After five weeks, the Orion project has come to a close. And as with most project, the final result was vastly different from what I anticipated when I began.
When I began Orion I anticipated a fairly straightforward process. I would be working with Quill and Unreal to learn the pipeline for each and between the two. What I had forgotten is that I have never created an observational narrative experience from scratch in VR. I am usually planning for some form of interaction, or in the case of my thesis project the narrative and environment are already described for me. Traditional storyboarding and animatic techniques were not going to work for me, which is where my foray into Maquette and Tilt Brush came in. Every step of the process was steamrolling through technical issues to see what worked and what didn’t work.
I realized that I really just needed more time to learn the painting and animation techniques for Quill along with all its quirks. I was excited about painting the cabin last week, but ultimately the asset ended up not working and I still build the asset using Maya and Substance Painter… I have never been so happy to be back in Maya, to be honest. I used the terrain tools in UE4 and the “Forest Knoll” asset pack purchased a few years ago to build the rest of the environment. I used a few Quill animations, such as the candle and the stars, as “accents” to the rest of the scene.
On a personal process note, while putting together the scene I made the decision not to use any visual reference at all. This was for two reasons: to avoid hyperfocus on unnecessary details, and to operate within the essence of memory. The project description was to show the essence of our memory in 15 seconds - well, 15 seconds is a very short time in VR. That’s usually the amount of time it takes for a viewer to orient themselves and focus in on the story. I didn’t want to overwhelm with an overly detailed environment that misses the point of my memory. And if I used visual reference, I would shift focus from my own memories to what it “should be”.
Even with all of the roundabout processes, I felt the final result was remarkably close to what I remember. Closer than I expect the original storyboards would have been. I think those would have been visually exciting and fun to watch, but that’s not what this moment was about. It was a quiet fifteen seconds on the deck in nature with just the stars and the sound of the trees. I have yet to share this experience with my partner to see how her memory might differ from my own.
I also learned a lot about the technical aspects of these tools, and personally did not enjoy using Quill for most of my painting time. It was fun to make some looping animations, but I doubt I’ll ever actually use this again for a project in the near (or distant) future. The final result was something I probably could have made in three or four days of work in Maya and Unreal, but I feel that I’m at a good point to move forward if I want to use Unreal for future VR experiences and feel more informed about the pipeline options available to me.
Documenting Orion. I’m having a difficult time getting a video of the full experience because the scene is so dark. In the headset it’s easy to see, but the screen recordings I have taken so far have been really low quality and dark. I’m currently working on some rendering options in Unreal that may produce a better result.
Begin Phase 1 Project. I will dedicate next week’s post to the Phase 1 project centered around my thesis, but currently I’m still working out a final plan and some language to describe the project itself.
Continuing my theme of playing VR games and experiences for research, this week I went for a bit of a different track. I did some digging around in the Oculus and Steam stores, and I was able to play four of the games I had lined up.
BOARD GAMES IN VR
I think the initial question here for me was “why”? I enjoy board games, specifically the social aspect. Sitting around with friends chatting, accusing each other of hiding cards, accidentally bumping the board and sending pieces flying. It’s all part of the experience. I noticed on the Oculus store they have several Chess applications, so naturally I had to download one. And I also found a Catan VR app that I wanted to try.
(I found out while writing this post that both applications are made by the same studio called Experiment 7)
The only real difference we have between a board game in VR and a board game in real life is the social aspect, which is really what these games are trying to create. Catan’s environment looks like a mountain lodge with scenes of mountains outside and a nice soundtrack, with four chairs sitting around a table. Chess is similar, taking place in a library by default. I played against the AI for both, which in Chess produced a little robot figure watching me across the table while the Catan foes were painted portraits that had moving eyes and facial expressions. That bit was a little unnerving, to be honest.
I got absolutely destroyed in both games, but I was surprised how much I enjoyed the experience of sitting in a chair interacting with other “players”. The animated board in Catan was a nice touch, although things move so quickly it took some getting used to. Being able to physically pick up a chess piece and hesitate or fiddle with it before moving was great improvement over playing typical browser games. I felt present in the world and able to interact with the other players, feeling real frustration with them when I lost resources or had a bad roll. I was worried that these games would simply animate the board and leave it at that, but the efforts made to engage the players in the space and with each other made for a much more effective experience.
EXPLORATION and PUZZLES
The first game I played is called “I Expect You to Die”, where the player is a secret agent going on missions where the path forward must be determined by actions and clues in the space, and often the process to figure out this path results in a gruesome death. I played the first level of this game a few years ago, but since then they’ve added a beautiful animated introduction and several new levels. This game is meant to be played seated with the player reaching out or leaning to move or using their telekinetic prowess to bring objects to them.
In this case, the lack of locomotion around the scene increases the challenge and still makes for an enjoyable experience. It becomes accessible for all kinds of players and play spaces, and the missions themselves have good variety… though the deaths are still extremely startling in VR. The controls especially seemed to work and I enjoyed a great level of dexterity in the scene switching between objects and using them with ease.
The last game was “Internal Light”, an escape room style game where the user must navigate a creepy dark building to make it to the outside with a tiny ball of light as your guide.
Now, when I started this game, I didn’t know what it was going to look like or what kind of gameplay there was going to be. You start off in a cell chained to a bed in a scene that looks like its out of Resident Evil. There will be a week when I go into horror games, but I was not planning on it to be today and, well, I’m a chicken. I immediately started sweating and wanted to leave (escape?). The game itself is not a horror game, it’s just creepy. But the environment was effective for building suspense and tension.
What really sticks out for me here is locomotion. The player moves while holding a button and alternately swinging your arms back and forth in a skiing motion. I have NEVER seen this before and it was oddly effective. To navigate the player is required to be crouching and dodging security, and there’s a special kind of anxiety when swinging your arms to move from one cover to the next, hoping you’re moving fast enough. Even though I was standing I didn’t get motion sick, and was able to run through most of the game fairly quickly. I didn’t see any options to adjust these settings.
All four experiences used their environments to create presence in the space, and included a level of AI “social” interaction. Whether it was the calm atmosphere conducive to board games, the action hero inspired music and imagery, or the anxiety-inducing horror themes, the environments were really the selling point for the experience. The social interaction between computer and user (with the potential for multiple users) negates the isolation that VR can sometimes induce as discussed last week. I’m still curious about why that form of motion for Internal Light worked so well, and I am curious to see if any similar methods are used as I continue to explore what VR experiences are out there.