VR’s Capacity for Environmental Storytelling: Interview with Indie Dev -Storm

Ever wondered what it’s actually like to be lost in a snowstorm, a countdown on your life dependent on your ability to find warmth? Storm VR aims to bring that exact experience to your living room with its episodic instalments pitting you against various natural danger zones in a mysterious endeavour binded with your own identity. The independent VR developers have seen their title’s early footsteps taken across Steam territory to highly congratulatory reviews, and are ready conquer a second episode in the coming weeks. We chatted with director Anrick Bregman and team member Andrej Savcic about the highs and lows of environmental storytelling in VR, indie developers keeping in touch with their followers, and… juggling.

Storm VR header

The first question relates to the way your project bridges itself between film and game. Could you explain this further, what filmic aspects have you employed in your game development, and what does this mean for the episodic nature of your narrative? 

The initial inkling of the idea for Storm came from watching late night films – like The Thing – these mysterious environments which act almost like the bad guy, like a character with bad intentions. And so I combined that with my own growing fascination with game engine based experiences.   Storm is ultimately a game about identity, and about finding your destiny. I wrote the script for Storm like a screenplay, essentially a psychological thriller  – except you play it with your hands. I wanted to make something that doesn’t live clearly in either the film world or the games world. In the first episode, the story is only a light thread, but it will become much more the focus in episode 2, which we are working on now.

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That sounds intriguing! Could you expand on the ways you have used this ‘bad guy’ environment character to tell the story, and how much of the narrative will be generated by the protagonist’s own psychological exploration? 

 

In Storm, you have an inner voice. It was voiced by the actor Tommie Earl Jenkins, who did a fantastic job of building a believable character, with a range of different emotions. To me, that voice really adds a such an important layer to the overall experience.

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The voice has to perform multiple tasks. Firstly, the voice is your character, it’s an inner monologue, so it is describing the world around you and telling you the story, in bits and pieces the narrative becomes clear to you through that inner voice. Secondly the voice is encouraging you to ‘go here’ or ‘look there’ – obviously in more subtle ways than that. And finally the voice is supporting you in specific interactions and puzzles. When you interact with something, there may be something your inner voice says. Sometimes it’s funny, or surprising. And finally, other times, the voice is just purely emotional. Sharing feelings, of being afraid, or being cold, of being close to death. All in all, finding a consistent voice for our character in Storm and making sure that this voice would be fun, as well as useful, for VR newbies as well as old-timers – that was quite challenging.

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In terms of the environment – back to enemy no.1 – the technical challenges with VR are pretty mundane to be honest. With Unreal, and software like Maya and Blender, you can quickly make a very complex world. And make it look beautiful.

The challenge comes when you then need to extend that style to every single little object. Creating a consistency in textures, for example. The world you make needs to feel like it has a consistency for it to feel right. 

Another challenge were the weather effects. Firstly creating them so they feel real. It’s not as simple as turning ‘on’ the wind. There’s a few different layers to our snow, and making snow that ‘blows in the wind’ in a way that feels just right – that was another big challenge. 

And then when you have wind and snow – making sure that items in the world react to that. Wind in a game engine doesn’t affect a tree. Not automatically. And when you drop a letter you find along the way on the floor, it doesn’t just fly away either. So there were a series of complex challenges linked to that.

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Again, taking it further, and talking about the environment as an enemy. We really wanted you to believe you’re freezing to death, and one way we added to that feeling is that your hands slowly freeze up – you develop frostbite basically. It evokes a pretty strong reaction in people, because these are the same hands you use to interact with the world around you. So it feels like an extension of your own body, after a couple of minutes. You quickly forget they aren’t your real hands!

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We also wanted you to be able to have some fun with small things. We left some rocks lying around which you can pick up and throw around. You can even win a badge for juggling two of them.

So overall, the technical challenge is really in not just having a bunch of different elements but making them all feel connected – just like they would be in the real world. And then, optimising all of that to render at 90fps, twice. Per eye. 

