Fullbright, the acclaimed studio behind Gone Home and Tacoma, unveiled its newest narrative adventure, Open Roads, at the 2020 Game Awards. But beyond a trailer that showcased a distinctive mix of art styles, teases of a story that would dive into a family’s history, and some impressive star power with Keri Russell and Kaitlyn Dever leading the cast, it’s remained a mystery.
Thankfully, Fullbright co-founder and Open Roads director Steve Gaynor recently spoke with IGN about how Open Roads represents another evolution of the studio’s penchant for telling emotional, layered stories in unexpected ways. From our discussion, it sounds like Open Roads builds upon the first-person exploration of the studio’s past games, hallmarks of the “walking sim” genre, but with new story and design choices that continue to build off what they and other developers have done. And one of the biggest ways Open Roads represents a departure from the studio’s past games is by simply having another character with you throughout this new story.
“A big part of Open Roads is discovering this character relationship from the inside, by being part of it, which is not something that we’ve done before,” Gaynor said. “The central relationship, it arose out of the starting question, which is always, ‘What is the player doing? Why is this game interesting and engaging to actually interact with and have as an experience?’ …And so the starting point was, what happens if we make a Fullbright game and there’s another character in the room with you, and they’re reacting to what you find, and you can talk to them about what it means to you and what it means to them.”
That other character is Opal, played by Russell, who is the mother to the protagonist you’ll play as, Tess, played by Dever. And as Gaynor explained, the two will be going on a journey to uncover secrets of Tess’ recently passed grandmother and the life they never knew she led.
“You’re exploring places that your mother had been when she was younger, but you’ve never been there before. So she can have that perspective of, ‘Oh, here’s what this means to me,’ in this divide between both their ages and their roles as the kid and the parent and that power dynamic,” Gaynor explained, explaining that, after years of impressive Dad games like God of War, The Last of Us, Telltale’s The Walking Dead, and more, the studio was excited about exploring a story that “centers on a mom and her relationship to her daughter.”
What Is Open Roads?
Open Roads looks to be following in the first-person storytelling footsteps of its predecessors, but rather than confined to a single place like past Fullbright Games, it will, quite literally, have you hitting the open roads. Players will be seeking to uncover the mysteries of Opal’s mother/Tess’ grandmother, who, following her death, they discover may have had some relationship with a man who wasn’t Opal’s father.
On top of that, the duo is losing the house they lived in with her, grappling with their grief, and setting out to “explore some family properties that Opal had spent time in when she was younger, look for clues that might’ve been left behind in places where their family had spent time when these events were occurring.
“It allows us to contrast the place you’re now exploring to where you came from. To have these points along the experience where you might arrive at one of the places you’re going to explore and just, the weather, the time of day, the tone, the mood of the place, sets its own foundation for what the experience there is going to be like,” Gaynor explained of Open Roads’ multiple location design choice.
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While much of the locations and puzzles players will solve on their adventure are understandably preserved for the full game, Gaynor did offer some thoughts on Open Roads’ influences, noting certain games in the genre the studio helped popularized like Firewatch really impacted and excited the team about what could be done.
“We really love that idea of the player having this central agency of saying, ‘I’m going to explore, I’m going to find what I’m interested in.’ And then, ‘I’m going to start this dialogue that then I have this presence'” within the story, he explained, emphasizing the “sense of exploration” the Campo Santo game invoked. And tonally for Tess and Opal’s relationship? Look no further than the acclaimed Lady Bird.
[poilib element=”quoteBox” parameters=”excerpt=Open%20Roads’%20inspirations%20include%20Firewatch%20and%20Lady%20Bird.”]”The mother-daughter relationship in that movie and the performances, just the way that it was so empathetic about those characters and the difficult relationship they had without depicting either of them as being right or approaching things the way they should in every situation. But having that sympathy for them, even though they are people that are acting imperfectly towards each other. It’s something that we’ve definitely gone back and looked at,” he said.
Bringing Tess and Opal to Life
Open Roads also brings with it a distinct art style, with 3D environments and more traditionally hand-drawn, 2D animated characters, as seen in the first trailer. Gaynor explained how this dissonance in part came from the studio’s collective love for Studio Ghibli and classic Disney animated films, as well as the talents of team member Noelle Clark, who did “the lion’s share” of the 3D animation on Tacoma. Gaynor pointed to her classically trained 2D animation background as something this new adventure could use as part of one of Fullbright’s core philosophies.
“With so much stuff at Fullbright, our intent is to meet the player halfway and say, ‘We want to give you enough that you are projecting a lot of the experience onto the screen. We want to give you Sam Greenbrier’s voice in these audio diaries, and you picture what those moments must’ve really been like. We want to give you these simplified representations of these characters in Tacoma and have their motion be very evocative, but you’re imagining what they might’ve looked like, what that moment might’ve really been in a way that is going to look better in your head that we could have brought on screen. And so we hope that here, we’re doing this representation of characters that has its own beauty and value to it while also having this handshake with the player of what they need in that space,” he explained.
Of course, part of that “handshake” is also the voices of Tess and Opal, and for it, Fullbright has brought in two memorable and recognizable voices with Dever and Russell, respectively. Gaynor explained how working with Annapurna Interactive as Open Roads’ publisher allowed the team to take a gamble and try to bring in some beloved actors.
“Our starting point was we’re working with Annapurna Interactive on this game,” he said. “And they’re a really supportive partner in publishing and promotion and everything, but also, they have a lot of connections to the Hollywood talent side of making a narrative game. So when they were getting to the point where we needed to start getting the recording lined up, they came to us and were like, ‘Who would you want? Who would you picture in these roles?'”
Gaynor explained how Russell’s work on the acclaimed The Americans and Dever’s performance in Booksmart, an Annapurna Pictures-published film, led to them being top choices.
“And we were really fortunate that both actors just got the pitch, were excited about it, and decided what they could do with the characters and excited to be able to work together,” he said. “We started doing our initial voice recording with them, and it’s been really fun. It’s been really exciting to see how they’ve so organically found the voices of those characters as a pair,” noting that, while recording has been remote due to COVID-19 considerations, they’ve had the actors recording in sessions together “to find that relationship as a pair.”
How that relationship grows and changes, though, is left for players to discover in Open Roads’ first-person adventure, which is set for release this year on PC and consoles. For more on past Fullbright adventures, be sure to read our Gone Home review and our Tacoma review.
Jonathon Dornbush is IGN’s Senior News Editor, host of Podcast Beyond!, and PlayStation lead. Talk to him on Twitter @jmdornbush.