Behind the scenes of Tacoma

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[Originally printed in games™ 186]

The Fullbright team tells us how it’s building a sci-fi world you can believe with its follow-up to Gone Home

As you begin Tacoma and your contracted AI Communications Specialist Amy Ferrier signs in to access the titular abandoned space station, she logs in with sign language to spell her name on the augmented reality interface. It’s a small moment, one that will likely be repeated as the game progresses and your player character needs to interact with more systems further on in the station, but it’s a choice that carries interesting analogues throughout Fullbright’s follow-up to Gone Home.

Issues surrounding communication lie at the heart of the biggest challenges and biggest successes of Tacoma, a game in which Fullbright is attempting to bring its brand of intimate, relatable character-driven storytelling to a more fantastical and eye-catching stage. The familiar hallways and bedrooms of Gone Home have been replaced by zero gravity and augmented reality playbacks, but the core principles remain the same.

Behind the scenes of Tacoma

“I think our outlook with the games that we’ve made with Tacoma and Gone Home and, in some parts, when Karla [Zimonja, Fullbright cofounder] and I were working on Minerva’s Den together, is this idea that through the mechanics that we provide to the player we have the ability to give players access to the details of who these people are and what their thought processes are and what their life experience is like as an individual,” says Steve Gaynor, fellow Fullbright cofounder. “That was the real gambit with Gone Home, the idea that if we can make a story that’s about ordinary people that could have happened to people that you could know in your own life, but through the experience of the game we can let you get to know these people to a degree where you’re not invested in their story because it’s the fate of the world hanging in the balance, but because you understand them.”

That was a bold move to attempt when Gone Home was launched in 2013, but one that proved to be hugely effective. Tacoma is more ambitious, not least because of its larger scale and more spectacular setting, and Gaynor insists the intention remains the same. “I think that the flipside of that with Tacoma is to say that even in a setting that is not part of our own life experience and that is very pushed and sci-fi, it’s a space station with an AI on it, in spite of it all, what you do in the game lets you see how the people who are living through that are still just people that are reacting to things the way that anybody might.”

The challenge the team created for itself was how to sell the futuristic setting for its new game without losing the intimacy of the experience. The answer was to merge the two things by using an augmented reality playback of events on the station, bringing the characters you’re investigating to life in a way that text or audio recording alone wouldn’t be able to do. You can watch these scenes of relative domesticity play out in real time, but they are often broken up across a room and happening simultaneously. You can then pause and rewind the events, moving around the space yourself to hear new pieces of dialogue or see what characters were interacting with. The first thought that popped into our minds was what an immense writing challenge scripting a game like this was likely to have been.

Behind the scenes of Tacoma

“I’ve totally been asked by people repeatedly whether we have special tools for writing in the in-world thing with paths that can cross and I’m always like ‘well, no’,” says Zimonja, punctuating it with a laugh. “We ended up doing it in normal script format, but sort of modularising the chunks. So, when a couple of people would break off to talk to one another that would be Thread A and if one of them left to form a sub-conversation elsewhere then we would name that separately so that we could move back and forth between the dialogue chunks. We ended up colouring them. We were just trying to make it approachable for our brains.”

This was then recorded in an early voice acting session that revealed where conversations were too long or too short to join up with other things happening in a scene. Gaynor compares the challenge to that faced by a filmmaker trying to create a classic ‘walk and talk’ scene. “You’re like, ‘The camera is going to be going here so these people need to walk and talk and be here by the time the camera comes around the corner’. All of that kind of coordination stuff. But it’s every scene in our entire game [laughs].”

It’s through these scenes that we get to see the Tacoma station crew interact with one another. They talk about their lives and go about their regular jobs; they talk about happenings on the station, about how they are missing their homes and about each other. They reveal all sorts of details and draw you into the experience, just as listening to tapes and reading notes did in Gone Home – however in this instance it has been hugely assisted by the performances and how the actors interact with one another.

Behind the scenes of Tacoma

“We got the entire cast together on a sound stage to perform the scenes,” reveals Gaynor. “The stuff that’s actually in the game is two day’s worth of recording back to back and then we recorded ODIN’s voice and Amy, our player character’s voice, who you don’t hear in the demo, we recorded them separately as well as they aren’t physically in the space with the actors.”

“There’s a chemistry and some sort of process that happens when actors can bounce off each other and respond directly to each other with exactly the right emotional level,” adds Zimonja. “It really just makes realism and naturalism a lot easier to achieve. You’re putting them in a place where they can naturally put themselves in the mode that the character would be in.”

So, that’s how Tacoma delivers its experience and how the performers managed to create an atmosphere that feels genuine and familiar even as you float in space, but the writing itself is still fairly unique in its grounded conversations and revelatory moments. Some of that is thanks to one of Fullbright’s newer recruits. “I came from a background where I studied a lot of poetry when I was an undergrad a while ago now, so when I was learning to be a writer the kinds of things that I was learning to emphasise in my work were ordinary life experience,” level designer Nina Freeman tells us. Freeman joined Fullbright having established herself as a solo developer with a long list of innovative story-driven experiences. “What I was really interested in was Seventies and Eighties New York City poets and a lot of their work, like Alan Ginsberg is probably the most famous one, but poets around this era were writing a lot about their personal lives. So my background was originally looking at a lot of work like that. And actually Gone Home was one of the first games that I played when I was getting into games and I saw that similar style of writing in that where I was like, ‘Oh, this is a story about a real person or someone who could really exist in the world in a real scenario that I can imagine actually happening to someone’.”

