Interview: Karla Zimonja, co-founder of Gone Home games studio Fullbright

"You put your dad in front of a game and he can't figure out how to stop looking at the ceiling"

We’ve always liked games that aren’t afraid to try something a little different, and games studio Fullbright certainly fits that description. Following the success of their first game, the explore-’em-up Gone Home, they’re hard at work on their follow up, Tacoma, taking that same exploratory gameplay and transporting it onto a lunar transfer station in the year 2088.

We recently got the chance to chat with Fullbright’s co-founder, Karla Zimonja about the gaming industry, creating relatable sci-fi worlds, and what she thinks of virtual reality (not much). Here’s what she had to say.

Hi Karla! Tell us a bit about you.

Well let’s see. I started out working on 2D animation for TV, moving into games when a friend in the industry asked me to come work with them. I didn’t know how to use 3D animation programs, so I assumed it wouldn’t work. They persisted, though, and eventually I caved and said yes, doing some test animations in Lightwave 3D, a janky old 3D program. I stayed with that company for a few years and moved to various other animation positions before burning out and then I taught for a little while.

After that the games industry again beckoned, and I became a researcher for the Bioshock 2 team. From there I was able to expand into a lot of other aspects of that production, and during that time I started working with Steve Gaynor, who later became one of the co-founders of our company, Fullbright, where I remain to this day.

Having experienced both sides of the games industry, the huge teams and budgets of AAA as well as small, self-published, indie productions, which would you say you prefer?

Well one of the benefits of working on Minerva’s Den (DLC for Bioshock 2) was that it ended up being a small core team nested within this huge studio. So from that we got the benefits of having a small unit, and we worked together as a closely connected group. So that experience was very different from having a core team of, like, a 100 or something. So, yeah, I would say I definitely prefer working in a small team.

Samantha's room in Gone Home

Like being in your own band?

Kind of. It’s funny how many times the band comparison comes up when we talk about Fullbright, but yeah, as a small team you get to do so many more things within it, and really get to understand the shape and scope of the whole project. Everyone helps each other out, and there’s just generally a better idea of what’s going on at a particular time. It also helps to prevent people making decisions that end up going in the wrong direction, and not working out in the greater scheme of things.

What’s your experience been like as a woman in the games industry? Has it got any better since you started out?

In our own company we’re kind of bucking the trend. We’ve got eight people at the moment, with three of those being men. It’s hard to compare us to the AAA industry at large, but the gender ratio of the games industry remains imbalanced. I think indie devs definitely have the opportunity to avoid replicating what’s found in the rest of the games industry, but not everyone takes that choice. I mean, if you leave the big budget games industry and operate outside it, chances are that a lot of the people that join you are coming from the big budget games industry, and so the gender ratio is carried over into your new venture.

In Gone Home, there was a strong narrative that focused on the sexual awakening of a teenage girl. The story was profoundly different from those usually tackled in games. Do you think videogames offer a good medium for telling narratively driven, personal stories?

Well, I think that games have the unique ability to give you an experience that you couldn’t otherwise have and that there’s no real borders to that. I know that answer sounds a little broad, but I see no reason why these personal and specific stories can’t work well in videogames.

One of the narrative techniques in Gone Home

Gone Home was very grounded in a specific time and place (the Pacific Northwest in the ’90s) and a lot of people were able to connect with that. Your new game Tacoma is set in 2088, on a lunar transfer station. In order to maintain that same sense of grounding, have you had to do a lot of research into where the human race is heading?

Hell yes! I’m personally a research fanatic, so we’ve done a tonne of research. Although science fiction is usually not about the world you know (that’s kinda the point), concepts existing in the world today are those that will inspire and shape the future. So, in terms of my research, it’s really best to know about the way things currently work, what exists now. Then you’re able to make a sound construction on top of this base of what we know in the present.

A definite gambit of ours is that we take all of these concepts which could just be taken to be wacky sci-fi things, and we keep them grounded in reality by knowing their analogues in today’s world. For example, we’ve managed to learn a lot by just looking at the experience and day to day life of astronauts living on the International Space Station, they raise a lot of issues that arise from living in space that are applicable to Tacoma.

Good Ol' Christmas Duck

In what we’ve seen of Tacoma so far, model representations of people act out scenes involving the missing crew. It looks like the cast of Tacoma is going to be bigger than that of Gone Home, which had a tight focus on the Greenbriar family. Has that been a difficult experience, writing for and coping with a larger cast of characters?

