IT'S ONE AM. I'm in the Portland suburbs, in the middle of a seriously shitty rainstorm. And I'm locked out of my parents' new house.
I've just returned from one of those post-high school European trips—Paris, Berlin, that sort of thing. But that's not important now. What's important now is that goddammit, I can't find the spare key.
There's a cryptic note from my little sister on the front door. (When did she turn into such a drama queen?) The porch features an assortment of flowerpots and rugs, all of which could be hiding a key, none of which are. Finally, in a side cabinet, under the Christmas Duck (it's a plastic duck with Christmas... you know what? I'm not going to explain the Christmas Duck), I find the spare key.
Later, I'll delve into my parents' troubled marriage, learn that my little sister might come out as a lesbian, and try to figure out why none of them are home to greet me. But for now, I'm finally in the house. Which is when Gone Home—the melancholy, romantic, and utterly unique game by Portland videogame developer the Fullbright Company—begins in earnest.
Creating Gone Home was a risky proposition. Video games about 'roided-up space marines or magic sex elves are a dime a dozen, but it's rare that a game will task the player with something as simple as discovering the secrets hidden in a suburban Oregon home in 1995, or that a game will feature queer female characters, or that a game's best moments will come from reading its characters' handwritten love notes.
But in some ways, the least orthodox thing about Gone Home is how it actually plays. Gone Home is a "story exploration videogame," which means a player's time is spent navigating hallways, opening drawers, and reading letters. After entering your family's house, you'll read sections of your father's portentous sci-fi manuscript (and then find the crumpled rejection letter from a publisher), and you'll experience your little sister's musical rebellion by listening to the Heavens to Betsy and Bratmobile cassette tapes that she's left around the house.
To say any more about Gone Home's surprisingly moving, intensely personal story—a story that gradually unfolds, bit by bit, note by note, and mixtape by mixtape—would give too much away.
I first met Steve Gaynor last April at the Standard, a cavernous, dimly lit bar in Northeast Portland. After I introduced myself, he darted over to a partitioned side room full of video poker machines. The room "doesn't go all the way through," he reported. "I thought this would make a good level for a shooter, but you'd have to be able to go all the way through."
This is shop talk for Gaynor, who was a level designer for the critically acclaimed BioShock series, games known for their philosophical stories and meticulously rendered utopian settings; Gaynor's job, essentially, was coming up with interesting places for gamers to shoot each other. After BioShock 2 was released, he headed up a downloadable add-on for the game, Minerva's Den—an experience that, Gaynor says, allowed his team "to tell a very small, self-contained story."
While high-profile games require huge teams and years of development, downloadable content like Minerva's Den can be made quickly, with just a few people.
"It allowed us to work as a small team in a big organization," Gaynor says. "All of us were really invested. It was a great experience, being able to tell that kind of short story in a videogame." Unlike most big titles that feature 20-hour campaigns, "four or five hours later you finish and you've had a whole arc and understood these characters."
For Gaynor, the experience changed what it meant to be making games.
"It was really good to be able to work on something smaller," he says. "It made us want to do it again."
So Gaynor and two other members of the Minerva's Den team moved from the Bay Area to Portland and started their own studio, the Fullbright Company.
I met the rest of the team in the North Portland house they all live in. They have a cat and a Sega Dreamcast and some modish furniture, and if this all sounds like the setup for a reality show—well, that was also the impression I got.
Dreadlocked programmer Johnnemann Nordhagen looks like the protagonist of an underground Scandinavian cyberpunk movie. Karla Zimonja, who produces art content, has a grungy blue streak in her hair and dresses a little like Daria from the eponymous '90s cartoon. Not present was environmental artist Kate Craig, who lives in Vancouver, BC, but I imagine she has a distinct look too.
For Gone Home, Zimonja designed the astonishingly specific in-game art—from board games to whiskey labels to self-help book covers—all of which had to make sense for a game set in 1995. She also provided a voice for the game and consulted on the story. Everyone in the Fullbright Company, it seems, wears a lot of hats.
That's the appeal for Nordhagen, who felt constrained in the programming world.
"I was crawling to a very specific thing when I left [BioShock]," he says, "which is where programmers find themselves. You get more and more specialized in one little area."
I ask Nordhagen what his area of specialization was.
"I was really into A.I." he says.
Gone Home has exactly no A.I.—but Nordhagen isn't too bummed about it.
"For something like Gone Home, I get to explore all the different facets of programming and broaden my knowledge as a programmer in a lot of ways. Some ways that I don't necessarily want to," he laughs. "But some ways that are really interesting."
READY PLAYER ONE
A week after meeting with Gaynor, Zimonja, and Nordhagen, I'm at the Slabtown Grrrl Front, an all-ages riot grrrl festival. Despite the fact the festival's bill is mostly bands and comedians, the Fullbright Company has been invited here to show off Gone Home. In part, that's because of the music in the game: To fill up the many cassette tapes strewn about the Gone Home house, the Fullbright Company licensed songs from riot grrrl label Kill Rock Stars. "It's '95, it's about these teens, what would they be into?" Gaynor says. "Getting riot grrrl music seemed like a good fit. We have Corin Tucker's first band. That's just cool."
That coolness is what got this videogame a place at Slabtown, where Katie Ofenstein is one of the first to try out the game. She's young, with the requisite number of piercings, and later tells me that—even after playing, and enjoying, the start of Gone Home—she isn't that into video games. Ofenstein is, however, really into the riot grrrl thing: She was the lead singer in a punk band in high school, the Youngins, that self-released cassette tapes and played Bikini Kill cover shows.
So after she put down the controller, she and Gaynor had a conversation, and she sent him some Youngins tracks, and you can probably see where this is going: Now, when you wander into the basement of the house in Gone Home, you can find a hand-lettered tape featuring a track from a Youngins EP, dressed up to look like one of the character's garage rock experiments.
Another perfect fit.
Now it's September, and Gone Home has been out for about a month. Upon its release, the game shot to the top of sales charts and garnered glowing reviews from both indie gaming sites like Rock, Paper, Shotgun and mainstream ones like IGN. In one review, Polygon said Gone Home "proves that a game focused on story and exploration, starring a decidedly nontraditional cast of characters, can be utterly thrilling"; in another, the New York Times called it "the greatest videogame love story ever told" and proof "that video games do not require shooting or punching or jumping of any kind to create gripping fiction."
Gaynor's pleased with the reviews—but as he sees it, the real risk with Gone Home was delivering a story people would connect with, whether they're gamers or not.
Gone Home connected.
"The outpouring of support for what we did has been really good," Gaynor says. "There have been two people we know of who've gotten [Gone Home] tattoos. There was a woman who wrote a poem. Someone posted an interactive timeline [of the game's story]. So that guy did a lot of work."
"I had worked in bigger companies," Zimonja says. "So whatever the response is [to a finished game], you're shielded from it. It's not your baby." Not for Gone Home. "It's very personal," she says. "It's being responsible for things that mean a lot to someone."
After months of hearing about it, finally getting to play Gone Home was a strange experience. In 1995, I was mostly listening to Billy Joel—and was largely unfamiliar with punk, girls, teenage rebellion, or the suburbs. But when the game began, none of that mattered. Gone Home is a time capsule filled with other people's lives, and for a few hours, I got to try a new one on for size.
Once I finally found that spare key and got into the house, there was no going back.