Today marks the release of The Fullbright Company’s first game, Gone Home, a fascinating game about a young woman who returns from a year-long trip to Europe to find her home empty and a note from her sister asking her not to go snooping around the house trying to figure out what happened. It’s one of the most powerful stories I have ever experienced in a videogame.
Last March, while at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, I sat down with Steve Gaynor, co-founder of the Fullbright Company. Before starting the Fullbright Company along with Johnnemann Nordhagen and Karla Zimonja, Gaynor worked as a level designer at Irrational where he played a key role in the development of Bioshock 2 and Bioshock Infinite, and worked as the lead writer on the Bioshock 2 DLC, Minerva’s Den.
I got the chance to talk to Gaynor about some of his core beliefs, how those beliefs influence his work, and how he feels about religion, spirituality, and the way games tend to treat those subjects.
What core beliefs most motivate you?
I would say the core beliefs that most motivate me are not spiritual at all.
I feel like there is an inherent moral code: don’t do anything that would make someone else’s life worse. Try to do things that help you while they also help other people–things that are good for everyone and don’t put you at an advantage at someone else’s expense. Those are very basic beliefs on how you should do things. My personal beliefs that motivate me creatively are much more personal. I want to do things that have inherent value for what they are, that aren’t motivated by what will sell the most, but by how can we do the thing that we want to do in the way that we want to do it in a way that we think will be valuable to the people who play it.
So if I can have a good life with my wife in a place that we want to be by creating things that I actually want to create that people are actually excited about, then I feel like that is only adding positivity to the world and allowing me and my family to be comfortable and happy in between doing the work.
So it is important to you that these core beliefs direct the way you make games?
Yeah. The game that we are making now is not nonviolent because I have a specific bone to pick with violent games. Violence has been very important to the medium of storytelling since Greek tragedy. That said, I would much rather make something where the end result for the player is that they felt like they got to know these characters better and made a connection with another person through the story, than “I wasted 100 dudes and I feel like I was validated through violence.”
I think effective use of violence in media is hugely horrific and opposed to empowering. The ending of Taxi Driver, like just mechanically through a completely dry description of it would be similar to a lot of videogames where you are the hero with like four guns and you kill a bunch of bad guys and save the girl. It’s fucking awful, because violence in reality is, more often than not, terrible for everyone involved. So I would much rather make an experience that validates others, that is empathetic toward someone else’s life, rather than abstracting out what is a very messy human experience or something that is clean and easy and makes you feel good.
Would you like to see more games be more honest with the way that they depict violence?
I would, personally. I think it’s hard, and that is part of the reason we had to step away from the idea of “genre” to make Gone Home. It doesn’t fit into the FPS or RPG genres or whatever.
But I think “honest” is an important distinction to make. I don’t necessarily want to see games have less violence. I think you are absolutely right that games would benefit from more honest violence, more honest consideration of what a violent encounter means. That is done in all other media and can be very effective.
When you are making a game in an established genre, like a FPS or an RPG and the genre and the mechanics are about defeating enemies, you can’t make hundreds of violent deaths significant. You are going to be numbed to that imagery. I think it can be done, but you have to step away from the traditional genres that are proven to sell if you are going to explore that thematic territory.
Do you have a role model?
I am thankful that my parents raised me well.
I admire my grandfather. He was vice president of AT&T during the 60s and 70s and he went from being a telegraph operator to running part of the company. He truly worked his way up from the lowest position. That is something that is rare now. CEOs don’t start in the mail room anymore, but it is something that has been inspirational for me. He enlisted and he came back from war and he got a job in town and he worked to get to the point where he is and I find that a really inspirational way to lead your life.
That was part of what I thought about when I started out in Q.A. I finished college and I went into testing and I worked on my level design portfolio in the background for the year and a half that I was a tester because I wanted to continue to move up. It is incredibly valuable to have put your foot on every rung of the ladder and know what the experience of the guy who did the most thankless work was like, and go through every step of the way. I think it can be very easy to lose sight of that, especially if you haven’t actually gone through it and just say, “Here is my vision. Make it!” and not realize that that is going to make some peoples lives really hard.
How do you feel about games that address religious or philosophical themes?