There were times when we were pulling our hair out in the middle of this process. 

I was thinking the environmental elements of this title would be incredibly tricky! You’re working with a lot there, and your Twitter feed is very open with your followers. How important do you think it is to keep potential players in the loop with development milestones? A lot of indie devs do it at the moment to drum up some interest before release day, but do you think it can serve any other purpose? 

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Yes it was a looooong process to create the world of our game. But that’s partially also because we did it the wrong way around. We started with all the basic game mechanics, and the way you’d complete the level. Using basic, placeholder assets. And that process took longer than expected. So once we got around to polishing the visuals and making them look amazing, we were already in a rush. And at that point it’s easy to underestimate the work going into optimising at the very end. Making it all super efficient, so it will run on the average players machine. Double difficult for VR.

It was a learning process and I’ve always been very open and honest with everyone – on social media, and when I do talk, or just when I speak to people, about that.

Working with VR means you really don’t know what works. And working in games is relatively new for me too. At least my own game.

I think it’s pretty ok to say ¯\_()_/¯ I’m new to this, we do our best, and we share what goes wrong, so hopefully someone out there learns from that. I find that sharing that learning process, and sharing the mistakes we made, is very useful because you have to formulate it for people that have no context. So yes, it definitely creates a connection with the community of players out there. Which is useful. But more importantly, it’s way of chronicling for yourself, and other game makers, what you’re struggling with and how you solve that. It’s like a public journal.

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It’s weird, if you’re writing down these things for yourself, you’re somehow never as detailed and disciplined with it. But if it’s for people out there like yourself, I think it motivates you, and benefits you at the same time.

That definitely makes sense – having to contextualise and make everything clear to someone who isn’t already in the loop keeps you focussed and provides clarity in your own understanding of the mistakes you make and therefore how to fix them. 

Final question: When will we see the next installment of Storm? And what do we have to look forward to in the future? 

I’ll be honest, I would have liked to have included more of the narrative of Storm in the first episode. But the work we did structurally, to build the voice engine, interactions, hand animations, all the basic elements of the game – kind of took over. So we had to prioritise. 

Now that this is all built it will be a lot easier to reuse that in the next episode. And that means we can spend much more energy on fun interactions and the story.

And those go hand in hand.

No pun intended!

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For the interactions, I really want to tie them much more strongly to the narrative. You should have fun and discover doing things that are integral to the story and your own survival/progress. We did a little of that in snowstorm, like juggling. You don’t need to do it to survive, it’s almost a distraction. But the fact that you can pick up a rock and throw it around for me makes the world overall more believable.

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We’ll want a lot more of that in desert. But obviously, in the desert episode, we need to confront the story head on. If you think of a film, in the opening act, you’ll want to present the conflict that is central to your narrative.

Since a VR game involves interaction, and especially since it is still a new medium, I think the opening act of your project needs to tackle things like who you are (your character) and how you interact with the world. So the conflict of the story comes up after that, act 2.

The overall, 5 act story of Storm is about finding out why you are in these crazy environments in the first place, why there’s such extreme weather, and why you go from a snowstorm to suddenly stumbling into a hot, bright desert scene, with a giant sandstorm heading your way.

Desert Concept

I don’t want to give it away, but these two places are connected, there’s a reason why you’re jumping around like that, and you will find out exactly what that is in the desert, as the sand rages around you, hitting your skin like knives slicing through butter. You’ll need to survive, but you’ll start to be driven not just by that desire to live, but also by the narrative.

In addition to that, in the desert you’ll meet two key characters that are central to the story – we kept the snowstorm all about you, your own character your inner voice. And in the desert new characters will be introduced.

You can check out Storm VR on Steam and via their official site. Keep up to date with their developments over on Twitter at @AStormCometh. The title is currently running on HTC Vive and Oculus Rift.

@MusingsTwit

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