Preview: The Assembly (BAFTA VR Showcase)

I was invited to attend a BAFTA Virtual Reality Showcase talk ‘Bringing a Virtual Mystery into Reality – Crafting a Story in VR’, which immensely brightened up my Monday evening. Last year virtual reality was recognized by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts after a VR experience had been nominated for a BAFTA Craft TV Award, and they continue to explore the topic through talks and showcases led by VR developers. During this showcase the team of developers from nDreams, Patrick O’Luanaigh, CEO and Founder of nDreams, Matt Simmonds, Senior Audio Designers, Jackie Tetley, Senior Designer and Martin Field, Art Manager, talked about their inspirations in VR as well as the challenges of designing video games for this relatively new medium. Their upcoming game The Assembly, the demo of which was also available to play at the event, was the main topic of the showcase.

• Developer: nDreams
• Publisher: nDreams
• Available On: HTC Vive, Oculus Rift, PlayStation VR
• Release Date: TBA

The Assembly, which is set to debut later this year, is a 4-6 hours mystery-adventure game, which focuses on telling its story through the exploration of the environment of the mysterious scientific organisation from the point of view of the game’s two protagonists Madeline and Cal. It is setting out to be the first first-person narrative driven game, a genre that could be explored to its full potential on VR.

I also had a chance to sit down with the nDreams team to chat a little bit more about what was shown during their presentation but also to ask some of my own questions. As my perspective on VR is more consumer based, rather than a perspective of someone who has been following the development of this tech in intricate deal, I had a variety of questions. Some of them were about their inspirations and the characters, while others were about some of the technical niggles that comes from designing in virtual reality rather than a conventional video game.

TA1

In 2013 nDreams announced that they will be designing only for VR. Naturally I was interested if it was hard to make this leap and what was it about VR encouraged them to make this plunge. It was pretty much love at first sight. Patrick, the CEO and Founder of nDreams, talked about one of their first experiences with VR, when it was still during the Oculus DK1 days. Even members of their team that were unfazed by gore, jump scares, heights, you name it, walked away completely fascinated. Trying it then, still deep in development, was all they needed to know that VR would be the best way to engage with players, unlike anything else previously experienced. They wanted to design games that would tell a story that takes advantage of this level of immersion, and would allow the players to be involved with the landscape of the game to the full emotional potential.

It is fascinating that in VR, the most mundane experience can become exciting. While previously, the players strived to zoom fast in the skies like in Just Cause 3 or preforming deadly moves like in Mortal Kombat, doing something equally unnatural in VR will make a player sick. Mainly, because we can’t do these things in real life, no matter how much we want to. So when ‘normal’ video games tend to go to the extremes and beyond of what is physically possible to excite players, VR games could take advantage of subtleties. For example, discovering a secret behind a hidden door or walking in beautifully detailed space that allows player to uncover a secret. Of course, there are already VR games that put the player in the space or flying through the skies. However, with The Assembly nDreams want to create an intricately detailed world, where something as simple as walking around and studying the surroundings tells a story, possible only in VR.

TA5

The way that story is told is from the perspective of the two protagonists Cal and Madeline. This choice of the player point of view was very interesting to me. If the game that is set out to make the player believe that the world there are in is real, wouldn’t embodying different people brake the immersion? Equally importantly, what is the balance between the player’s agency and the characters’ narrative lead in the story? The designers highlighted that the player is making decisions, from exploring the facility to uncovering its secrets. However, they also made a choice very early in the game development, that they wanted the character to lead the story. It would have been opposite of immersive, they explained, if you, as the protagonist, couldn’t talk or looked down and have not seen your skin colour or body type. Therefore, it is very much a role playing experience – the player inhabiting the character and learning the story through their eyes. It was important to nDreams team to develop the two main protagonists of the story, give them very different personalities and standpoints on the situation in order to tell the story they wanted to tell.

Jackie, Senior Designer, has also clarified that the story of the game is designed in 20-30 minute parts. This will allow players still uncomfortable wearing VR for prolonged periods of time, to take a break without feeling like they are missing part of the story or taken out of the experience.

TA2

The exploration is, of course, an incredibly important part of the game. The design reason behind exploring an isolated facility is in part to allow the creators to give it as much detail as possible. The players will look everywhere, even inside a tea cup! Therefore, in order to make it believable every little detail has to be thought of.  Of course, with so many things to look at and explore, it seems to me, one would constantly get distracted among the items and the store cupboards. The Art Manager, Martin, explained to me about the visual cues that would guide the player through the game. For example, certain colour palettes or highlighting certain objects that would indicate to the player the significance of them and teach to recognise them when encountered further in the game. Of course, the sound also played an important part. If the player spends too long in one place and might seem a little bit confused, the narrator would remind them to go look to the microscope to progress to the next part of the story.

In VR sound becomes even more important than in the gaming environments that we are used to. Sound is an important contributor to us feeling like we are actually within that space, Matt, Senior Audio Designer explained to me. Every object emits its own sound. From opening a door and hearing what is happening in the next room, to opening a refrigerator door and leaning closer to it. These actions have very subtle difference that we pick up, even without realizing, and that are fundamental to the feeling of being immersed in the environment. In VR exploration games especially, it is also important to take this into account, Matt, Senior Audio Designer, told me, that players could spend quite a bit of time in that room, walking around, picking up and looking at objects. The sounds needs to be interesting enough to sustain the player being in that environment for long periods of time. There are also many sound cues that make the sound in essence 3D. While objects are stationary, other characters within the game could be in different places in relation to the player. How they sound when they are in front of the player, or talking from behind them, is significantly different and that change is what makes the sound 3D.

TA3

The sound is also another tool that allows the designers to build upon the universe of the game. As the player, we are able to explore only a certain part of the facility. However, it is much bigger than the rooms that are accessible. That could be expressed be hearing the environment all around us. The elevators are buzzing, there are people walking and talking in different rooms, air soothing from the air vent, electronics beeping on and off. This, again, makes the game more believable.

I asked the developers were the challenges of promoting a virtual reality game, the full potential of which is impossible to re-tell on the flat screen. VR kits, while now more readily available at conventions and during presentations, such as this one, are still very rare. Therefore, the majority of the audience are unlikely to see a true representation of the game. The developers have confirmed that this is indeed very hard. Even a 360 shot of a certain environment relays only a vague representation of this experience. That’s part of the reason why they attend events such as BAFTA showcase and give as many people as possible a chance to play the demo of the game. Otherwise, no amount of trailers can explain what they are trying to achieve. The mobile VR is a help, giving players a relatively accessible opportunity for VR gaming, but it is still miles off from what Oculus, PlayStation VR or HTC Vive can offer.

TA4

Most players are familiar, with nDreams from their work for PlayStation Home and I wondered if this experience was at all helpful when designing for VR. The most important take away from that experience, the developers explained, was a social interaction between the players, building a community. While this experience might not be exactly relevant to The Assembly, it has been important to other projects they have been working on. The idea that you could be playing a VR game with a friend from the other side of the world is not as far in the future as it seems. Facebook, in particular, would be the key promoters of this kind of VR experiences, and we will see more games that will use the social opportunities that VR presents.

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