The tattooed arm you see in the photo above belongs to Gone Home designer Steve Gaynor. Further around that arm, you’ll find a second tattoo of a stylised owl, an image that formed part of the logo for Gaynor’s first project as a lead designer, BioShock 2: Minerva’s Den. Steve Gaynor is a man who bleeds for video games.
Five years ago, I wrote about “0451”, a numerical phrase that shows up as a password in the System Shock, Deus Ex and BioShock games. I defined 0451 then as a kind of DNA marker. Each of the games to include the reference had evolved out of a specific design aesthetic: first-person, set in densely interactive and interesting worlds, with a style of play blending action, stealth and exploration. Since that article, the 0451 sphere of influence has expanded: the code has appeared in Dishonored, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, BioShock Infinite, Gone Home, and on human flesh.
When 0451 first appeared in System Shock in 1994, it was as a nod to Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, but there was no obvious meaning to the reference. 0451 gained significance not for how it was originally used, but through its usage – in the games of Origin Systems and Looking Glass Studios, and by designers like Harvey Smith, Warren Spector, Ken Levine and Doug Church. 0451, in each of the games that it appears, represents membership of a broader design philosophy.
Steve Gaynor is of the first generation of game developers to have grown up with, and been influenced by, games like Looking Glass’ System Shock and Thief, and Deus Ex. For a while, his career in the games industry followed in the Looking Glass tradition about as closely as possible. He worked as a level designer on BioShock 2 and BioShock Infinite, before leaving triple A game development to found an independent studio, The Fullbright Company, in Portland, OR.
On the face of it, Gone Home - Fullbright's first - couldn’t be less like the games that had inspired Steve Gaynor. Gone Home is decidedly realist, without sci-fi or fantasy elements, and has no combat, no stealth, no enemies, and no puzzles.
And yet Gone Home is an 0451 game, both technically and in spirit. What does that mean, to be an 0451 game? Here's Steve Gaynor.
STEVE GAYNOR: For me, it denotes a dedication to a certain design philosophy, and a certain way of relating to players of your game. It comes from this background of System Shock and Thief and Deus Ex and that lineage of games that on some level, aesthetically, are about being first person games that are very aesthetically immersive and atmospheric and having worlds that are deeply interactive and all that kind of stuff.
But the other side of it is, I feel like all of those games are about trusting the player, in a really meaningful way. Saying we're going to make a world that stands on its own, and that you're a part of, and that you're visiting and interacting with, but that doesn't cater to you, that trusts you to be curious enough and invested enough to navigate it and be interested in it and figure it out and be a part of it because of your inherent interest in exploring that space. And not because of extrinsic rewards or awesome cutscenes or all these things that are made to motivate the player to play the game in this heavy-handed way, but instead are hands off and an invitation for you to invest yourself.
I think it's a really important design philosophy to be represented. I don't think every game should be like that, but I think it's important that there are games like that. They're inspiring to me and I think that they're an important part of what games can do that isn't especially common, but that I think speaks to people, or at least speaks to me, in a way that's totally different than any kind of other entertainment experience or way that a creator can communicate with an audience. And that means a lot to me.