The most controversial video game of 2013 didn't feature a single gun. There were no prostitutes bloodily murdered, no spines pulled out through anyone's throat, and no heaving animated bosoms.
The game takes place in an empty house in the Portland suburbs, and it features a young woman whose sister has disappeared. The action consists of picking up bits and pieces of a life: answering-machine messages, diary entries, and a cassette tape of Heavens to Betsy, Corin Tucker's first band. In part, the game is the coming-of-age story of a lesbian teen.
When they released Gone Home two years ago, Karla Zimonja and Steve Gaynor—co-founders of Portland's Fullbright game company along with programmer Johnnemann Nordhagen—figured it might reach a small, niche audience.
"I had no idea anybody was going to care," says Zimonja. "Obviously, it did not turn out that way."
Gone Home was hailed in The New York Times as âthe greatest video game love story ever told.â It landed on the top 10 list of seemingly every game publication in the country, and the British Academy of Film and Television Arts named it the best debut game of the year. And it ultimately sold more than 750,000 copiesâenough to make it the greatest financial and critical success a Portland independent game had ever seen.
But with acclaim often comes contempt. On Reddit and Twitter, gamers declared Gone Home's triumph a plot of "social justice warriors"—people bent on enforcing political correctness. The only way a game like this could get such positive reviews, some charged, was cronyism or political conspiracy.
Now, within the year, Fullbright will try to do it all again with a new game called Tacoma.
If Gone Home made the video game world take notice of Portland for the first time, a similar success with Tacoma could put Portland at the center of the gaming world—and maybe, just maybe, even change it.
If you follow the money, video games are the largest entertainment industry in America.
They're bigger than movies. And they're bigger than music.
In 2013, Grand Theft Auto V banked $800 million in sales on its first day—the largest single-day haul for any form of art or entertainment in history.
Even with its more humble figure of 750,000 games sold to date, with revenues in the low millions, Gone Home still moved enough units to surpass every music album of 2014 except Beyoncé and the Frozen soundtrack.
Until very recently, huge "triple-A" game studios like Electronic Arts and Rockstar Games dominated the market. But according to Fullbright's Gaynor and Zimonja, the doors have been kicked open.
Thanks to new programming tools, tiny companies like Fullbright can now make games of beautiful complexity. And because of digital marketplaces like Steam—kind of a macho Etsy for PC games, except it also sells major releases—they can reach their audience directly.
"Eight, 10, 12 people now can make something that it took 50 people to make 10 years ago," says Gaynor at Fullbright's central eastside office, a bare-bones train-car space with exposed brick and walls naked except for the awards it has won. There's just enough room for the eight people who now work there.
"Ten years?" says Zimonja. "I'd say we couldn't have done it even five years ago."
Gaynor, 33—with his close-cropped beard, over-the-eyebrow forelock and fondness for hoodies—looks like a lot of Portland, the sort of guy who used to put out video game zines at Reading Frenzy (title: The Journal of the Compugraphical Video Entertainment Medium) while taking too long to graduate from art school at Portland State. The turn-of-the-millennium, indie-rock Portland of Gone Home was built in part from his own experience.
Gaynor is an unlikely source of controversy. Even simple questions lead to amiable nests of abstraction. âWeâre very interested in feminist utopias,â he says, when asked why he considers Portland author Ursula K. Le Guin one of his influences. âWeâre thinking about how societies function in imagined technological settings.â
When they talk about their company, he and Zimonja—a 10-year veteran of game design who dresses and looks a bit like an adult version of Winona Ryder's character in Beetlejuice—tend to speak in overlapping rhythms borne of long familiarity.
But while Gaynor is more likely to talk about theories of game design, Zimonja tends to talk about the people who play the game—the responsibility she feels toward the audience that Gone Home built among "people who don't fit the profile" of gamers.
"Steve doesn't have an agenda," she told a British gaming blog in 2014. "I have a fucking agenda. I want to help even out some of the inequality." In the video game industry, the demographics skew drastically male. At Fullbright, women make up the majority.
