No one at Fullbright knew what 2021 would look like when it brought its third game to Annapurna Interactive in 2018. Even so, it's hard to deny the allure of the open road is particularly keen now that long-distance travel is off the table. The studio's goal back then, though, was no less appealing to those of us isolated from family and friends: they wanted to make a game where you had some company. As in Gone Home and Tacoma, you're investigating places and piecing together a history – in this case, properties that reveal the hidden past of protagonist Tess's late grandmother – but this time you're not alone. In those games we looked into the past to get a glimpse into the lives of others. Now, through the process of doing that, we'll get to know the people inhabiting those spaces in the present.
The relationship between Tess (Kaitlyn Dever) and her mother Opal (Keri Russell) brings a new dynamic to a Fullbright game. "When you find something and your mom tells you something about it – even if she's not lying to you, it's still her interpretation, you're seeing it through her perspective, and so there's an interesting tension to that," creative director Steve Gaynor says. "What do I see with my own eyes? What is this other person telling me about it? And what does all that really mean if you don't take it strictly at face value?"
You could even say it brings a new dynamic to pop games, full stop. We've had plenty of games about fathers lately, but precious few about mothers and daughters. "As you say, we've seen a lot of dad games in the last five years," Gaynor laughs, though he's keen not to dismiss the "important" achievements of games such as The Walking Dead, The Last Of Us and God Of War. Gaynor's wife Rachel has worked closely with him on the story for Open Roads, he says. "Between the people on the team being interested in exploring and bringing their experience of a mother-daughter relationship, and just the general interest in doing something that we haven't seen very much of at this kind of scale, it was really exciting for us to be able to ask, 'What does that look like?' And we're fortunate that it's allowing us to work with two exciting, talented actors for the lead roles."
An ever-present NPC represented a new challenge for Fullbright. Having worked on BioShock Infinite for a year, Gaynor is familiar with the complexities of doing so with a large budget; for a team with the resources of Fullbright, it meant finding a new way. If Opal won't be another Elizabeth in terms of the complexity of modelling, animation and AI, Gaynor doesn't see that as a handicap, citing how Tacoma's abstractions allowed the player's imagination to fill gaps. "They can project what they imagine the reality of those scenes looking like onto the game in a way that is always going to be better than anything we could have put on the screen, and that makes the experience personal to the player."
Still, this time they needed a physical presence. Enter Noël Clark, responsible for those Tacoma animations, and classically trained in 2D animation, who has managed to span Open Roads' dimensional gap. "I want to ensure that the 2D characters are integrated into the 3D world in a way that you can tell they really exist there, and they're not just like, glued onto the screen," Gaynor says. As a result, the 2D models will take on natural light and shadow so they feel as if they fit into these high-fidelity 3D environments. "It's something that we've not really seen before," he adds. "Hopefully, it makes it feel both unique in concept but natural in practice."
Given the studio's previous form, Gaynor's optimism seems well-placed; indeed, in Annapurna it seemingly has the perfect partner for the journey ahead. "I have confidence that whatever the outcome is, it's going to be based on Annapurna supporting the quality of the release. At the end of the day, I don't think any of us want to cast these actors and then not have what we make live up to having them involved."