What do you do after you help create an entirely new genre of game? After you’ve rewritten the rules of what people like to do in virtual worlds? After you’ve managed to make walking the new shooting?
In the case of Fullbright, the creators of the acclaimed exploration game Gone Home, you put people in orbit.
Tacoma, the studio’s sophomore release scheduled for early 2017, puts you in the shoes of an independent contractor exploring the ruins of an abandoned space station to find out what transpired there. There are no aliens, no ghosts, or any other conventional videogame baddie. There’s just what’s left of ordinary people.
During the game, which Fullbright brought to E3, you’ll learn what happened to the station’s crew via the same subtle, environmental storytelling that turned Gone Home into a sleeper hit—and turned “walking simulator” from a pejorative into the indie world’s favorite genre. But this time, studio founders Karla Zimonja and Steve Gaynor want to take that slow-paced, player-driven exploration to the next frontier.
Gone Home was about picking through the remnants of stories that had already transpired, as an observer after the fact. With Tacoma, Gaynor says, the challenge was to involve the player more directly in the events as they happen—”without sacrificing the level of control that you have over how you engage with the story.” That’s possible thanks to the game’s near-future setting: an augmented-reality rig on the station constantly records all conversations, enabling you to replay any conversations that happened between the ship’s crew—can rewinding and fast-forwarding these conversations at will.
While the ship’s crew is represented by colored outlines, Tacoma‘s cast is a whole rainbow of different genders, races, and body types, an unmissable rejoinder to the white-guy-heavy games that dotted the rest of the E3 show floor. (Also, one of them is named “Roberta Williams” after the creator of King’s Quest. “I’ve always loved fiction where characters have a famous person’s name,” says Gaynor, “like Sheriff Harry S. Truman in Twin Peaks.”)
The conversations might involve all six members of the crew (and Odin, the station’s HAL-like AI bot), and you can’t listen in on everything all at once. Instead, you’ll need to rewind, find a different position, maybe follow a character into another room, then go back and listen until you’ve heard everything.
Or not. You don’t have to mine the storyline for clues, if you don’t really want to. “Let’s say someone’s office is locked,” says Gaynor. “You explore the area more thoroughly, and you find the keycode to it and now you can see what they’re doing. But that is more to support you trying to find all the detail,” he says. Fullbright wants you to care about the story on its own terms, he says, not scrub every line of dialogue for a clue to a puzzle.
“We didn’t want to teach the player that the only thing that was important was progression,” says Zimonja. “That’s a bad idea.” Still, though, you can’t just race to the end of the game. Zimonja calls it “chunkishly linear,” broken up into distinct acts that give you freedom to explore, but ultimately subtly guiding you through the experience. Sleep No More, the experimental New York play that lets the audience wander through a house rifling through the scenery and choosing which scenes to watch, was an inspiration, but unlike the play, rewind means never missing anything.
“There’s a lot of baggage that comes with abandoned space stations and AIs,” Gaynor says. “Like the old creaky house on a dark and stormy night in Gone Home.” Fullbright knows what you expect, and it wants to surprise you with something else. The station, he says, is “somewhere where you can actually imagine people living their daily lives.” Handmade signs line the walls, subverting the rules of the augmented-reality system. Real people lived here.
It’s a much more complex, interactive environment than Gone Home‘s static suburban house. “We hired an animator!” Gaynor exclaims. Of course, it’s just one animator, doing all the animations, so they can’t be that complex: “She’s not going to be doing facial animation. We’re not going to make this a 50-hour game where she’s animating 8 hours of all these characters walking around. We are still constrained by the scope we are able to support.” Fullbright has doubled in size since Gone Home. But all that means is now instead of a four-person team, it’s an octet.
“Even if we had Naughty Dog’s character team,” Gaynor says, referring to the developer of Sony’s cinematic Uncharted games, “the player has better hardware from projecting what it must have been like to be near these people.” In other words, Tacoma‘s abstract blobs might help players identify with the characters more so than photorealistic humans. “It’s still your imagination that’s filling in the middle ground,” he says.
Soon after your arrival on Tacoma, you learn that at some point, the crew ran out of oxygen and lost all communications capacity. What did they do then? That’ll be what you find out.
“We prefer to have the player participate in the understanding, the information gathering, and the reconstruction,” Zimonja says. “It’s insulting if it’s all laid out in front of you.”