Zimonja and Gaynor originally worked together at one of the biggest game companies in the world, 2K, making the hugely popular first-person-shooter franchise Bioshock. But after working on huge teams—where one person's job might be to animate characters' hair for 10 years—they detoured into a Bioshock side project called Minerva's Den.
"We got to work on this small project, just 11 or 12 people, and it ended up being a completely different style of game development," says Zimonja.
In 2012, when Gaynor got the notion to make a different kind of game all on his own—in a place that doesn't cost as much to live as San Francisco or Boston—he knew just where to go. He came back to his wife Rachel Jacks' hometown of Portland, where he'd gone to school.
"He called me up and said, 'Hey, you want to move to Portland?'" Zimonja remembers.
"And I said, 'You know what? I kind of do.'"
"I think when you live down in the Bay Area, coming to Portland is a dream that a lot of people have," says Amy Dallas of Portland's ClutchPlay Games (see "Five Portland Games You Should Play"), who worked on blockbuster game The Sims at pressure-cooker Electronic Arts in San Francisco. "One of the teams at our company literally didn't have time to do laundry. So they were starting to smell. It was like, 'Bring your laundry in on Saturdays!'"
Indeed, at digital business accelerator Oregon Story Board, program manager Krystal South says she gets a barrage of calls from out-of-state programmers who say they want to come to Portland to connect with local game makers. She refers them not to some large company, but often to Will Lewis' Portland Indie Game Squad, a loose group of 40 to 100 passionate game makers who meet each week, running the gamut from tinkerers to dedicated obsessives.
âOne of the challenges here in Portland,â says Dallas, âis there arenât a lot of big shops. There are small one- to two-person shops, and people for whom games are their hobby, but not a lot of established shops.â
At $111 million annually, Oregon's game industry is the eighth-largest in the country. But to put that number in perspective, that's approximately the amount the mobile game Candy Crush scoops up every four months. Among our West Coast neighbors, Washington has an industry five times the size of Oregon's, while California trumps us by a factor of 20.
In part, some believe it's the lack of financial incentives. Films and television shows made in Oregon can apply for money from a $10 million incentive fund, a figure Oregon Games Organization board member Lindsay Gupton—of Eugene's Pipeworks studio—says is already "anemic" compared to funds in other states like Texas or Louisiana.
"Video games have access to only $500,000 of that," he says. "You don't get much bang out of that small little pool." Pipeworks has nonetheless landed subsidies on commissioned games like World Series of Poker: Full House Pro and a missile defense simulator designed for the U.S. Navy.
Still, money is tight, says Tim Williams, who heads the Oregon Governor's Office of Film & Television. "We run out of our 10 million before the year even starts."
OGO head Peter Lund, who is also COO of a gaming studio in Oregon City called SuperGenius, says companies like Fullbright point to a new middle ground in video games. "The big-budget games are the province of the triple-A studios," Lund adds. "They're feature-film size. And then we have this gold-rush market on the indie side."
In movie terms, this means video games have long been either special-effects monsters that cost millions to make—games like Grand Theft Auto or Call of Duty have teams of hundreds of people working notoriously long hours—or they're Flappy Bird iPhone Sharknado-style schlock.
But with the new tools used by companies like Fullbright, that middle market has opened back up to tiny shops—leaving a craft game scene much like the early indie movies of Gus Van Sant, niche bands like Menomena or the Thermals, and craft breweries like Upright or Breakside. It's the Portland aesthetic in video game form, and it's become an attractive draw to game makers from more established companies elsewhere.
"Oregon companies have the same love of craft quality," says Lund, whose company SuperGenius offers custom animations and development for games like The Walking Dead and Marvel: Contest of Champions. "They're craft studios, with a good commercial product, but dedicated to making it in a way that feels good."
