A shadowy organisation exists, hidden underground in the remote desert as they perform experiments and manipulate the world without the populace’s knowledge. The real trick to The Assembly though is that you’re exploring this world through the very literal eyes of its two protagonists, as nDreams create one of the first true VR adventure games.
Patrick O’Luanaigh, nDreams CEO and co-founder, explained, “We got a very early look at the [Oculus Rift] DK1 almost two years ago now and we were also quite lucky in that Sony gave us a very early look at Morpheus – we’d been working with Sony on PlayStation Home for quite a while – and basically we fell in love with VR. We felt that this wasn’t just going to be a gimmick, this was actually something that, for the right kind of games, we wanted to teleport you to another world.
“You know what? VR is so cool. So we decided to pivot the company to focus on VR, which was kind of a crazy and brave thing at the time, but seeing the potential to do something really special.”
With VR set to burst onto the market at the end of this year and into early 2016, nDreams plan to support all three major platforms at launch, but it’s an important consideration to first familiarise players with the way that VR works and the possibilities it gives you.
Strapped to a gurney, players have no direct control over protagonist Madeline Stone as she’s walked into The Assembly’s secret facility. However, as the conversational exposition between two escorting scientists begins to unfold, you are free to look around and view the world. You can move your head all around and even lean forward and look down at Madeline’s feet.
Naturally, the experience completely transforms once you gain full control over the game’s lead characters, both offering two very different perspectives into this secretive organisation. While Madeline is a newcomer to this world, Virologist Cal Pearson is already embroiled within the belly of the beast, and the second scene I was privy to saw him going around his every day business in the lab, examining some kind of tumour or disease with which The Assembly are experimenting. Whether for good or for bad, we don’t quite know.
Some quite major efforts are being put into the world that they’re creating here for you to wander around in and explore. One of the new and interesting challenges with VR is that the range and types of movement in the game are much more expansive, meaning that you could potentially try to physically kneel down and look under a table or, as I was prompted to do, sticking my head into a virtual cupboard to look at the murky patina and grime on the inside of some cups. Indeed, it’s only by looking at an object within the world that you can select and interact with it.
“We were talking about this earlier,” Senior Designer, Jackie Tetly said, “and, you know, you can’t cull back facing polys because now people are sticking their heads inside things and under things, so you can’t do that so much.
“Also, it’s just that people want to be rewarded for exploring. You want that kind of density in the environment where you’ve got this beautiful gem where you can look around and go, “Ooh, what’s that there?” and go and investigate that, and things catch your eye and you can just take the time to go and explore them.”
Positional audio is a very important tool as well, helping to really immerse you in the character and the moment. As a phone rings in one of the offices, I had to listen and pick out the direction from which it was coming in order to find it and be nagged by one of Cal’s colleagues.
“We’re having to put a lot more detail and work into the audio than we normally would do,” Patrick explained. “Because you can walk anywhere and wherever you are, we want it to sound authentic.
“Also, you can do storytelling through art and the audio, just as well as you can through dialogue, so you have some really nice environmental story telling where you have some weird sounds coming from behind a panel, and that’s just interesting and adds to the atmosphere.”
But another interesting quirk to viewing the virtual world through another person’s eyes is that you take on their physical attributes. Cal and Madeline are slightly different heights.
“Cal and Madeline, they’re maybe 10″ different in height, so it’s not the difference between a child and an adult, but you still do notice it,” Jackie said. “I’m more Madeline’s height, so that feels pretty right to me, but when I play Cal’s chapters, I’m like, ‘Oof! I’m awfully close to that door frame.’ Whereas the guys at work, they’re more like Cal’s height so they have it the other way.”
George Kelion, Communications Manager, added, “VR really does amplify the subtleties that can be glossed over in other video games, and that plays into the whole sense of presence and engagement which are so much easier and more immediate to make apparent to the player in a VR experience.”
Unfortunately, I felt a small degree of nausea and motion sickness when playing. This issue with VR games is something that nDreams and so many other developers are grappling with. Perhaps as a result of the control scheme, which featured both traditional twin stick first person controls and motion tracking to look around the world, I did feel slightly queasy as I played as Cal.
Thankfully, Patrick said that there are more options being worked on. “One thing that we’re doing is a couple of other control systems. We’ve had a small proportion of people find that turning with the right stick and turning with your head can take a little bit of getting used to. It is definitely something that you get used to after a while, but we’ve got a couple other systems – sadly not in this build. You can use the trigger buttons to snap 45º and change your view, which sounds weird but you’re not turning, you’re snapping and it’s two very separate behaviours, and there’s another system we’ve been playing around with as well of just using head control to turn.
“Certainly with our user testing, people are fairly comfortable in using the right stick, but for those that aren’t, there’s a couple of other systems. It’s interesting, and I think there’ll be a standard which comes around in the next few years of how to do things.”
Within the game’s story, you can’t switch between characters on the fly, but rather it jumps at various points in the story, with Cal and Madeline following separate but parallel paths. In fact, Cal’s scene during the demo revealed that he would be taking charge of setting up and looking after Madeline’s initiation, leading to the possibility to affect one side of the story from another, but also a nice change of pace between the two.
Patrick said, “I’m really proud of, more than anything else, the variety in The Assembly. Every time you go through a chapter, there’s something very different. Madeline’s chapters are, she’s being put through this initiation, so she’s being given these great trials that are spectacular in that […] there’s all sorts of exciting stuff going on. She’ll need her brain to solve a murder, there’s some really cool stuff in there.
“And then Cal’s levels are much more like secret agent, spy stuff. So he’s gathering information, taking photos, going to computers and finding stuff out. That shows the behind the scenes, because he’s just free to walk around. There’s a really nice contrast between the two.”
Of course, a popular trend at the moment is to feature branching decision points throughout the game, with everything from whether or not you take and bin someone’s lunch, for having left it in the fridge when they’re not allowed to, to potentially much more morally ambiguous areas.
Jackie explained, “What we’re trying to avoid doing is saying to the player what is right and wrong. We’re not coming in there and going, ‘Well, here are two choices, but of course this is the choice you should be making.’ […] The same as The Assembly is assessing Madeline, by seeing what she would do to draw conclusions of her character and the player’s character as a result of that.”
While VR is naturally going to be the main hook for The Assembly, nDreams clearly have aspirations to create something that’s much more than just a technology showcase. It’s obviously still a little rough around the edges, but there’s a strength to some of the ideas behind it, with everything from branching decisions between the two characters to more subtle nuances with things like the two protagonists’ height, or the grimy cups kept in the cupboard.