It has been difficult, yes. It’s definitely a different proposition to the story we explored in Gone Home. I mean, an example would be how, in film, smaller casts let you get to know characters better since each of them have more screen time, whereas a larger cast leaves less time to focus on each character. So yeah, it is a challenge that we’ve had to address, but we’ve found it to be an interesting situation, it’s a different structure to what we’ve done before. As a team we see it as a fun challenge to overcome, instead of looking at it as an insurmountable challenge. Who wants to produce the same thing over and over? In Gone Home we’ve already explored a very close-in portrait, so we thought it would be interesting to try something a little different.

In literature the reader fills in some of the gaps, the text itself isn’t information overload because that wouldn’t be fun to read and some of the joy comes from engaging your brain. In your games you present a fixed 3D space, but the story threads are left for the player to tease and pull at, filling in the gaps. Would you say this is an important part of Fullbright’s design ethos?

Definitely! I think that idea is at the core of the games that we make in a lot of ways. It’s very important that the player has some work to do mentally, otherwise you lose a certain amount of buy-in.

That magic of connecting the dots is lost if you just lay out the plot with all the points and story beats clearly noted, I mean if you do that then you may as well just be reading a Wikipedia entry. We’re pretty good as human beings at understanding how to piece a story together, so why not have people do it? That’s part of the fun, figuring out how events transpired. We see that as an interesting learning experience all by itself.

Mechanically your games are fairly simple, there’s no ducking for cover from bullet fire, no failure state, no death. They’re about wandering through a space, exploring and discovering. Do you think your games offer a bridge into the rest of gaming for people with little to no familiarity with the medium?

Yes, we’ve definitely heard from people that have had this happen to them. There was one lady who got in touch with us; she’d never really played games before and she sat down with Gone Home and played right through it. Then she emailed us saying she now felt she could play other games, in fact she was going to go and check out Portal. I mean can you imagine? Portal being your first AAA game experience, that’d be so awesome!

Everyone can relate to this

So yeah, I think it’s really cool to be able to bridge that gap, and for us it’s important to keep our games accessible to people who aren’t super pros. It’s nice to provide a controlled environment for learning how to do fairly basic video game actions we take for granted. I mean, that’s always one of the hardest things for people starting out to do. You put your dad in front of a game and he can’t figure out how to stop looking at the ceiling, and you’ve then got to explain how to use the controller. In today’s AAA games industry there’s usually something else going on in addition to learning how to use the reticule and starting to walk. So yeah, I think it’s good to offer an experience that lets people learn at their own pace.

Do you think virtual reality will be the next step in getting a host of people into games? Do you think it’ll be important for video games as a whole?

Personally, I’m not too excited about VR at the moment. I think that it’s very hard to say how the industry is going to go but, for us, there’s a lot of things that you need to work well in VR and some just don’t mesh well with our games yet. On the creation side, it’s very hard to do VR well because if you have to include a hand in the game then the hand needs to interact with all of the objects. Since we hold different things in totally different ways, these interactions would be very hard to proceduralise, and so you’d have to individually do all of the animations. VR also has this disconnect between the player’s reticule and their interaction. They have separate loci because in VR you have a notional body, right? So, essentially, I think that out of the gate there’s a lot of hurdles to overcome, but I’m not saying these won’t all become easier at some point in the future.

And now onto one of the most important questions. Gone Home featured cinnamon toothpaste in one of the house’s bathrooms. How did you come up with this idea?!

That was done by our 3D artist Kate, who is awesome. I don’t understand though, cinnamon toothpaste is definitely a real thing. Is it not around in the UK?

What the heck is this

Well if it is, I’ve managed to avoid it up until now.

It definitely exists in the US, it’s not common or anything but definitely some health food brands have products like that. I mean tastes change don’t they? That’s one of the things we’ve had to think about in Tacoma, and we’ve definitely got weirder with flavours. In fact one of my favourite things to research at the moment is the foods and packaging from other countries. One of my favourite things is one I found from Malaysia – tomato flavoured frozen yoghurt.

And I think on that tomato-y note, we’ll bring our interview to a close. Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to Gadgette.

Thank you!

If you’d like to hear more from Karla, follow her on Twitter: @zusty. And if you want to know more about Fullbright, Gone Home and Tacoma, check out the Fullbright website.