That's what Fullbright is to Lund. "I think they represent exactly the type of game we'd like to see more of in Oregon," he says. "These beautiful, narrative-driven, artistically brilliant games that are not huge-budget things."
When Fullbright made Gone Home, there were only four people—not enough to program the complex animations and physics required for a combat game. And so, in the absence of gunplay, they focused on telling a story.
Without the distractions of gunshots and puzzles, they focused on creating a narrative not just with words, but by paying careful attention to objects placed in the house. Early reviewers were stunned and pleased to find a tampon—treated not as a joke but as something that exists in spaces where women live.
Gone Home is an emotional, immersive experience. When it came out, Gaynor said he received an outpouring of emails from people who said the game had moved them. But it still feels a little like a shooting game, in the sense that there's a constant sense of foreboding with each footstep.
The game is also shot through with Portland. When you hear a character talking about a captivating young woman named Lonnie, the voice you're hearing is that of Sarah Grayson, who works at Dark Horse Comics in Milwaukie. Zines litter the house. Lonnie's band is played by defunct Portland foursome the Youngins, whose lead singer Zimonja and Gaynor met at a riot grrrl festival at shuttered all-ages venue Slabtown.
But the very qualities that made Gone Home such a hit—its lack of traditional gameplay and dedication to telling a story, not to mention its arty, somewhat emo vibe—made it a flashpoint for hardcore gamers angry at anything that challenged the primacy of big game studios and gun games. It was part of a phenomenon that eventually came to be known as GamerGate (see "GamerGate Revisited," below).
Specifically, gamers pointed to a review by gaming site Polygon that gave Gone Home a rare perfect score of 10. "If all goes well," declared the accompanying article on the website, "this title will put The Fullbright Company, and the Portland game scene, on the map."
Commenters tracked Gaynor in an attempt to prove he was friends with the reviewer—Gaynor, for his part, says he hadn't met her before she wrote the review. Subreddit posts proliferated, with titles like "More Corruption at Polygon: Gone Home Nepotism Worse Than We Thought," and threads on popular site Gamespot dissected the "gay agenda" of reviewers on various game sites. Obsessives posted diagrams of purported complicity between Gone Home's makers and reviewers that looked like something from the walls of an FBI nerve center.
Meanwhile, the Dorkly website circulated a fake game trailer for a sequel called âGun Home,â promising âthree gut-wrenching floors of high-octane introspection,â fighting 12 types of enemies who âimpede your sisterâs personal journey.â
This has made the release of Fullbright's next game, Tacoma, kind of a big deal—not only for Fullbright, but for gaming at large.
Fullbright announced its new game in December 2014, with a trailer showing a woman nervously arriving at a space station. Immediately, a commenter on the popular Gamespot site wrote, "Gone Home in space? That's easy. All the crew members have ran away with their [gay] love interest."
âReally now, Rainbow coloured characters?â wrote another. âTheyâre certainly not subtle regarding the social agenda theyâre trying to push.â
But in other corners of the Internet, anticipation is high for Tacoma. Game Informer, the magazine with the fourth-largest circulation in America—behind only two AARP publications and Better Homes and Gardens, according to the Alliance for Audited Media—has devoted 10 breathless pages in its August issue to Gone Home's follow-up. When Gaynor introduced Tacoma on the Microsoft stage at the Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles in June, 3 million people watched the presentation online.
Tacoma will be similar to Gone Home in certain ways. It's a story exploration game without fighting elements: A lone traveler arrives in an abandoned place, and must discover what has happened.
This time, the abandoned place is a floating space station in the year 2088 named Tacoma. Like its namesake city, the orbiting station is a little lived-in. Amid skeletal tubes and rooftop gardens with plants growing upside down, there are slightly depressing toilet stalls and little cups of udon noodles, dust hanging everywhere in the air. But instead of moving only through 2-D space, players can swap between the floor and the ceiling while walking with magnetic boots. And rather than just read notes, they get to watch full-scale holographic re-enactments of past events.
