Hello, commander! You have arrived at the postmortem blog for “Unto the Horizon”, an ETC BVW Round 4 project. BVW, acronym for Building Virtual Worlds, is a class taught at the Entertainment Technology Center (ETC), where students go through 5 rounds of distinctly themed projects and learn game development fundamentals and soft skills such as cooperation and communication.
For Round 4, each team was tasked to create a compelling storytelling experience. Each team will also get to pick a platform of it’s desire, including Vive, Oculus, Meta 2 and a CAVE (Cave Autonomous Virtual Environment) room.
Usually, each team gets 5 team members: two programmers, two artists and one sound designer; however that is not the case for us, as we are one programmer short, with Shawn as programmer, Muhammad and Min as artists, and myself as sound designer. For our team, we picked the CAVE room – a room in which the player stands on a programmable moving floor and surrounded by three gigantic screens.
It took a while for us to agree on what kind of story we really wanted to tell, and just to foreshadow, we still didn’t get there after week 1 interim. Below are a few ideas we came up:
- A Day In the Office: An office worker talks to his/her boss while witnessing something odd happening outside the window.
- A Painful Decision: You and your grandmother are thrown into a Battle Royale scenario, and she tells you to kill her before someone else does it, for you are the only one capable of giving her a painless death and that you have a better chance to survive.
- The Execution: Three players press the same button simultaneously, but only one button activates the electrical chair.
- Rocket Science: Two players play as astronauts trying to launch the rocket safely into space.
We immediately got rid of ideas 2 and 3, for they’re all eff-ed up stories and the players will only feel bad because the story hints them to feel that way, not because they actually feel guilty doing so.
The first idea stuck around for quite a while, but we didn’t see potential within that story; on the other hand Rocket Science immediately made sense to all of us: The CAVE room IS a tightly enclosed area, which resembles the space in a rocket; furthermore the moving floor could be programmed to mimic the rumbling of the vehicle.
Just as we’re about to finalize our goals, I had this crazy idea: what if we make this into an asymmetrical co-op game? Our big classroom, the Randy Pausch Interdisciplinary Studio, has rows of chairs and a big screen. If we can decorate it, it would look like Mission Control! Then we could design puzzles for both sides to solve, and cooperate in order to clear the game. In short, it would be a story about the joy of accomplishment.
Surprisingly, the team agreed on the idea and decided to take the challenge a big step further. As the original proposer, I was responsible for the puzzles and gameplay; as the sound designer I was also responsible for the music.
It’s no surprise for me that Hans Zimmer’s work for the movie Interstellar would come up immediately in my mind. Given that the movie itself is about space, the music would immediately fit the scenario of our game; yet, Interstellar tells a heavy story about humanity’s fate, and our game was merely an experience about launching a rocket into space.
So probably not Interstellar, I thought. The next recent space movie I can think of is The Martian. It includes a scene which we exactly wanted to replicate: Wattney’s saved, and everyone roots and embraces each other with joy and tears.
Therefore, I dived into the soundtracks of the movie, and while I listened to them I started designing the puzzles for the game. Like the music, it’s pretty straightforward for anyone to think of Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes, which in my opinion served as a solid example of asymmetrical gameplay design; plus, the scenario of Keep Talking is also quite similar to ours: One team is met with problems, the other team knows how to fix it.
Because we were planning to have multiple teams, our original plan looked something like this:
This diagram depicts how the “end solution” is split into four sub-problems, each tackled by a dedicated “team” – NAVIGATION, ENGINE, MECH, and an unnamed team (spoilers!).
One thing that I kept in mind is that I needed to integrate the setting and the story into our puzzle. That means inevitably there will be some professional terms, such as “altitude”, “speed” and “thrusters”. In the end these “precautions” turned the manual into an intense reading such as follows:
According to the first of our playtesters, it’s really like rocket science. Although it’s actually surprisingly simple (you didn’t even have to do the math), the formulas trapped their attention therefore made them spend extra time on demystifying the document.
Muhammad: “Remember what Jesse (Schell) told us in class where they had to fire someone who worked on a security game, just because he knew too well about being a security guard? This is exactly what’s happening here.”
Just in time, Muhammad! That’s exactly where the problem is at: being too realistic =/= being fun. We’re not making a spaceship simulator, we’re just telling a story.
For the remainder of the week, I continued to improve the puzzles. At the end of the week, I’m already at version 5.
Some changes made to the documents were:
- Removed all traces of formulas. They weren’t real anyways, and although it might serve the plot it would never make the players’ lives easier.
- High-lighted key actions. Playtesters have found emphasized instructions helpful to understand what they should do.
- Label each instruction step-by-step.
- A preview of what the players are expected to do, placed in the beginning.
While version 5 of our documents made it just in time before interim, my soundtrack unfortunately didn’t. Although there is no excuse for it, I just didn’t feel quite right about what we had for interim. It felt quite… flat. Unexciting. Plain. You name it. It did tell a story, but the story wasn’t interesting enough, and the stake weren’t high enough to make the adventure captivating.
Turned out that my speculation was not far from our feedback:
- Lack of interest curve.
- Lack of tension. No sense of danger.
- Experience not as engaging for guests in mission control (the team who has the manual)
Some other highlights focused on technical issues, such as blurry and quiet demo video, small UI elements and etc. But definitely the biggest concern up until interim was about the story.
We wanted to tell a story, but we had no story. And so we came up with an even crazier idea……
(To be continued…)