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Hot on the heels of last month’s announcement that Keri Russell and Kaitlyn Dever would star in Open Roads from developer Fullbright and publisher Annapurna Interactive, game director Steve Gaynor spoke with The Hollywood Reporter to share his inspirations behind the character and story-driven video game that is currently in production amid the raging COVID-19 pandemic.
Describing the game as “a mother-daughter road trip adventure,” Gaynor adds that the two leads, Opal (played by Russell) and Tessa (played by Dever), set out to uncover a generational family mystery involving Tessa’s grandmother. “After she passes away, it’s something that a lot of us have experienced; you’re going through your loved one’s possessions and sorting through what’s left, and in Opal and Tessa’s case, they find this stash of hints and clues about this episode in Tessa’s grandma’s life that either of them knew about,” explains Gaynor. “There was this man who wasn’t Opal’s father that she was involved with and some sort of scheme that they were going to run away together.”
This inciting incident sends the pair on a quest through the places Opal and her family had spent summers to see if they can find evidence about what really went on in the past.
“A really direct, inescapable reference for us has definitely been the film Lady Bird [from director Greta Gerwig]” says Gaynor, “which does such a beautiful job of depicting a mother-daughter relationship that is far from perfect, but has this underpinning of real care.”
He also mentions the true stories of the podcast This American Life, noting how the tales are told from the real people who are living them. Recalling one in particular, Gaynor brings up the 2001 episode “House on Loon Lake,” which is about kids in the 1970s who visit a vacation town for the summer and find an abandoned house, which they ultimately sneak into. “Some people just left one night and never went back,” Gaynor recalls, of the inhabitants of the house. “They’re trying to figure out who the family was and what happened to them,” he says, calling it an “exciting, real-world version” of what is at the heart of Fullbright games.
The studio, based in Portland, Oregon, is best known for the first-person exploration game Gone Home, which won the BAFTA for best debut game in 2013. “Everything really was pointed toward making you as the player feel like you knew the characters as people who you could have known in your real life,” Gaynor says of Fullbright’s first game, which saw the player tasked with uncovering what happened after returning home from overseas and finding her house completely empty with her family absent.
“It came down to what we populated the house with, what the dialogue was that you heard when you found different things,” he continues — all of that was designed to build a sense of understanding and empathy between the player and the story. “In games, especially at that time,” Gaynor explains, “it was pretty rare to play a game just about normal people going through relatively normal stuff, and so what I was hoping to accomplish is to be able to say, everybody’s story is important to them, and it’s not because it’s necessarily the most dramatic story in the world, but it’s because they’re living it. And if you can understand those people as people, then their story can be important to you as well, and not because you’re saving the world or because the state of the country lies in balance, but because it matters to them.”
This concept is something that Gaynor carried from Gone Home into Open Roads. “They are exploring a mystery, there is drama to what might have happened in the past and what they want to resolve by going on this journey — that’s all true — but it matters because it matters to them, and it matters to you, the player, because by being part of this relationship, you care about Opal and Tess and want to see where this journey takes them.”
Being a huge fan of The Americans, Gaynor was keen on casting Russell in Open Roads right from the beginning. “I love how Keri can have such an imposing presence, but also has a humanity to her in all the scenes that she’s in,” he recalls. For the daughter character, Gaynor is also an enthusiast of Booksmart, in which Dever was a lead. “I loved the real feeling of natural humor but the vulnerability that Kaitlyn brought to [it],” Gaynor says of Olivia Wilde’s 2019 teen comedy.
In terms of the interactive dialogue system in Open Roads, in which players explore the central relationship and advance the story, Gaynor summons the 2016 adventure video game Firewatch as an influential title. “We’ve always made story-based games that are about exploring places, and it’s usually been in a more solitary sense, so it’s you and what you find and your interpretation of it,” Gaynor continues. “What we were really excited about with Open Roads was to explore what it means if there is another person in the room there with you, sharing their perspective of what your finding means to them, not just to the player. ” As the game progresses, Gaynor says that players will be offered a deeper look at who Opal and Tessa are as people, and given the opportunity to express who they think Tessa is through the dialogue options and how she relates to her mother.
This emotional game is, of course, being made during the throes of quarantine. “It’s hard with COVID – everything’s been over Zoom calls,” says Gaynor, adding that “it’s not ideal to try and establish chemistry with a Zoom call.” For the first shared recording session that just took place, Russell was in New York, while Dever delivered her lines from location in Virginia. “Even with COVID being a thing, we wanted to make sure that since the center of this game is about these two characters having these ongoing exchanges that they were able to do those sessions together,” says Gaynor.
In fact, he described the recording sessions similarly to the Zoom call that he took with THR for this interview, noting that it’s a familiar sort of set-up. “I think in a perfect world, they would be in two booths in one recording studio and we’d all be in one physical space.”
Looking at the art style, Gaynor explained that the game employs both 2D and 3D elements to build the visual story and create a real sense of resonance that may not have been the same if 3D AI-driven characters were exclusively used. “We feel like there’s this really natural connection that we have with this traditional hand-drawn animation, with this depiction of characters that clearly came from this person’s hand where the animation is done in this organic way,” he says.
Gaynor goes on to mention that the games he makes at Fullbright are really about exploring detailed places, so having 3D environments that have a lot in them to find is the starting point. Next, the key is to integrate a second character into the same space. “Our approach to stuff that falls into that category is always to try to rely on the player being able to project more of the experience into what they’re playing than we could put on screen in just like a literal way. So having the characters that you encounter be depicted in this hand-created representation, it gives you the impression of being with the characters without trying to put it all there in the most literal form possible.”
While Open Roads does not have a release date yet, it will drop this year on Steam and consoles.
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