Stop and smell the roses.
A photograph of a relative, purposely set face down in a drawer. A copy of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar lying half read on a seat. An empty bottle of hair dye, discarded beside a bright-red splattered bath. A bottle of whiskey, placed on a shelf up high so nobody could immediately spot it, but precariously enough to give away the state of the person who put it there.
These objects in Fullbright’s gameography of two, Gone Home and Tacoma, speak volumes about the people who owned them. Every object in the Greenbrair’s giant Pacific-Northwestern home and the deserted space station Tacoma add to a portrait of the people who owned them, people you never meet but whose spectral presence haunt you as the credits roll.
In Gone Home, these objects were used as a creative workaround of low budget, but ended up adding a layer of character complexity that couldn’t have been achieved with more conventional means. Tacoma is a little more overt in that dramatic scenes are reenacted in augmented reality in front of you, but objects still carry much of the burden of fleshing out these characters’ individual universes.
Take the aforementioned photograph, which briefly stalls the augmented shadow of a crewmember of the space station Tacoma before she heads to a party. In my playthrough I never discovered who the photo was of, but it evoked a sadness for the crewmember’s distant past, and the days on the lonely ship spread out ahead of her.
Or the drawing by a botanist’s teenage son, a gently mocking and hastily drawn caricature of him wearing a stern fatherly frown that he’s framed in his office. I lingered over this drawing, with its puffy block letters that all teenagers use (“have a good year in space! Love NICHOLAS”), and a playful familiarity with its subject.
Sometimes, objects or environments belie what the characters in Tacoma are telling us, and these moments are when the game sings loudest. A character might say that everything’s fine, when his email logs are full of anxiety. Another might come across as puffed up, full of bravado, but be in the middle of reading A Guide for the Inspired Social Climber.
I often think of Fullbright co-founder Steve Gaynor’s past as a designer on BioShock: Infinite, a game whose beguiling world I loved so intensely but was frequently ripped out of by the constant pressure to shoot waves of enemies. “Part of it is removing some of the time pressure and skill challenge,” says Fullbright’s other co-founder, Karla Zimonja, on the lack of Tacoma’s conventional game-like elements. “And you know basically get this right kind of pressure, which allows the player the freedom to consider the world and explore the world in a way that they’re interested in, rather than, you know, trying to quickly do skill challenges or anything like that.”
Gaynor believes that players are more than happy to stop and smell the roses if the game allows them to. “Look at the reaction that people have had to Breath of the Wild this year,” he says. “So much of that is just like “Anywhere I go I find something that’s surprising or beautiful or that I just am happy that I found.”
It’s not all dramatic revelations. There’s mundanity in Tacoma and Gone Home, too, lived in spaces peppered with the trappings of small routines. A toothbrush, a magazine, instant coffee. VHS tapes of old X-Files episodes. Music posters, energy bars, calorie counters. Fullbright’s worlds dare to be simple and human, and they draw us further in because they’re so recognizable. Of course Tacoma’s medic, the person in charge of everyone’s health, has a box of chocolates stashed under her bed, the lid askew in the wake of a fumbling hand.
When Gone Home was released to great critical acclaim in 2014, it was also derided by a group of gamers who claimed it “was not a game.” Several popular environmentally-driven first person games later – Firewatch and What Remains of Edith Finch spring to mind – I wonder if the reception is any different.
“I think these kind of narrative adventures, these first person story games, are something that, you know, kind of around the same time a bunch of people started saying like “Well this is something we can focus on”, says Gaynor. “We can focus on just allowing the player to be somewhere and follow the environment to discover the story and it doesn’t have to be about this, that or the other additional game mechanics. The environment and story can be the whole focus. I think at some point it’s like that stops being a new thing and starts being just part of what games are.”
Lucy O’Brien is Games & Entertainment Editor at IGN’s Sydney office. Follow her on Twitter.