Tag Archives: Heavens to Betsy

A Chat With The Fullbright Company

NOTE: Not actual living room.

Author’s Note: It should be noted that this is the VERY FIRST INTERVIEW done under the banner of Faces on the Radio, and the VERY FIRST INTERVIEW I (Hollister Dixon) have ever done, and as such, I bumble over a few questions and generally act all nervous. Regardless, I think this interview is quite nice, and we hope you all enjoy it!

When I arrived at the Fullbright House, the house/studio used by Portland’s Fullbright Company, I had to triple-check the address. I arrived with my ex, who also checked Google Maps to make sure we were in the correct location. “This is the place,” she said, but there was a slight tinge of uncertainty in her voice. If you’ve played Gone Home (if you haven’t, please do), you’ll realize just how perfect it is that, up until being greeted by the company’s co-founder, Steve Gaynor, I found myself completely unsure that I was at the right location. Gone Home is the kind of game that doesn’t bash you over the head with how clever it is, it gently prods you, beaming as it watches you take in the environment, and unravel the story in front of you. Do you remember the scene in Jurassic Park where Richard Attenborough shows everyone the brachiosaurus? It’s a little bit like that, only with Bratmobile and Heavens to Betsy in place of John Williams. It’s no surprise that the place the game itself was made is the kind of place this unassuming. Unless you knew that some extremely talented people lived there, you’d never guess that this quiet suburban house spawned one of the most – if not the most – subtle, elegant games to come out this year.

The inside feels a little like the game itself, but in a different way. In sharp contrast to the blended-in nature of the exterior, walking into the living room of the house can make your fingers tingle a bit with the desire to examine everything. There’s an entertainment center housing (from the looks of it) each and every gaming console known to man (as well as the complete series box set of The Wire), laser discs hang framed on the walls, and the mantle contains everything from magazine articles about the game to a replica of an Amazon river dolphin skull. And, true to form, there’s even a handful of cassettes lying about – namely The Youngins Are Hardcore, the album by the now-defunct Portland band/friends-of-friends-of-the-show The Youngins. And, just because it makes perfect sense, a beautifully fluffy cat also greeted me as I peered around at everything in the space.

I was lucky enough to spend an hour in the company of the game’s creators – Steve GaynorJohnnemann Nordhagen, and Karla Zimonja – and record a neat little conversation about the game, the effortless way it tells its story, and – of course – the preposterously great soundtrack. Note: This interview does contain spoilers, so those looking to avoid the game’s finer details should steer clear until they’ve finished the game. You’ve been warned!
You can stream this interview above, or you can download the episode by right-clicking here. Enjoy!

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REVIEW: Gone Home

EDITOR’S NOTE: This review contains minor spoilers about plot points and game mechanics. I haven’t included anything game-ruining, but do be advised that there are points made about details that are below the surface of the game’s synopsis. If you’re worried, go play through the game and come back.

One of my favorite episodes of This American Life is the relatively old episode “House on Loon Lake“. Though Ira Glass found the episode to be a failure, it is totally successful because of the mystery it weaves. The episode’s host, Adam Beckman, tells a story about a house that he and his brother found in the fall of ’77. Inside, they discovered a perfect time capsule left behind in the late 30s: a billfold left on a nightstand with the owner’s glasses, flowers left to whither and die, an invitation to a dance. It seemed that the house’s inhabitants have simply evaporated, mid-life. The reality of the family that lived there is much more mundane than one might hope, but the journey from point A to B makes the episode wholly satisfying. One can imagine walking the hallways and feeling the weight of the life that once inhabited the space, which for some reason simply stopped. As the listener, you’re forced to ask yourself: what would you do, if you found that house? Would you try and unravel that mystery? Just how far would you go to figure out what went wrong?

