We haven't heard much lately from upcoming Playstation VR title The Assembly. This changed when developer nDreams brought the title to EGX for players to try out.
The demo was a brief 3-4 minutes long but put players in the role of a doctor who wakes up to find themselves tethered to a trolley in the middle of the Great Basin Desert in Nevada. The trolley is being wheeled into the mysterious underground base of The Assembly by two anonymous people. After entering through the base's blast doors, descending via an elevator and trundling down a corridor, we briefly meet with a staff member from The Assembly who tells me that I know too much. The demo ends as the player is drugged again.
No player input was needed during the demo, but the amount of immersion offered by the virtual reality headset was incredible as your body experiences the motion of both the trolley and the elevator in the game. Take a look at the most recent footage of the game below. The first 3:30 of the video is the demo that was shown at EGX.
After getting a brief look at the game, I was able to interview nDreams' Communications Manager George Kelion about what I had just seen and what we can expect from the upcoming title.
The game seems to focus on two characters. Who are they and how are they different?
George: Our two protagonists are Cal and Madeline. Cal is a long-term employee of The Assembly. He joined them because his research in the outside world had hit a certain barrier through which he couldn't pass. He's drawing not just on The Assembly's resources but also their moral flexibility; however, he's now beginning to feel that his research is not necessarily being used for the common good and he's looking for a way out. Even though it's very tough to join The Assembly, it's even tougher to leave.
You pick up the story as Madeline has just been inducted, or you may say abducted, by The Assembly. She's going through the induction process that turns out to be the world's weirdest and most arduous job interview process. You may think that because neither you as the player nor Madeline as the game character knows much about The Assembly then she's a cipher for the player, but just because neither of you knows much about The Assembly doesn't mean that the player knows much about Madeline. She has her own secrets that are revealed over the course of the game. The characters' actions within the game can determine the future of The Assembly.
If morality in society is preventing scientific advancement and that's an important premise of The Assembly, how does morality affect the game's story?
George: The entire game is set against a morally ambiguous background. The Assembly are all about progress for the sake of progress, knowledge for the sake of knowledge, and truths for the sake of truths. They're not very interested in society's morals and are even less interested in government oversight, so it's against that morally grey backdrop that the game is set.
Will players need to make their own moral decisions and how will this affect their experience?
George: Within the game there is specific instances where the player will be forced to make a moral judgement where there is no right or wrong answer. It's not just the characters' morals that are a challenge but also you as a player. Player choice is very important but it's not through a dialogue tree or a conversation wheel, it's very much about the actions that you perform in the game that determine the outcome, or even the actions that you don't perform in the game.
What was your inspiration behind the game?
George: We are aware that we're not the first game to cast ourselves in a secret underground base run by scientists -- it's a very popular trope. However, whilst most games, films, TV shows present the fantasy, we wanted to deconstruct it.
As a parallel, in the same way that Alan Moore took superheroes in the comic world in the 1980s and deconstructed them so that it would actually work in the real world, we're trying to do the same with secret underground scientists. What are their hiring processes? Do people commute there on a daily basis or do they live there? What's the relationship between scientists if they're all stuck together in an underground base for so long? What's the relationship with their families like if they can't talk to them about it? What are the disciplinary measures? There's somebody that's been given a lot of power within The Assembly -- what if they step out of line? What's the hierarchy and how does it all work? We're taking a very nuts and bolts mechanical approach by taking a fantasy and transferring it into the real world to see how it works; that's the inspiration.
Beyond that as well, scientific advancement these days occurs at such a rapid clip and it inspires a lot of public wariness, specifically about diseases. We're all aware of the current real world social anxieties about animal diseases transferring over to humans. That's a big part of the backdrop against which the game is set.
This title has been specifically designed for virtual reality. Has this presented any development challenges?
George: Yes. Movement in 3D space is a challenge. We decided to take one of the biggest hurdles in VR development, which is first person movement in a 3D environment without a HUD, not being in a cockpit and still not triggering simulation sickness. The first section of the first part of the game, the first level, is on rails to ease people in gently. Beyond that, we're allowing for free movement in 3D space without hindrance. We've designed a very specific control scheme that allows you to do that. It doesn't really work just by describing it; you really have to play it.
To understand George's last point, we really need to see how the game's VR Comfort mode has made a difference to this. On the control pad, the right joystick automatically snaps the camera by 90 degrees to the left or right to avoid the sickness caused by turning using the VR headset. Instead, the head tracking will pull the character gently to the left or right by following the player's gaze. There is also a teleport option that allows the player to move anywhere and face in the direction of their choice. It's a shame that this couldn't be experienced in the game's current demo, but I do hope that it allows a person like myself, who is very prone to motion sickness, to experience the game without issue.
Is there anything that has changed since the start of development, such as ideas that had to be scrapped or new amazing ideas that just had to be added in?
George: The story has taken a very different flavour and we've really narrowed its focus. VR really triggers the emotions. Lots of video games over the last three years have tried to add an emotional component. To one degree or another they've either suceeded or failed. With VR, it just happens anyway because the immersion is so real that you respond to things that you witness as you would in real life. It doesn't have that break that the screen provides.
We decided to rework the narrative so that it's more about the characters and much more about their own back stories and their own relationship with The Assembly rather than a top level view of the back story of The Assembly and how it came to be. We've left that to the player's imagination.
We changed the game's engine from Unity to Unreal 4, which has allowed us to generate really densely packed detailed environments and really high resolution textures. We felt that for this game, Unreal Engine 4 would allow us to do more VR platforms at launch in a more comprehensive way. They're both great engines, but we just felt that this ended up being a better fit for The Assembly.
We've re-tooled a bunch of puzzles. We've taken a stronger focus on what makes the game VR specific so we've added in a bunch of heights. Darkness really has a big impact on VR. We've also added in things like magnification goggles, cameras and 3D imaging microscopes so that you can lean in and something happens. You can lean in to cupboards or look around objects to see their underside. We're really making full use of VR. When we first started making The Assembly, the hard levels were locked. We were developing everything like an idea with a target in mind. As the hard mode has become fixed, that has allowed us to home in and focus our thinking.
Will the game need other accessories, such as Playstation Move?
George: This is still to be confirmed. We know that Playstation VR is coming with a pad. We don't know whether or not Move is going to be bundled in. At the moment, we're developing the game for the widest number of people at launch. If Playstation VR does get bundled with Move then we will look to incorporate more Move specific things, but at the moment it is pad-centric.
Can the game be played without Playstation VR?
George: Probably not. If we find that there is enough people that want to play the game without VR just for the characterisation or story then we'd be foolish to deny them that experience, but we'd have to re-tool the game.
Will the game be a launch title for Playstation VR?
George: If it isn't a launch title then it will definitely be in the launch window.
If Playstation VR is heading for a release next year, expect The Assembly to appear around the same time.
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