I think it’s really great, and that’s part of why the Bioshock series has been noteworthy. The first game was basically an allegorical criticism of libertarianism which comes via shooting mutants, so there is that tension that we talked about. But that said, at the point where you decide that you are going to exploit this genre, you can use that as part of an allegorical frame to talk about a broader issue outside of games. Religion was obviously a big part of the original Bioshock and an even bigger part of [Bioshock Infinite]. Being an objectivist in the first Bioshock led people to be anti-religion, so other people were smuggling Bibles in. The opposite is true in Infinite, which has a fundamentalist, extremist Christian apocalyptic viewpoint. I think that stuff is really interesting.
When you play Minerva’s Den, the story I wanted to tell was a much more personal story about an individual and his history, life, and the decisions he made and his ambitions to try to change things that he had done. We tried to do something similar with Gone Home. There is some Christian stuff in the house.
Yeah I found a Bible and a book by a reverend.
Yeah there are a couple of Bibles and that book you mentioned. The story I wanted to tell through Gone Home is also a story about individuals. It’s a personal story, but the religious aspect of the house is just something that comes from my own experience.
I think for a lot of people who grew up in suburban America, your family is Christian, they go to church, maybe every Sunday, maybe just at the holidays. There are probably bibles around, maybe there is a little quote on a little placard that is inspirational and religious but their lives and their outlooks are not strongly defined by beliefs. When you grow up in that time and place you are often within that frame. My parents took me to church when I was a kid.
I think what it points to is that these are the established norms, and her parents’ ambient religious beliefs are part of those established norms. I think its something that everybody growing up in that environment thinks about, questions and says, “Do I have those same beliefs now that I am starting to grow up more and be exposed to more?” Maybe the answer is totally yes. Maybe the answer is no. Maybe the answer is, “I guess I kinda feel like my parents did.”
I thought it was important to acknowledge the presence that Christianity has in your standard middle American home as part of the milieu that you discover as you are exploring the house.
Are there any games you feel handle religious and philosophical themes well?
As we talked about, I think the Bioshock games are the best examples. I think most games don’t address those issues at all or it’s just on the surface. It’s like we will make a poorly obscured analogue for Scientologists or Mormons and they will be the bad guys. That is not very interesting. Those games just use the idea of fanaticism through religion as a shorthand for bad guys that will kill you unless you kill them. And its like “who gives a shit?” Call them monsters, call them terrorists, they could be guys who are anti-capitalists and its like its “Occupy” but they have AK47s and its just like whatever.
But occasionally there’s a game like The Binding of Isaac, for instance in the indie space, or like the Bioshock games that actually think more deeply about the implications of religion on individuals in a society. They don’t make that cut and dry. Its part of what you are supposed to be thinking about while you play and I think that’s much more valid because they aren’t giving you any answers. They are not saying, “religious fanatics are the bad guys.” Instead they are saying, “Religion exists in this form here. What implications does that have?” They are asking you instead of telling you. That is the difference, I think.
Do you attend any religious gathering of any sort?
I am 100% atheist. I am proud that Portland, OR has the lowest percentage of Spiritual believers in the country on surveys, because I feel like its good to have diversity. The lowest percentage of people who say they have spiritual beliefs is in Portland, and still 66% of people surveyed said that they had some form of religious belief. That is still a solid majority right? But it means that there are more different kinds of opinions mixed into the conversation that is happening in that section of society. With the 66% of people who have some form of spiritual beliefs, that doesn’t mean they are Christian, they could be Hindu or Buddhists or people who sort of generally say, “I believe there is some form of higher power.” Having that spectrum that includes a lot of people who just say, “I believe the world we see is the world we have and there isn’t anything that is a higher spiritual presence,” that diverse set of outlooks leads to an ongoing conversation that I think is much more valuable than somewhere where most people feel the same way about those kinds of very high level concepts.
Have you gotten any feedback on Gone Home from religious people?
There have definitely been people who have played the demo and have mentioned the Christian imagery in the house, and its interesting because I think people bring their own lens to it. Because some people have said, “I was really surprised that the Christian aspect is so heavy,” and there are like 2 Bibles and that one book that is a self-help book written by a reverend. I think for some people who have that in their background, it is more significant to them, and that amplifies their reading of it through that lens, whereas someone who is less prone to that emphasis might not notice or would forget about it.
I enjoy when the themes of a game can be like a Rorschach test and nobody’s read on it is going to be identical because the stuff that you are presenting is more important to one individual than it is to the other. I find that kind of interpretation to be really productive.