Leaving home for Space

TacomaFullbright, tackles sci-fi and isolation in Tacoma, its next exploration gameJust two years ago, Fullbright was getting ready to launch its debut game, Gone Home. Back then, three members of the four-person development team were living in a house together, working from the basement to create a game they weren’t sure anybody wanted. Could a game simply about exploring a house without any combat succeed? The answer was yes.

Gone Home challenged some gamers’ expectations of what a game could be, but it also felt like a breath of fresh air in interactive writing and exploration. The game launched to critical acclaim, earning an 86 rating on Metacritic. Industry praise followed, including GDC Choice and BAFTA awards for best debut. More importantly, Gone Home sold well enough for the small studio to move forward and create another game.This time around, Fullbright isn’t working from a basement; it has an actual office, and it’s doubled the size of its team for its next project: Tacoma. Outside of people knowing that the game takes place in the future and in space, Tacoma has been shrouded in mystery. After a visit to Fullbright’s studio in Portland, Oregon, we discovered the team isn’t changing its approach, but is instead pushing further in what it can accomplish with first-person exploration and a fresh new setting.Tacoma wasn’t always a game about a space station. In fact, when Fullbright co-founders Steve Gaynor and Karla Zimonja first started brainstorming ideas in April 2014, what they initially came up with was a lot closer to the setting of Gone Home.Gaynor and Zimonja knew they wanted to create another first-person exploration game about discovering people’s lives. Their first idea was to have you exploring a house in a fresh setting: Tacoma, Washington. You also would have found out about a much different person than Gone Home’s Sam, and they planned on having more detailed ways to investigate objects. Gaynor had crafted all the characters and even got Fullbright’s artist, Kate Craig, to start working on it. The first floor of the house was laid out and Craig started creating the detached garage, which would hold a recording studio.But something didn’t feel right to Gaynor, and it kept nagging at him. “It was just like, ‘I don’t think we can do something that close this soon…both for the audience being interested and for ourselves,” Gaynor says. It hit him more and more as he watched Craig create more furniture for the house. “A big part was seeing Kate make another couch,” Gaynor says. “I don’t want to make Kate make another set of bedside tables.”Gaynor didn’t have the answer until he went on a trip with his wife that July to Crater Lake in Oregon. The lake was formed by a volcanic crater, and in the middle of it stands Wizard Island. Gaynor and his wife took a boat out to it and hiked to the top, and he confided that he didn’t want to make another “house game,” but he couldn’t figure out a solution. He knew it needed to be set in an isolated place that players couldn’t just walk away from, and so he started spitballing ideas, such as an arctic base, a boat lost at sea, an oil platform, and a space station. His wife immediately jumped on the space station idea, and when Gaynor returned home he pitched the team on a new game. As Gaynor puts it, “Why stay in your comfort zone? You can do something that is going to be harder, but that is going to force you to do something that surprises yourself.”It was just the creative spark the team needed; suddenly they were asking themselves the who, what, where, when, and whys of the space station they were about to create. What they came up with was a detailed and creative setup much more exciting to explore.The title Tacoma no longer refers to a Washington city, but instead a space station that serves as a waypoint between the moon and Earth. “It’s basically an airport terminal,” Gaynor says. The game is set in 2088, and space tourism has taken off. No longer are highly trained astronauts the only people allowed in space; if you have the dollars to spend, you can take a trip to the moon. This is a luxury vacation that only millionaires can afford. “Our functional fiction is that by this point in the timeline, there’s a space elevator that’s based in Singapore, and so people can move materials, supplies, passengers, and workers up into orbit,” Gaynor explains. “Getting into zero gravity is less of a risky proposition now, so the process is: You go up to the top of a space elevator and there’s a spaceport there that basically takes you to Tacoma.”The elevator’s spaceport doesn’t have shuttles with landing capabilities, so people need to wait at a transfer station like Tacoma.This may all be speculative science fiction, but Fullbright wanted to create something that actually had the potential of existing. The team did exhaustive research to get the little details right. For instance, Tacoma is located on Lagrange Point 1 (points that are positioned between two gravitational fields), which actually does exist between the Earth and moon. At this location, the dueling gravitational fields would help keep a space station in orbit without expending much fuel. Lagrange Point 1 is also only a short distance from the moon, making it an ideal place for Tacoma. The space