In Gone Home, the debut game from Portland’s Fullbright Company, you’re given the task of doing exactly that. Returning home from Europe after a year abroad on an outrageously stormy night, Katie Greenbriar (that’s you!) discovers a troublesome note on the door: “Please, please don’t go digging through the house trying to find out where I am. I don’t want anyone to find out. We’ll see each other again some day. Don’t be worried. I love you.” Anyone who says they could resist the urge to ignore the request to not snoop around is plain-and-simple lying. The mechanics of this game are incredibly simple, but equally satisfying: you are tasked with entering your family’s house and scouring each and every single corner, trying to piece together what’s happened. As you walk through the darkened house, you get the sense that something is about to jump out at you, and it takes constant remembering to hold onto the fact that you’re just in a house, and there is absolutely no danger. The game’s creators don’t make this easy, mind you: though each and every horror trope they incorporate is eventually subverted – from the lights that flicker or go out entirely, to the upstairs bathtub covered in red splatters – you constantly get a sense that the game itself is toying with you, if only a little bit. The darkness of the game feels absolutely real, and there were sections of the game where I had to bide my time while gathering up the courage to go into the darker areas of the game – I’m looking directly at you, basement.
(It should be noted that the game features an optional modifier to allow you to start the game with all of the lights turned on – but where’s the fun in that?)

One of the most satisfying aspects of Gone Home is the exploration. Approximately 95% of the environment is open to being picked up and examined up close, from copies of your father’s books to the notes and scraps left scattered throughout the Greenbriar house. These artifacts tell the stories of each and every character so remarkably well, and they do it without saying a word. By the end of the game, I wanted to know so much more about the heads of this household and their marital struggles, but I feel like I already know about the entirety of their lives just by examining the things they’ve left in drawers. You learn about their jobs, about their relationships, about their hobbies – every minute detail, and these characters are never onscreen. The locations of objects can be an equally powerful story, be it a rejection letter in a liquor cabinet, or a seemingly hastily discarded Earth, Wind, and Fire ticket. If the storytelling of the game were to stop here, the game would be a complete success.

Underneath all of the tissue boxes and clipped coupon booklets, we find the undisputed star of the game: your sister, Sam. On the surface, she’s a typical 90s teenager. She listens to Bratmobile and Heavens to Betsy (both of whom are featured prominently in the game, leaving “Cool Schmool” stuck in my head for days), and does rebellious things with her friends when she gets a chance. But, as you interact with the environment and the objects therein, you trigger journal entries from Sam’s point of view:  you’re with her every step of the way, as she copes with moving to a new school, finding herself through another, and coping with the possible ramifications of hew own realizations. These journals can be triggered by anything, without much warning, and each find is more satisfying than the last. Portland’s Sarah Robertson’s understated performance as Sam steals the show here, leaving you deeply affected by her story, and wanting desperately to know that, after everything is done, things turn out alright for her. As the heroine of the game, you get the sense that your absence meant that a driving force in your sister’s life was missing, which makes her own emotional journey all that much more difficult. I’m not necessarily sure if you can truly care for a character that never once occupies the same space as your character, but even if it isn’t, I felt myself wanting to reach out and tell her, “It’s all going to be alright very soon.”

Gone Home is a game that does not beg for your adoration or attention. There is more than one way to play the game: you can choose, by way of pre-game modifiers, to unlock all of the doors in the house, and turn off those journal entries altogether (author’s note: don’t do this), allowing you to roam the house in any way that you want, and piece together the events that unfolded yourself. During my first complete playthrough I chose to unlock the doors, which allowed me to feel unconstrained by my own curiosity. That said, I suggest that you play through the game unmodified, but make absolutely sure that you scour every corner and every wall in the house. And for your own sake, make sure you find the 24th journal entry.

One of the best things about this game is that it is, quite simply, totally unexpected. I’ve spent a lot of time this year talking about my adoration for Bioshock Infinite, but here I find myself enthralled by a game that is as far removed from that world as I can possibly get: a world that’s a little like my own past. We live in an amazing time for video games, where people feel comfortable telling the kind of story you experience in Gone Home. In around three hours of gameplay, I felt myself becoming connected to the ghosts in the life of Katie Greenbriar, and slowly came to terms with the fact that Katie herself was, in her own way, haunting her family with her absence without them even realizing it. It takes a game like this one to realize that we should be done with the “are video games art?” argument, because – if I’m honest with myself – it has been a long time since any piece of “real art” affected me as deeply as this little game did.

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