game! It came out in the late ‘90s, so it was kind of at that stage in ‘90s adventure games when I think games were getting more baroque and more ornate. So it’s exciting for us to be able to explore some of those similar concepts, and just apply them at a different time in game design. Do you know what I mean? (laughs) The stuff that’s there that I think didn’t get explored further because of where the genre was or where the industry was. So being able to say something that’s there can apply to what we’re doing – even though it’s not the exact same kind of game – is a really exciting opportunity.Continued on the next page...