Behind the scenes of Tacoma

“The reason that we wanted to work with Nina was because of the stuff that she had done as an indie game developer,” Gaynor adds. “She was still working on Cibele when she started working for us and finished that game while Tacoma was in production, but before that I played How Do You Do It and a text adventure that Nina made called Mangia and the perspective expressed in those that was about saying, ‘I can take a very small, mundane or familiar moment or personal vignette from someone’s life and make it approachable and accessible and it’s in some places funny and inherently interactive’. Those are all the values that drive us that we’re excited about in what we do and what we see in people’s games. So, I think that even if influences or practices aren’t extremely, concretely expressed, as a through line from one work to another, I think that we all share this mindset of having similar values of what we want to accomplish together as a team on a bigger game. I think that all of us want to try to do right by the characters and the story of the game.”

That commitment lead to a rather massive decision during the production of Tacoma; to completely redesign the augmented reality playback interface and the design of the space station itself after initial demos and feedback suggested it wasn’t quite clicking together. “What I always think is interesting is that the first version of the game that we were sending out and showing people was that first it had a completely different space, so the ship itself is a totally different level design,” Freeman tells us. “But also, our original scenes that we’re talking about right now didn’t really have any interaction with them beyond just playing them from the start and watching them until the end and then restarting them. So, there was no active engagement. Now you can scrub through them like a tape and originally we didn’t have that at all. Players could still follow threads that were separating and coming back together, but there wasn’t as much of a sense of control over that. Of being able to really follow threads in more of an expressive way by being able to go back a couple of seconds.”

“We have these characters on-screen, but we want to make exploring these moments in the crew’s lives more like an integral part of what you do as a player, not just what you look at as a player,” adds Gaynor. “And that influenced how the space, the level design, was built. We realised that we needed more compact, more personal spaces that the crew completely inhabited so that when you’re in their space and you can see how their presence in it impacts the environment and vice-versa.” So the concept of the entire station being zero-G was left behind to allow for more familiar setups and easier interaction with the scenes. “If you’re not in gravity you can’t put a bunch of stuff on a table and say ‘somebody was eating dinner here’,” says Gaynor, chuckling.

Behind the scenes of Tacoma

Which brings us back to this idea of communicating the story to the player in a way that is both practical and believable in the space, that works in the context of the rules that have been established for what Tacoma is. In this respect how you connect to the game world through Amy and the AR interface is another example of smart design choices and iteration delivering an innovative and engaging result. It’s something the team spent a lot of time perfecting.

“A lot of the natural assumption for interfaces in games are movie OS,” says Zimonja. “Like the ‘whishy’ stuff from Minority Report, moving your arms around to do things, and we really did think you wouldn’t actually want to do that in real life.” Having committed to the concept of an augmented reality dashboard for both the player character and the crew of the Tacoma, Fullbright set about projecting what modern smartphone interfaces might look like in the future. “I remember one of the first versions of that we did was a bunch of basically square panels totally in front of the player’s view, filling up the screen,” recalls Freeman. “What if you’re just surrounded by windows? Then if you think about how these people are actually using it, they’re walking around the station and you see them actually looking at it in the scenes, we were like, ‘How are they walking around if they have all these panels in their face?’. So now we have that centre piece that’s cut out so they can actually see where they’re going.” What you will see is a Y shape interface with two branching app icons on either side that open up additional, translucent windows for messages and other data. The same interfaces can be recovered from the crew too as you watch back their actions to see what they were seeing.

And then comes the really sticky bit: making the interface useable for the player and the fictional characters in this world. “Then you have to say, ‘Okay, but the actual interface for this is using a mouse or a gamepad to aim a cursor and point at things on a flat screen’, so it becomes more of a multivalent design challenge of conceptually how would this work in the fictional world, but how do you actually click on it using the interface?” Gaynor asks laughing. And thanks to the playtests it seems to have paid off. “What’s as important as things that people do mention is what people don’t mention, and so the fact that people use this interface and just kind of get it and don’t even say or mention it, it just means you didn’t have to think about it. You saw it and you got how it works. You used it and you’re done. I think that that’s a good sign that we got to a place that people can use it intuitively in the same way that in the best case an app on your phone has an interface that doesn’t need to be explained.”

Behind the scenes of Tacoma

So after some false starts and shifts in direction, but staying true to the original goal of creating a lifelike world with characters you can believe in, Fullbright is finishing up its vision for Tacoma. It’s a game with its own visual language and sense of storytelling. A game that invites you to not only unravel the mystery of what happened to its crew and the AI that helped to run the station, but to delve deeper into their personal lives and perhaps in so doing reveal a little about your own character too. As we played we were instantly drawn in by the small details, the way the crew laughed together and quizzed each other for details. We loved scrubbing back and forth through the scenes looking for clues or small interactions that we might be able to imitate to reveal new details. But more than anything we began to believe in this space station and be enthralled by its
design. For all that we were utterly captivated by Gone Home, Tacoma is taking the concept into orbit.