Gone Home was "a process of removing as much as you can and still having something interesting," says Gaynor. "It was, 'What's the simplest thing we can make?' Now we're adding complexity onto that."
Zimonja and Gaynor say they've seen the game industry change after Gone Home's success—with story games like The Vanishing of Ethan Carter on PlayStation 4, for example, which may never have gotten a publisher's backing previously, sort of like the countless teen vampire books published after Twilight.
Lund believes Gone Home's achievement can lead to a change in the Portland game industry as well. Fullbright has also become the face of Portland games to the outside world—in part because Gone Home's Portland setting makes the city another character in the game.
"Most people don't know where a video game was made," says Lund. "There's no sense that something came from Portland." But with Gone Home and the upcoming Tacoma, that's the first thing everyone knows. Portland is front and center, both in the game and in the press surrounding it.
In a small gaming scene like Portland's, says local startup guru Rick Turoczy, a company like Fullbright is pivotal to building an industry.
"It's like Puppetlabs among tech startups," he says. "One company becomes a lightning rod or spokesperson to demonstrate that those types of companies can be successful in Portland. That motivates other founders in town, but also attracts investment, it draws out other experts who may already be here. Portland is a town that's very good at hiding."
Gaynor believes Fullbright's success with Gone Home—and, he hopes, Tacoma—will encourage more nontraditional games, like the tiny craft games being made in Portland.
âItâs a stark contrast between Portland and the Bay Area,â says Gaynor. âWe all showed up in this place to do things our way, be free of publisher oversight. This is the place thatâs letting us do it.â
GamerGate is the biggest shitstorm ever to swirl around the video game industry.
The word for the âscandalâ was coined from a Twitter hashtag created in August 2014âby actor and professional angry man Adam Baldwin (Firefly, Chuck)âafter a guy named Eron Gjoni blogged about his ex-girlfriend, celebrated indie game maker Zoe Quinn, accusing her of cheating on him. Specifically, he wrote posts that led people to believe that she slept with a reviewer at gamer blog Kotaku, in return for a good review of her interactive story game Depression Quest.
The claims were false: The critic had never reviewed her game, and never mentioned her name online after the two met. But the controversy still raged, and Quinn was subjected to a merciless campaign of harassment by an Internet mob that included hacking into her online accounts and a battery of death and rape threats. (Zoe Quinn will speak at TechfestNW on Aug. 20.)
The other most famous target of GamerGate, feminist media critic Anita Sarkeesian, had been receiving threats since late 2012, after raising funds on Kickstarter for a series of feminist videos on YouTube called Tropes vs. Women in Video Games. By the time GamerGate was in full swing, the threats were so violent Sarkeesian felt unsafe to stay in her own home.
The more toxic the verbal attacks on women, the more loudly GamerGate followers asserted the real issue was journalistic ethics. Reddit and 4chan message boards filled with enough alternating bile and self-righteousness that âethics in video game journalismâ became a jokey euphemismâalongside the fedora and neck beardâfor menâs rights activism.
This was the climate that was forming when Fullbrightâs Gone Home emerged in late 2013, at the beginning of what The New York Times called an âinchoate but effective online movementâ rife with âlatent racism, homophobia and misogyny.â
Reviewers who liked Gone Home were accused of cronyism or promoting a "gay agenda." Commenters stalked Twitter and podcast appearances by Fullbright co-founder Steve Gaynor, seeking evidence of conspiracy.
Gaynor says neither he nor the company received threats. But he says one particularly unhinged comment about Gone Home still sticks in his memory: "THIS GAME IS A FRAUD AND A CONSPIRACY."
âIt becomes much less hilarious,â says Gaynor, âwhen you realize this gained enough critical mass to be hurtful to a lot of people six months later.â
Note: The GamerGate sidebar has been updated to clarify that Gjoni's Zoepost did not specifically accuse Quinn of a quid-pro-quo relationship with a game reviewer.