Virgin-Tesla takes you to space in Gone Home studio's 'Tacoma'

Fullbright struck a nerve with 2013's Gone Home, its emotionally haunting tale of a 20-something who returns from Europe in 1995 to find her family home deserted. That indie game darling not only became a critical success for the small Portland, Oregon-based studio, but also won a BAFTA in 2014 for best game debut, and two VGX awards -- one for best PC game, the other for best independent game.

For Fullbright's follow-up, the near-future, set-in-space sci-fi tale Tacoma, the studio has some undoubtedly high expectations to meet. It's a good thing then that Microsoft, which has partnered with Fullbright to make the game an Xbox One exclusive, is there to lend a deep-pocketed helping hand. Tacoma is very much still in development and won't be out until mid-2016. But that didn't stop Fullbright co-founder Steve Gaynor and level designer Tynan Wales from trotting out a short 30-minute demo that gives a glimpse of the augmented reality and artificial intelligence that pervades Tacoma's world. I recently had a chance to chat with both Gaynor and Wales about avoiding the sophomore slump, their sci-fi inspirations, a possible HoloLens demo, killer AIs and why space could be a very gay place.

'Tacoma' E3 Trailer

What was it like having to follow up Gone Home with all that critical acclaim? Were you afraid of a sophomore slump at all?

Steve Gaynor: For me, the biggest challenge is just making sure we don't repeat ourselves. Because I think the biggest danger of the disappointing follow-up is when the creators have tried to recapture: "Oh, we need to do that again. We need to make sure that we do this and this and this [thing] that worked last time." And I think if you feel like, okay, I remember playing this, but it was better the first time, then that's when you're in a danger zone... of feeling like, okay, I don't have anything new to say.

What was so exciting about the first one was that it was new and I didn't know what to expect. ... That's why we've done everything we can to push ourselves to say this doesn't take place in a real time and place in the past. It has to take place in a fictional universe, a near future that we have to completely imagine instead of trying to authentically recreate. And it can't be about a family or a love story. It has to be about: Who is this group of people? It's a very different situation, a very different set of relationships -- a different way of understanding the environment.

I've played Gone Home and this seems very similar. I hope you would agree with that. It's sort of that quiet, haunting first-person exploration. So in what ways did you seek to differentiate it from Gone Home?

SG: Well, we wanted to push more outside of what we felt like was familiar. So much of Gone Home was about the familiarity, the recognizability of what you're finding: the analog, the handwritten notes and tape cassettes. So I think what we wanted to say, for one, is the player's discovering the bounds of this fictional world kind of at the same time as we are because it takes place outside of our own experience.

"What does it mean when Gone Home is in zero gravity a hundred percent of the time?"

-- Steve Gaynor

The thing that you're pointing to is definitely correct because we're starting from a similar place. And so our hope is to take one interesting step forward along multiple vectors to say: In Gone Home, you never saw another human figure. In Tacoma, you aren't coming face-to-face with other living people, but you're understanding, getting to encounter and kind of relive these moments in these characters' lives in a way that's more present in the environment than what we could do in Gone Home. But it still is relying on that isolated, kind of I'm here by myself, but I can kind of involve my experience in these moments that these people lived through. And kind of feel like I'm inside of them in a way that you were always outside of the audio diaries describing events in Gone Home.

And also, we really wanted to say something that is kind of inherent to a game like Gone Home; that's inherent to gravity. If you're not giving the player a grappling hook or you can't glide like Batman or something like that, you're very much glued to the floor. In a lot of ways, you're kind of playing a 3D game in 2D. And we wanted to push one step past what players are used to with, "I just navigate a first-person environment like this," and say, actually, we just want to challenge people to think of this space in a fully three-dimensional way.

Tynan Wales: The game, at one point, was actually a lot more similar to Gone Home -- it was in a house.

Having come on from not doing Gone Home, very early in development, not only was the idea of a space station suggested, but also the mechanics Steve just outlined with the AR scenes and using gravity and moving from surface to surface. Now that I've been seeing them all up and working, I feel like the tone may be similar, but the experience is pretty different when I play it.

I noticed that instead of retreading the same things -- experiencing narrative through audio playback -- you use holograms to replace these story cues. And the fact that now you have this space where it can wind up being a little bit too overwhelming, but it gives you more areas to search through. Does that all tie into coming up with the near-future space theme? How did all of that evolve?

