Fullbright’s 2013 game Gone Home is my favourite video game and the best fun I’ve had playing since Sonic The Hedgehog when I was a kid. It’s a first-person story exploration game where the reward is its emotional complexity. The narrative is set in the mid-90s and driven by the question of what happened to Sam, the younger sister of the woman you’re playing. In the process of trying to find out (by exploring your new home), you uncover new knowledge about the rest of your family. It’s the kind of content where learning about others, reveals you to yourself. I’ve played it a couple of times, and will play it again, so who says narrative games aren’t replayable?
The company’s next game—Tacoma—is due for release in 2016 and there are various teasers and interviews out on the web that give you a good sense of its concept and gameplay. It’s set on a space station in 2088 and seems to be like the film Moon, in that it’s a sci-fi grounded in humanity and relationships rather than huge explosions and battles between good and evil.
Fullbright’s games are explorative fictions and one of the aspects of Tacoma I’m most excited about, because I’ve been trying to conceptualise this in the game I’m writing for my PhD, is the ability to overhear conversations between crew on the ship, and branch off to follow different characters to see how their story unfolds. This is exactly like what Punchdrunk has done with theatre. I mean, Punchdrunk completely nailed this and created the genre of immersive theatre.
In The Drowned Man, Sleep No More and other Punchdrunk productions, you’re given a mask and let loose on a sprawling set to explore a 1960s Hollywood studio lot (The Drowned Man), or a 1930s New York hotel (Sleep No More). You encounter scenes, characters, environments and props in whatever way you wish, and piece various stories together via your own exploration. It’s like being the Invisible Man in real life.
In Sleep No More (partly based on Macbeth), I explored instinctually, following my own intrigue to piece together a story. The result was ambiguous and dream-like. There’s about 14 hours of content in Sleep No More, so it’s definitely replayable. I took a different approach with The Drowned Man, which does some narrative set up by providing you with background info on two couples—a glamorous one inside the studios, and a working class one living on the edge of it. I went twice and followed a different couple each time. From both experiences I got a satisfying sense of narrative closure, but when I spoke to friends after, I found there were still more characters and hidden scenes. Part of the pleasure comes from having distinct, personalised experiences.
Punchdrunk can draw on the theatre convention of the audience, making it easy to suspend disbelief of your place in the scene as a masked voyeur. The shows offer an audience more used to sitting in the dark, the opportunity to roam and be active. Games go the other way, the audience/player is—by convention—an active agent in the scene. How to turn a game’s player-character (who has presence and agency) into a voyeur of moments is, therefore, an interesting question.
Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture solved it beautifully in its representation of characters through light effects that gave access to the residues of the past. Tacoma has invented an augmented reality system as part of the logic of its story world, which means the body movements of crew members have been recorded, and can be accessed, rather like a detective might read evidence. Like EGTTR, they give the player-character access to the past, as a means to find out what’s happened. Where Punchdrunk uses masks, these games use narrative time. In EGTTR, you’re not quite sure who you are, or why you’re there (though you’re probably yourself at the end of the world); in Gone Home and Tacoma there is a characterised narrative perspective you inhabit.
In Tacoma, you can replay scenes and choose to follow different characters into, and out of, moments. It reminds me of Gus Van Sant’s film Elephant (another Portland export), where the same 20 or so minutes of a day is replayed from different character perspectives, so you see scenes you’ve experienced one way, coming back at you in another direction. It’s a really effective way to represent the complexity of intersecting lives.
These Punchdrunk-like forms of spatial storytelling that Fullbright specialise in are exactly what I want to be offered by my gaming experiences.
To find out a bit more about how the augmented reality/hologram characters work in Tacoma, check out this great Gameinformer video interview with Fulbright co-founders Steve Gaynor and Karla Zimonja.