In Steve Gaynor’s attic, there is a box that does not belong to him. He bought his Portland home from a family who put the house up for sale after the death of its elderly owner. Months later, Gaynor and his wife discovered a cardboard box full of letters and other artifacts from a stranger’s life. “There was this backstory about this person who had been part of this family that was all contained inside this one cardboard box,” Gaynor said.
It’s an anecdote almost too good to be believed: a co-founder of Fullbright, a studio known for pioneering “walking sim” games, living out his very own Gone Home-style adventure. Gaynor wondered not just about the box’s owner, but the possibilities of these found items: “How can we express that feeling of discovering those things together?”
The answer might just be Fullbright’s new project, Open Roads, a mother-daughter road trip starring Keri Russell as mom Opal and Kaitlyn Dever as teen Tess. Announced late last year, Open Roads is a first-person exploration game where players dig through abandoned places for clues about a family member’s past. “It’s a game that in a lot of ways continues our tradition of what we have been doing at Fullbright,” says Gaynor. It’s a story-driven experience, where the mystery is personal and built around relationships.
But where past games allowed the player to be a true voyeur, left to riffle through personal objects and history at their leisure, Open Roads has perhaps the most diligent of all possible companions: your mom. “You can get away with a lot when it’s just you being in the space,” says Gaynor. “There’s this sort of permission to be transgressive in a certain way in our other games, where we kind of say it’s okay to dig deep into other people’s personal stuff. I think in some cases in Open Roads, it just becomes part of the conversation.” Opal will have her own opinions about what you find, as well as history to share through her eyes. How and why she interjects, and what that says about her perspective, as well as her relationship to Tess, is part of the game’s fabric.
And then there’s Tess, the player character. Open Roads is Fullbright’s first venture into playing with branching dialogue, a choice that Gaynor says serves to express who Tess is, rather than impact the game’s outcome. “You’re kind of on a path along this journey with Opal, but within that you have a lot of control as Tess with how you want to relate to your mom,” he says. How confrontational or supportive a player wants to be, for example, is their prerogative.
In the past decade or so, game narratives have grown to love the so-called sad dad — watching figures like Joel from The Last of Us become a surrogate father to Ellie, or God of War’s Kratos on a journey with his son. But mothers in games have yet to be represented with such complexity or even commonality. Those relationships can be fickle and emotionally convoluted. In other words, they’re ripe for engaging stories. “What’s more interesting to us to put on screen? What is a story that’s not getting told as much?” says Gaynor.
Influenced by stories like Lady Bird and girlhood experiences from members of the team, including Gaynor’s co-writer and wife, Rachel, Fullbright wanted to pay homage to experiences they’ve had in their own lives. Open Roads is a matriarchal story, with Tess and Opal digging into the unknown life of Tess’ grandmother.
“I feel like there’s this moment in all of our lives where you have the grandparent that passes away,” says Gaynor. “In being exposed to the stuff they’ve left behind and having to sort through it, you discover things about them that maybe you never knew or that you’d forgotten about.” Part of that means playing with the idea of an unreliable narrator. Memories get jumbled, and personal experience colors recollection: “Can I find the real truth through the exploration that we’re doing?”
As for the attic box, Gaynor hasn’t been able to find the family to which it belongs. “It’s not ours to do something with,” he says, unwilling to throw it away. It serves as a reminder of what it felt like to put together the pieces of someone’s life with a loved one. “We wanted to pay homage … to that experience of finding out more about who those people really were, maybe after the point where you’re really able to talk to them about it,” he says of Open Roads. “Maybe it makes [the player] think about their own experience with those moments in their life.”