SG: The project started in a much more familiar, mundane location and we went down that road for a little while. I'd had this concern in the back of my head that I hadn't really been paying that much attention to. But I went last summer on an anniversary trip with my wife. And, being on the trip, we were away from stuff long enough to get some perspective. And I'm just telling my wife, "We're doing another fucking house game. Now that we've started developing it further, I can feel how close it is and I don't want to do that again." We needed another place that's like an isolated place where a small group of people could live. It's not an apartment building or an arctic base or an oil platform. It's something like that; it could be a space station. And my wife was like, "Yeah, a space station's cool."

"When Microsoft started looking at the game and talking to us about it, they were immediately like, 'You know, we can do this with HoloLens.'"

-- Steve Gaynor

And so it started from there, in saying it's on a space station, so what does that mean? When is the space station? Where is the space station? Why does it exist? And, like you were saying, how do we play that off? Well, you could make a space station that's ring-shaped and you could use centrifugal force or you could have one that has artificial gravity. But, in a lot of ways, then you're just making Gone Home, but the house just looks like a space station. So from the beginning, I was like, it should just all be in zero G because then we can't say, "Oh yeah, you open a drawer and you put a pen on the desk and it rolls off." What does it mean when Gone Home is in zero gravity a hundred percent of the time? We don't know.

TW: In the early version, when it was a house, some of the plans were to have an actual AI that moved around with you and responded to your actions or asked you questions, etc. And this was, I think, a really interesting -- not exactly solution -- but evolution of that idea with multiple characters and these [holographic] recordings instead of a live, active character. And the way you can, hopefully, interact with them by not being a static observer all the time and trying to move between voices and conversations and different locations and follow characters.

SG: In Gone Home, there were no other characters in the game. So, we thought, what if in our next game there was a character in the space with you following you around? Okay, well that's a super-literal solution to, "We want to have another human presence in the space." So okay, let's start working on that.

And then there are all these other problems that come up when the AI has to react to what you're doing and be interesting when they don't have anything to do. What it makes you do is start asking yourself, "What are we actually trying to get out of this? Are we trying to get a feeling of an AI companion following you around? Is that what we care about?" No, what we care about is you feeling like you can observe these people in the place where they live, where these moments happen. And so that's a way the near-future, sci-fi, high-tech setting gave us the ability to say, "Well, I think augmented reality could be a pervasive technology in a facility like this two generations from now." So what if you were seeing these live, positional, Kinect-like skeleton recordings of what happened to these people and that gives you that ability to share the space with them without us having to say, "Yeah, there's somebody who has to have a good reaction when you just start throwing stuff at the wall."

Did you do any actual research on AR technologies and what's to come? Or was it more: Since this is sci-fi, we're going to take liberties based on what we know?

TW: So just timeline-wise, as far as I'm concerned, the idea came up before I ever heard anything about HoloLens.

I don't think it came from understanding modern tech or where modern tech was headed or who was researching that. I mean, it's kind of interesting to see HoloLens coming online as we're developing the game because it's super relevant and super possible.

It seems to me that Fullbright-style games like Gone Home and Tacoma would lend themselves very well to being displayed through HoloLens. Is that something you thought about? Have you talked to Microsoft about that?

SG: Well, it's funny because we're putting the game on Xbox One, so we have a relationship with Microsoft. And when they started coming and looking at the game and talking to us about it, they were immediately just like, "You know, we can do this with HoloLens." They could put an AR scene or they could put the info panels in HoloLens and you could do that.

But the thing that I think is a lot more relevant to that is something that's more of a focused experience. I think there's still not a good solution to the idea of freely walking around in three-dimensional space while also being in one of these AR/VR experiences. They are great if the entire experience takes place in the size of the room that you're in. With Oculus, the experience is more about sitting at a desk or sitting in a cockpit. They have things that they're more natively geared towards. So on the one hand, we're not planning to do Oculus support. We didn't for Gone Home. We're not planning to do it for Tacoma. I'm not sold on this kind of game just being able to... okay, just put it in a headset.

But I do think there could be a very interesting focused demo. Like you could have a HoloLens recreation of the orbital lounge in the game where there are info panels so you can look out and see the moon and the Earth. And you can see this scene play out and be inside of it. I think that would be fascinating to see a version of. I don't know if that's in Microsoft's promotional budget or whatever. But I think that it would be really cool to basically be able to step into that experience in a controlled way that would be a good fit for what I'm aware [of] the technology to be good at.

"Virgin-Tesla is a fictional extrapolation of our present where these two prominent companies merged and now are providing this [space tourism] service."

-- Steve Gaynor

The thing that definitely cracked me up when I noticed it was when I was examining objects [in Tacoma] and saw the Virgin-Tesla logo. Did you have to get special permission for that?

