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:

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.

START:
Outdoors. Night-time. Misty. A phone booth outside an apartment building in a city. (this is set in the ‘80s)
Setpieces:
https://sketchfab.com/models/1ac9bf684da3476d918fd086d554bd5c
https://sketchfab.com/models/f189791a52244742893b8ec18c907ce7
https://sketchfab.com/models/201b3bda862f4279b25f8988c93d14cb
https://sketchfab.com/models/91b5815c64eb43b0a88f6fdb9df774e4
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?”
“Yes.”
“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'!

Crafting a literary VR game, part 1: Concepting + Story Design

For those who don't know, November is NaNoWriMo: National Novel Writing Month. The idea is simple: for those who participate, the challenge is to write a novel from scratch during the month.

I've been craving to explore the intersection between literature and VR. As a lifelong writer, stories are how I understand the world. How do we create story-driven VR experiences that leave a lasting emotional impact on users? How can we put users in the story in ways never possible before VR?

With that in mind, I've decided to write and build a story-heavy game over the course of November. It's an ambitious project. To document it, I'll be publishing blog posts a few times a week to explain my process and progress, so others who want to tell stories in VR can learn from my pipeline.

PART 1: GOAL-SETTING, CONCEPTING & STORY DESIGN

1.1 GOAL-SETTING.

When you write a book, you begin with a dream. A hook, a key concept. The same is true for a game. But whereas with a book this concept takes the form of a narrative arc, a struggle, or a character, in a game, the hook is often a game mechanic or interaction. Before I even began considering these two parallel design elements, I had to decide what I wanted to end up with.

After an hour of brainstorming goals, this is what I came up with as the objectives of the end project, knowing full-well that these might change over time:

  1. GOALS for STORY:

    1. 20 minute VR experience for HTC Vive

    2. Get players to laugh/cry/cause strong emotional reaction

    3. Get them to feel like they’re making real emotional decisions

    4. Get it to feel magical, surprising, FUN!!!

    5. Primary goal is to be so compelling and interesting people really enjoy it.

    6. Multiple ways to navigate.

    7. Linear but multiple parallel paths; exploration within constraints

    8. Simple interactions, lots of exposure to written/narrated story

1.2 CONCEPTING.

With those very rudimentary goals in mind, I set about imagining a story. What challenges or journeys in life are emotionally compelling by their very nature, but aren't often used in books or games?

As I began researching the most emotional experiences in people's lives, I came across this quote:

original.jpg

This immediately led me to wonder what happens to the homes and possessions of people who pass away without leaving a will. After all, these are people for whom their entire lives are paused in a moment- their homes, their finances, their hobbies, leaving 'a soul ready to be picked up'. While diving down that research rabbit hole, I encountered this: 

There is a Public Administrator in every county in the City of New York. The Public Administrator’s primary duty is to administer estates that would otherwise remain unadministered; to protect the decedent property from waste, loss or theft; make appropriate burial arrangements when no close relative is available to make the decisions; conduct thorough investigations to discover all assets; liquidate assets at public sale or distribute assets to heirs; pay the decedent’s bills and taxes; and to locate persons entitled to inherit from the estate and ensure that the legal distributees receive their inheritance.

Wow, that's fascinating. To think that it's some stranger's job to explore the homes of people who pass away without wills to figure out what should be done with their lives. Fascinating, and also a bit depressing.

What kind to mind, instantly, was a game where you play as a Public Administrator, explore a deceased person's home, learn about their fascinating life, and decide, as you explore, what should be sold at auction, what should be sent to the deceased's family, and what should be thrown out.

This simple interaction, of exploring a home in which interactions with objects could trigger voiceovers, seemed flexible enough to serve as a dynamic tool upon which to scaffold a story. The sorting mechanic-- labeling or placing objects in boxes based on your (the player's) decision of what to keep, donate, or sell, seemed a strong path to tap into player emotions.

