While I’m not the biggest fan of VR, there were plenty of VR games at PAX that made me stop in my tracks and investigate further. One such game was Kept, a puzzle game using VR with a heavy emphasis on cultivating an atmosphere over grabbing you with gimmickey mechanics. There was something about it’s approach to VR that tugged at my curiosity, and I just had to know more. I pulled Jack away from the frantic hordes of wannabe participants to ask him what this ethereal beauty was all about.
Please state your name and title for the record.
I’m Jack Condon and I’m the lead developer of Kept VR by S1T2.
Where are you guys from?
We’re Sydney based, in Surry Hills.
How long have you been working on the game?
We’ve been working on the game for about 4 months now. It’s been a lot of work getting it ready for PAX, but we’re happy to be here.
As a VR game, what are the main mechanics you’re going for? How do you make it a game rather than an experience?
Convoluted answer, but I don’t really know if we are looking at a game, you know? We often call it an experience. I think VR’s a really cool medium because the grammar and the language hasn’t been established, so we’re able to look at these new mechanics with fresh eyes. The way we’re looking at our mechanics is how they make you feel, what they do to you, which is pretty typical of the puzzle genre. The VR medium, because of its inherent immersion, really adds a lot to that, so our mechaincs really are there to make the player feel something. Sometimes they may feel a bit nonsensical, but because we are making a fictional ritual, we can be a bit esoteric like that.
What made you decide to go VR instead of more conventional games like Myst or The Witness?
Looking back at those games, because they are great games, I think those mechanics have been tried and tested, and we know they work. VR is an opportunity to innovate new mechanics, and as a developer, that’s really exciting. The other thing is that we’re really interested in interactive narrative, and each medium has a certain message it carries with it. VR’s been just as inspirational as all the games and content and books that we’ve read, itself as a medium and in terms of the presence it gives has been a major player in how we’re thinking about the design.
Where have you gotten inspiration for this game? As you said, VR’s very untested, so then where do you get ideas from?
It’s kinda weird, I guess I’ll use an example. The firefly mechanic we have in the demo [players had to catch a firefly with a jar], we were kinda thinking that we want to evoke a sense of nostalgia and awe, so how do we do that? So, we thought, ‘well what about catching a butterfly in your hands when you were a kid’ and how beautiful that was. And we went, “yeah, that kinda works but hands in VR are a bit funny, maybe we’ll use a jar”, so that inspiration came from nature and physical movement.
So, more from the real world rather than what’s already been seen in previous games?
Totally, 100%. It does get a bit augmented because you’ve got controllers for hands. I think you can take a banal thing, like, say, using an azimuth compass to navigate the stars, you put that in VR, and all of a sudden it become a completely different experience. The magic and realism you can bring to that because the medium can do anything, it’s really a magical experience.
Tough question, how do you see this stuff translating into a home environment? At a con, everything’s set up, but at home, it’s a lot less convenient. So, how will VR translate?
It’s really a design problem. We’re iterating so much, we’ve got different mechanics like environments changing scale, but that can be really kooky sometimes in terms of balance. Another mechanic that we’re using a lot is that you’re on this raft. That’s good because we’re not trying to use teleportation, and that’s a big issue when you’re not using room-scale. The nice thing about using this raft is that you can row the raft down the stream, your play area is the size of the raft, so you can move through the world while still playing in the play area. There’s all sorts of clever design things you can do.
The other thing is that you can always move vertically, but it’s really just the side to side that’s causing problems. We’re still iterating a lot, we don’t want to compromise and use teleportation because the player isn’t a wizard, but there are major design problems that we’re all trying to work out together.
Have you had other devs come to you and ask about working on some VR stuff?
I dunno if it comes, at least in my experience, through direct collaboration, because we each have our own projects and we’re all freaking out, but we definitely talk a lot about the mechanics. PAX has been a great melting pot for all of this. I think game development is always community driven. I definitely have been playing a lot games, seeing what works, what doesn’t, I think we all are. You know, sharing that information around.
I see you guys are using Unreal. What’s it been like?
I love using Unreal. The fact it’s got everything we need built in is a massive bonus for rapid development and prototyping, and then go in and fix it up and clean it to make it okay for release and things like that. Yeah, I think it’s great. The other thing is that, for this demo, we’ve integrated with VRWorks from nVidia and they’ve got a git fork for that, so that’s been really great. The community for Unreal, in terms of their developer’s feedback to us, we’ll post a question there and get a really detailed response within three days or something, so the support networks are incredible. I’m a big advocate for Epic and what they’re doing.
So, just to clarify, did you go to nVidia for that VRWorks software?
J: No, nVidia’s actually got that as an open release, which is another great thing about Unreal engine: it’s open source. People can start looking at it and start making great things. nVidia always work on innovative solutions for game developers, so that works great for us and has been a really great help.
How hard has it been to get the visuals right for VR? Like, getting that mood and atmosphere right?
I’d say that’s our lead focus. Especially as that’s what I think we can deliver to the table in terms of environmental storytelling, which is a big thing for us. You know, the RnD for the post-processing shader to get the fog right was probably a good two weeks of our four months development just to get the tones and the gradients right. To get the overall theme, we were probably in pre-production for about three months before that as well. It’s a big focus for us, and it’s ultimately how we’re going to tell our narrative, through the visuals. We don’t have a language, we don’t have a narrator, we don’t have anything breaking the fourth wall, so we really need to depend on art style.
Would you say that you’re focusing more on the environmental narrative because of VR? Or is it more that you wanted to make a game and VR just so happens to be what you’re using?
I think it’s a combination of both. It’s definitely how we wanted to tell the story, and I don’t think it’s the one way to tell a story. One of the benefits with VR is that you can project into that world because you are literally possessing something. There’s two ways to look at that. You possess someone and they’re a puppet, so you’re controlling them, or you are them in that world. We kinda wanted- we are making a ritual game that’s all about saying goodbye to a loved one, so we want to have that opportunity to allow people to project onto it.
The thing is that we haven’t really figured out the best way of storytelling, and as humans, I don’t think we ever will. Well, ‘the best’, you know? We’re just iterating and experimenting as much as possible.
You can keep up with the game at www.keptgame.com