SG: It's like mentioning a brand name in a novel. We aren't using any of their copyrighted logotypes or anything. Something like Virgin-Tesla is clearly a fictional extrapolation of our present to say that the game takes place in a fictional universe where these two prominent companies merged and now are providing this [space tourism] service. And so, it's a way for us to ground what we're doing hopefully in the present that we live in and talk about it directly. As opposed to just having to make up Aerospace Tourism Corp. because I feel like when you don't have any direct connections to where we are now, everything just feels a lot more abstract. That's what we love about [the film] 2001. Because it's like oh, there's Pan Am and Howard Johnson. ... If you look at this in 30 years, it'll be very much a 2016 imagining of 2088, like Blade Runner was a 1982 [imagining of] 2019. Having those hooks into our present is really valuable.

With ODIN [the station's AI], it seems as though there's the potential you could be drawing on what's happening now in technology. That you're going after some of the fears around the possibility of semiconscious AIs, like how Stephen Hawking or Bill Gates is saying: "Everyone be careful because that day is coming."

SG: Now, that's legit! When those guys are writing letters about: Can we stop making killer robots, please?! It's not just jokes anymore.

So is ODIN a killer AI?

TW: That's the question...

SG: Is ODIN murdering you?

TW: I don't want to spoil anything...

SG: That's something I became conscious of during Gone Home. We can say to you -- the download link can say nothing's going to jump out at you in this game. And it doesn't matter because we can say seriously there's no enemies; nobody's gonna get you; nothing's gonna jump out at you. It's just an empty house. There's literally no way if somebody's predisposed to thinking, "Yeah, but what if?" I can say right now and I will say the ending of this game is not that the whole crew was killed. ODIN is not going to try to murder you. This is true.

"I'm happy to say [Tacoma's] not about a murderous, killer AI."

-- Steve Gaynor

TW: Oh, he let it loose.

SG: As a creator, you're like, if we tell people too much, it'll ruin the experience. I'm happy to say it's not about a murderous, killer AI. But it is going to be in a lot of ways about discovering what the capabilities and what the consciousness of this thing actually are. Because you start out and clearly it's keeping things from you. And so hopefully, some of the questions are like: Why? Who has given it these directives? Or has anyone? Does it have its own reasons for keeping this information from you?

Is that theme of AI and what it could become something you wanted to make a commentary on with this game? Or is it just that you came up with the space setting and decided to include an AI?

SG: I've never really started from a point of wanting to state a message with what I'm working on. I've never worked on something where I'm like, "I want to say this about what I believe about what AI is or what the dangers of this technology are or anything." Honestly, it always comes from really practical perspectives.

Maybe I misinterpreted this, but the two holographic messages I first encountered were about two different gay relationships. I think that's a really interesting choice to start the game. So is it a gay space station?

SG: It's a bit of a "gaystation" -- you could say. We have the two women that are in a relationship on the station; and Andrew, who has a husband that's off the station. Evie and Clive are straight and then Sarah's really kind of undefined. Her orientation has not been really ... she's involved with looking into AR dating, but we haven't really talked about where she lands.

I think what we're saying about the state of society that the crew of Tacoma's living in is that it's continued to some point where if these people are gay, there wouldn't be any reason that they wouldn't not just be open about it. People happen to be gay on the station and are not trying to hide it and that's just how it is. That's just an implicit statement about where we think this part of the society is headed, I guess. It's a decision that you make when you're doing speculative fiction. You can either say, we're in the present; we've got this trajectory and we basically feel like it's going to continue. Or you can say, society's here now and we're going to make our fiction about it taking a hard right turn.

There've been tons of very disruptive changes to technology and society and how we live our lives. And as far as that goes, cellphones have totally changed everyday life for people, So hopefully, we get to talk about that kind of stuff with AR and with saying commercial space tourism is a thing, but only for the very high-end of society still. So what does that mean? Hopefully, the identity of the crew and who they are and what kind of relationships they're in and so forth is just part of that fabric.

Tynan Wales (at left) and Steve Gaynor

How far along in development is the game at this point?

SG: We're aiming for mid-2016, but I don't want to say a date because we don't know what it is.

Why go with Xbox One when PS4 has the largest install base and PlayStation's been the friendliest to indies, arguably?

SG: I think it is always shifting tides with that part of the industry and with companies that size. I think that Sony did get a head start reaching out to indies and making it part of their identity when PS4 was first getting off the ground. It's obviously worked out well for them. We're at a point now where I think Microsoft is working really hard to reach out to people that are doing small projects and get them to align themselves with their platform. So, after we put Tacoma out there, Microsoft reached out to us and started talking to us and got the conversation going. And they've been a really great partner so far. Microsoft, at this point, is doing the work, getting out there and trying to get this kind of stuff onto Xbox.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Images: Fullbright (game screens)