For instance, imagine you see a broken metal flask in the kitchen. You choose to throw it out, because there's no sense keeping it. Then, later on, you see a photo and hear a voiceover about how, one winter, you went deer hunting with your father.  You spotted a magnificent buck, took aim, and fired, but the bullet ricocheted, and struck the flask in your father's jacket pocket, saving his life. He gave you the flask at your college graduation with a note saying may you have my luck your entire life

Thanks to this new tidbit of information, you (the player) might choose to return to the kitchen, take the flask out of the 'trash' pile, and put it in the 'keep' pile.

I liked this idea. This general approach.

1.3 CONCEPT COMMUNICATION TESTING

As I mentioned, I liked this core interaction, and the basic story wrapped around it. It felt ambitious, provocative, and unconventional to the right degree. Only one problem. I started communicating the core idea with my friends and family, and they universally found it uninteresting and really depressing. Which I totally understand. People who don't study games generally don't think of games as a tableau for the existential. But some of the best hi-concept games do it really well and successfully (both commercially and artistically successfully). (See: The Beginner's Guide).  

Based on my experience crafting stories and game narratives, when people say something is both uninteresting and depressing it's usually because they don't see a reason to care about the outcome of the game/story (there's nothing 'in it' for them as a protagonist). This could also be communicated as stating that there's no player journey, no aspiring destination. 

1.4 CONCEPT AND NARRATIVE REVISION

So I decided to revisit the narrative and find an opportunity for a journey. For something fun and mysterious to provide a thread of curiosity that pulls players through from the beginning to the end; some kind of mystery, something unanswered that screams to be resolved.

After brainstorming, I though: what if the deceased person claimed to have communicated with aliens, or some other fabulist element, and the player was trying to uncover the truth of this situation? The broader context would still be the same: investigating the home of a deceased person. But now, there was an aim, a goal: and in order to raise the stakes, I wanted to make that goal personal. So I decided to do away with the 'Public Administrator' player role and decide to make the player the child of the deceased. And, to make it less depressing, I aged up the deceased person to be elderly. 

I next sought concept inspiration to explore how, in narrative, magical realism, fabulism, and coming to terms with death are combined. I would up with 2 good examples:

ice_screenshot_20171102-181538.png

In Big Fish, a son sets out on a journey to learn if the tall tales his deceased father told were true. In K-PAX, a psychologist investigates his patient's claim of being an alien temporarily inhabiting a human body. Both are stories about loss, vulnerability, and magic, and I liked the tone of both.

So I revisited the narrative and came up with this elevator pitch:

You are Michael Maston, aged 56, of Cleveland, Ohio. Your father passed away last week. It’s time to sort through his apartment to see what you want to keep, give away, or throw out.
Your father, Liam Maston, was no ordinary man. Your memories of him from childhood are of a distant, aloof man. A man half-there. Today they call it PTSD, from the war, probably.
As Liam aged, though, his soul blossomed into a thing of vibrant colors. He smiled more. He came alive. Colorful, too, were the excuses and stories he told you about where he-- this new, true self-- had been all along. Stories too fantastical to be true.
Now is the time to learn who your father really was. Sort the objects in his apartment. Uncover hidden secrets. Find your truth.

So that is where I am now. I'm deliberating about whether to up the stakes even more: perhaps your father went missing, instead of died; perhaps your father told you he'd been communing with aliens/the supernatural. You can't tell this to the police, because they'd never believe you... 

This 'running out of time / find a missing person' is actually a much safer story to tell. It fits nicely within the trope of games, and is a conventional way to up the stakes. But obeying convention isn't a sin. Moreover, disobeying convention isn't a mitzvah. I've been watching Stranger Things though recently... so perhaps I'll build an alternate universe accessible through some portal. These are things you can do with VR, after all.

NEXT STEPS: WRITE THE FINAL NARRATIVE ARC, WRITE THE DIALOG AND INTERACTIONS.