Crafting a literary VR game, part 2) from Concept to Narrative Timeline to Script to Set Design!

A couple days ago, I decided to build a literary VR game from the ground up for NaNoWriMo. Through some concept research and goal-setting (see PART 1) I wound up ideating an experience about exploring the home of your missing father, interacting with his possessions to unravel a fabulist mystery about what had happened to him. The concept combined elements of K-Pax, Big Fish, and Stranger Things.

2.1 From narrative to timeline

Over the past couple days I've chiseled the concept into a story. I began by coming up with a timeline:

  1. Growing up Player/Protagonist (James)’s father (Fa) was emotionally distant. He was at most half-there. James and his younger sister, Alissa were raised by their mother.
  2. James left home after high school, moving away to Michigan for college, becoming a crime scene investigator and rarely, if ever, communicating with his parents.
  3. Alissa stayed in Ohio and worked retail, maintaining a close relationship with their mother (Ma), rarely speaking with Fa.
  4. 15 years ago, Ma died. Alissa was hit hardest, developed an addiction. Fa moved out of the family house and into a new apartment, where the previous owner had gone missing and was found aged and grey in a dumpster weeks later.
  5. Then, Fa goes through this mysterious transformation. He completely comes out of his shell, finally fully present, and takes up all of these hobbies. He develops a powerful relationship with Alissa and helps her into recovery.
  6. Fa makes overtures to Protagonist (James), but never apologizes for being absent as a father. Prot ignores him, holding the moral high ground to maintain emotional distance. Prot blames Fa for Ma’s death (it was stress related, and putting up with him certainly shortened her life). Prot also nurses his own anger at Fa.
  7. Finally, Fa comes out to Michigan to see Prot. He apologizes, saying he’d been enlightened by the Axixu, beings who live in a parallel dimension and travel to ours to spread wisdom.
  8. Prot completely dismissed this, and thought his father was just making more excuses, even though his father had never been creative.
  9. Alissa has a relapse, but makes a remarkable recovery.
  10. Father goes missing
  11. Alissa calls the police, calls Prot, demands he come and help. She says the Axixu are real, she met them. But in the final few weeks before his disappearance, Fa had been growing increasingly anxious and worried. He believed the Axixu had misled him, and were malevolent, not benevolent, but Fa hadn’t said how.
  12. Fa left clues in his apartment about how he pieced that all together. He left clues about how to turn and open the portal, and the true nature of the Axixu.
  13. Prot must piece together the clues to understand the situation, open the portal, step through, rescue his father, return through the portal, and then destroy it once and for all.
  14. … because, it turns out, the Axixu are horribly evil: they eat human souls, and were actually nurturing people’s souls in order to fatten them up for eating…  

You can see that things have taken a distinctly horror-genre turn here. I did that for a couple reasons. First of all, if you haven't watched Stranger Things, do so. I loved the 80's kitsch vibe, and I wanted to explore atmospheric horror. How do you create tension in a game where there is no health bar, no budget for animation, and a month to build it? A fun challenge. Also, in Stranger Things, there's an alternate dimension accessible through ours. This, too, felt like great fun to make in VR. And finally, the concept of beings from an alternate dimension who travel into ours to spiritually nourish people, only to later consume their souls... well, that idea is just too cool not to explore.

I'm pretty happy with this arc.

2.2 From timeline to player script, first inklings of a design document 

Next logical step was to begin exploring the player experience in earnest, and attempt some dialog and figure out how to logically nestle it within the player experience. This is what I came up with as introduction dialog and game experience.

Outdoors. Night-time. Misty. A phone booth outside an apartment building in a city. (this is set in the ‘80s)
The phone rings. To answer it, player must simply touch the phone. This triggers the initial audio to begin (question: how to create natural experience of answering a phone w/ unity?).
“Hello?” (his voice is clear, indicating he’s the player/protagonist.
“Thank God. James, is that you? It’s me, Alissa.” (Other voice is grainy, far away, clearly the caller).
“Yeah it’s me.”
Alissa sighs audibly over the phone. “Thanks for driving down. I know work at the precinct must be busy for you. Or I guess it must be. We don’t talk much anymore.”
“I didn’t drive 5 hours to stand outside Dad’s apartment and hear your complaints. He’s missing. Let’s get down to business.”
“All right. I guess you’re right. I-”
“Why can’t the local police handle this, anyway? Why call me in?”
“He’s your father too, James. Besides, I told the local cops everything. They’re on the case. But…  they’ll never find him…  They don’t know... Dad like you do.”
“Come on, Alissa. I haven’t really spoken to Dad in 15 years, since Mom passed. He reached out to me a few times this year, ok, but he just sounded so happy and alive it freaked me out. Not the same silent man who raised us. And he said some pretty crazy things. Freaked me out plenty.”
(long silence).
“That’s the thing. Just take a look around his apartment.  See if anything seems odd, out of place. His apartment, It’s number 713. Take the elevator. I’ll call you in 10 minutes. James?”
“Thank you. I hope he’s ok.”
Long pause.
“Yeah, me too.”
Dead dial tone. Teleport zone becomes active. A light above the apartment building entrance becomes active. The door is open. You teleport inside the building and into the elevator.
SCENE CHANGE, 7th floor. Creepy AF.
Hallway. Very long, eery. Apartment building.
Mist. Eerie lighting. Subtle music.
You teleport down the hall and reach room 713. When you touch the door, it swings open. You teleport in. It closes behind you.

This is good! I'm pretty happy with this. We get some dialog that helps the player understand who he/she is (this guy named James, a police officer who lives a few hours' drive away), what the player is doing here (investigating the home of his disappeared father) and the emotional context, tone, and relationships at play (James has a tense relationship with his sister, Alissa. Their mother passed away 15 years ago. James also was distant with his father, who had been aloof during James' childhood but seemed to have gone through a weird transformation recently). The dialog also establishes a neo-noir vibe with paranormal or fabulist elements. Making the apartment building creepy is a simple way of hammering that down. It's a bit blunt force, setting the story at night in a creepy apartment building, but sometimes blunt force simplifies things enough that you don't have to later reiterate that this is a creepy place. People remember.

2.3 Set Design Concepting

You may have noticed some of the links in the script above. They're free to use 3D models (as long as you appropriately attribute, duh). When you're making an experience like this quickly, you need to lean on and leverage existing assets however possible. I won't be making any 3D models or 3D scans for this game at all. I will, however, have to do a lot of texture work to make walls, floors, cielings, etc. The best resources are Sketchfab and the Unity Asset Store. 

So far I have 4 locations. The outdoors city environment, the apartment building lobby, the apartment hallway, and the apartment itself. It seems ambitious. The only way to make it work is to simplify the environments however possible, and where appropriate. So the apartment lobby and the apartment hallway will be super minimalist.

Here's what my prop department (me) came back with after searching our studio backlot warehouse (the internet). These are all 3D models that are free to use (or creative commons images, for the man's photo). What was also great about finding these is that lots of great interactions came to mind just scouting these 3D models. for instance, a half-written note in the typerwriter; the fan whirring in morse code or something; Audio recordings left in the tape deck. A clock stuck at a particular time... 

From a set design perspective, it's also fascinating to think that an older man living alone in the 1980's would of course have possessions from across the previous decades, which frees me up to use a wider range of assets.

Next step: nailing down the interactions, further dialog, and 'crafting the mystery'!