elevator is located in Singapore because the location had to be on the equator, so shipments wouldn’t move around too much, and the elevator would be close to global shipping lanes.Even the name of the space tourism agency is clever: Virgin Tesla. “We thought it through,” Gaynor says. “Virgin is a travel company and they’re a luxury company, and we are positing that Tesla ends up patenting the highefficiency energy cells that allow them to do this service without a bunch of rocket fuel involved.”The team researched the small details, like how people wash their hair in space and how long people can stay in space before they permanently damage their bone density. NASA has been a vital resource for getting an idea about life in space. “We’re trying to create something that’s so close to our own reality that you can at least say – with the trajectory of how things are going – it would be really interesting if it ended up that way and you could totally buy that,” Gaynor says. “For Gone Home, it was like everything had to be something that could be in the ‘90s. ‘This feels right and could have existed.’ It’s a similar thing here; we aren’t happy if we’re like, ‘It’s a space station, we’re in space. We want to be invested enough in how this might really work if we’re going to do it at all.”TacomaJust because Fullbright is tackling science fiction doesn’t mean the team isn’t putting its own unique stamp on the genre. You can still expect narrative to be front-and-center, and plenty of personal stories to be the focus. “It’s not a save the world, fate of the galaxy situation,” Gaynor says. “Here it’s the fate of the few people that you get to find out about.”In Tacoma, you play as Amy Ferrier, who is arriving for her first day on the job as the new operations specialist. When she shows up, nobody is around, leaving her to search for answers and piece together what’s going on. She plays a similar role to Katie’s in Gone Home. “The most important part of a character in this situation is how a character acts in it, so we’ll be focusing more on who Amy is by what she does in real time than [her backstory],” Gaynor says.That doesn’t mean Amy doesn’t have intriguing things to uncover. “Her background is a little mysterious,” Gaynor says. “She got pulled off her last posting on short notice and sent over to Tacoma, so you’ll probably find out a little bit more of what the circumstances around that were. There’s some territory to be explored there of why she’s the one who got pulled in instead of anybody else.”Amy talks more than Katie did, and she also has more abilities. “Amy is slightly more empowered in the environment; she can log into things,” says Fullbright co-founder Karla Zimonja. Gaynor adds: “She’s a trained technician, so she interacts more with the technical side of the station.” Essentially, as Amy, you need to bring the station back online by opening up different modules.Just like Gone Home was more about Sam than Katie, Tacoma is the story of the station’s crew. You get to know about six different crew members by searching their belongings, reading their digital messages, and watching AR recordings (via 3D holographic representations). The different recordings you  see span over nine months, but most are from the immediate past, closer to Amy’s arrival. Everybody who steps foot in Tacoma agrees to have their conversations and body’s positional information tracked to make sure workers are in their correct positions and to alert others if things go awry. You can watch these recordings of the crew and see them interact to get an idea of their personalities, relationships, and the situation before Amy’s arrival. Expect to see everything from celebrations to arguments. “It’s like one big dangerous group house,” Zimonja says.When Amy arrives, the only communication she has is with the station computer called ODIN. This mysterious A.I. will only give her certain information. Fullbright wants you to question what it provides you and why.Focusing on a six-member crew is something Fullbright thought would be interesting, especially in terms of how people cope with being in space. For starters, people who work on Tacoma sign up for a oneyear stint, which is as long as you can be in space before you do permanent bone damage. Gaynor alsobrings up the fact that Tacoma isn’t exactly the best job posting you can get. “You’re basically the help,” he says. “You’re stuck on the most remote, least cushy posting in the whole system for a year at a time, stuck in one spot. Think of the crew in those terms: ‘Who ends up here and why?’ It’s gotta be people that are competent, but they had no choice but to take this posting. They’re all here for different reasons and have complicated motivations for ending up in this place, and now they have to deal with each other.”Fullbright spent time researching people who live on arctic bases and in submarines to get into the minds of those who choose to live in isolated places. “There’s a lot of baggage that comes with being in a small group of individuals who have all been thrown together into this isolated situation,” Gaynor says.Tacoma’s narrative centers on discovering how all these different personalities ended up together. “It’s like if you were housemates with people, but could never leave the house,” Gaynor says. “A lot of it is exploring how they first learn to cope with each other, and then growing into being each other’s support systems. They are as close to being a family as they can be because they have to learn how to rely on one another.”Expect exploration to be more engaging in Tacoma thanks to the microgravity environment. Objects float before you, and you can always change your orientation and walk on the ceiling to find extra passageways, maintenance shafts, and messages. You’re not floating – magnetized boots tether you to the floor, but as a trained technician, you can always explore what’s above you.TacomaIt’s one thing to learn more about Tacoma, it’s another thing to see it in action. We got hands-on with the introductory public area of the station, which is accessible before the crew members’ personal and work spaces. As we enter the space station, we feel a sense of awe and wonderment, similar to when we first stepped into Rapture in BioShock. This isn’t all that surprising, as half of the team is made up of developers who worked on the BioShock franchise. Fullbright has never been shy about embracing its work on these games, and you can often find clever nods to the franchise littered throughout its games, like the Ken Levine salad dressing in Gone Home.Entering Tacoma feels like you’re walking into something grand and different. As Fullbright noted, space travel is a high-end attraction. Tacoma’s aesthetic matches that, akin to walking on a luxury cruise ship. Vegetation is everywhere, as it’s the primary source of oxygen, but the greenness of it all adds a good contrast to the golden interior. Each side of the public corridor has sculptures donated by rich families. As you walk toward the middle of the entryway, classical music welcomes you. Different objects drift in the venue, from food items to anti-nausea medication. Part of the fun is discovering through these items how people live in space.While there’s a definite beauty to Tacoma, an eerie feeling also permeates its halls. Amy calls out to control, to anyone, only to be met with silence. Reaching a locked door to the crew’s chambers, Amy must reset the computer system, ODIN, before proceeding any further. Moving through the first area, we find various messages between crew members, along with the occasional newspaper tucked away in a bathroom stall. An airborne sanitation drone roams the area, cleaning up debris. Just as in Gone Home, you can touch various objects to examine them or throw them. This extends to the sanitation drone, which responds with a polite “excuse me” should you toss it. Fullbright teases that later in the game you find these drones doing more than just cleaning, as crew members have hacked them to do more interesting activities.One of the first AR recordings involves the whole crew interacting and watching a decommissioned station being nuked. Upon inspecting a message, we come to find it’s an old Howard Johnson resort station. Gaynor says their thought process behind it was, “What if they tried to revive Howard Johnson as the accessible, middle-class brand for people who are single millionaires, not multi-millionaires?” Obviously, this tier of space tourism failed to be successful, and this event shows the crew watching the orbital platform get detonated and vaporized. Since the event happened well before Amy’s arrival, we’re only left with a picture to visualize the actual explosion.Playing the AR recording, multiple people are talking at the same time with their own distinct voices. “What we’re basically trying to do is capture that feeling of being at a party with multiple conversations going on,” Gaynor explains. You can replay these conversations to get multiple perspectives. Every crew member has a static profile photo of them that shows up over a 3D, positional model of them. You never see their actual faces during AR recordings; they’re merely recreations of the crew’s different body positions represented by color. “It’s more valuable to us to say, ‘Here’s where they were and how they were moving at the time, and it’s in the player’s head to picture what their face looks like, what outfit they have on, and how their hair is moving,” Gaynor says. Fullbright liked that people used their own imagination to visualize scenes in Gone Home, and the studio wanted to do something similar here. The voice acting and natural dialogue make these recordings fun to encounter.Every conversation reveals interesting threads, from their excitement of seeing the Howard Johnson station destroyed to finding a bald crew member joking about not being concerned that they’re low on shampoo, but down to three razor blades. These are thus far the strongest part of the experience; everything is a discovery and plays into the different narrative threads. For instance, we find out the crew missed a supply shipment and had to wait six weeks before a new one would come. Later, we discover one of the crew members has a heart murmur and had to leave Tacoma three months early, which is why Amy was called in. Listening to the AR recordings and following characters’ movements can reveal secrets like their passwords to open their belongings. In one private compartment we find a drug which seems harmless enough until we discover in a later exchange that a crew member has developed a dependency to it, causing sleepwalking issues.Even little tender moments revealing more about the crew’s relationships are littered throughout the world. For instance, one crew member named Roberta is learning to play guitar to write a song for her anniversary with her wife, Nat. Some of these exchanges are humorous; the lyrics to Roberta’s song don’t fit into a melody, for example. “An important part of doing a setting like this is reminding people that people are still people,” Zimonja says. “It’s not a strange, crazy world where you don’t recognize these ideas anymore.”“We’re giving you all this access to build this portrait of who these people are as people, and so when you don’t know if they’re okay, you actually care about that,” Gaynor adds.After searching the various areas and doing some surface transfers, which allows us to walk on the ceiling, we discover more is awry than we initially realized. Surface transferring is fast and seamless and only takes a click of the button, but it takes us some time to remember we are in space and can always shift to the ceiling for new information. We then find out that the crew isn’t only low on supplies; with nuts and bolts flying around outside of the panel to restore ODIN, it becomes clear that somebody sabotaged it. An AR recording exists, but it only features a staticky and unidentified figure disabling ODIN by force. We get ODIN back online and now can open the doors to the crew quarters.Another AR diary reveals that the team had to access the crew safety chamber, which is only available in emergency situations. Things aren’t looking good, and we turn to ODIN before going through the crew quarters. ODIN asks how it can help us, but won’t elaborate on its brief answers to any of Amy’s questions regarding the crew and its whereabouts. ODIN says it’s classified information. We have no choice but to progress through the door. The intensity heats up as Amy asks ODIN, “What am I going to find behind this door?” ODIN replies, “You’ll see.” The demo ends with us walking through and the screen fading to black. Fullbright says we only saw the public area, but players get to explore the crew quarters and their work spaces in the next part of the game. The final scene of the demo builds plenty of tension, making us feel uneasy about what is behind the door. For those who played Gone Home, it evokes a similar experience to walking up to the attic. A part of you needs to know what happens next but another part is fearful of what it actually may be.For now, Fullbright has us guessing about its next move – and that’s exactly what the development team wants. “Clearly, there is some reason you’re seeing a subset of these recordings and messages,” Gaynor says. “It’s wrapped up in the fact that when you arrive at the station, everything is put on pause by this outside event that has happened. That’s going to be part of the discovery. Did someone place these here for me intentionally, or do they have some other connection? What is the reason they were singled out at all?”TacomaWhen developing Gone Home, the team just asked themselves if the game they were making, however unconventional it seemed, would be something they would be excited to play. Fullbright is approaching Tacoma the same way. “The thing we tried to do in [Gone Home] did work out well, but now it’s a different challenge. We had one thing people were excited about, and we can’t just do that again,” Gaynor says. “We have to find a version of that that we’re excited about and others will be excited about.”It requires the team to constantly ask themselves questions and try not to get too mired in what was already achieved. “It’s all about balance,” Gaynor says. “I think it can be really easy to stick too close or go totally off the rails. ”Tacoma is more involved than Gone Home, but don’t expect an epic-length game. Although Gone Home received some criticism for being on the short side, Fullbright wants to stick with more compact experiences that allow easier access to closure. “We’re still aiming for the type of game that you can play in a couple of evenings,” Gaynor says. “In no way are we aiming for a 40-hour epic or anything. There’s a little bit more going on. There are more characters, more moving parts, more places to explore differently.”Fullbright clearly has knowledge of creating compelling first-person exploration games. This time around, it’s not creating a familiar point in history, but a future reality. “Hopefully people come into Tacoma feeling like it is a pleasant surprise to see the team that made a game like Gone Home can also bring an interesting version of a reality that’s not anything like ours,” Gaynor says.The stakes may be higher, but Fullbright is ready for the challenge. “There’s more to live up to this time around, but we definitely have more things figured out,” Zimonja says. One thing is clear from our visit: The team has a lot of enthusiasm for the project, even having its own whiteboard filled with possibilities of what the future looks like – much of which isn’t in the game. Even so, it’s clear Tacoma still holds a lot of what made people fall in love with Gone Home – Fullbright’s ability to capture the human condition so authentically and meticulously.

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