In 2015, soon after Double Fine announced it was resuscitating its cult game Psychonauts for a sequel, it also revealed it was working on a standalone virtual reality game. This PS VR game would not just bridge the two titles, but give players a new angle on the Psychonauts universe.
For those who haven't played it - despite being a critical darling, sales were poor - Psychonauts was a third-person platformer in which you controlled a boy named Raz with psychic abilities. The game was written by industry veteran Tim Schafer (The Secret of Monkey Island, Grim Fandango), who penned both the sequel and the VR spin-off, Psychonauts in the Rhombus of Ruin.
You have to try an idea and see it doesn't work
Schafer had never developed for VR before, but Rhombus of Ruin project lead Chad Dawson was tinkering with virtual reality back in the 90s. One of his early games was a VR prototype where you played a gondolier rowing through Venetian canals, using a big stick as your controller. By his own admission it was pretty bad, but only because the technology was incredibly limiting. Now, like the Psychonauts themselves, he's hopping back in the saddle with his first VR game since those nauseating days on the gondola. So what lessons from virtual reality's retro years is he bringing to Rhombus?
"What works with regular games doesn't necessarily work in VR," said Dawson. "I've made that mistake before".
In Rhombus you use Raz's psychic ability to move from character to character, which is done through a combination of head-turning and button-pressing. Double Fine wanted a locomotion mechanic that wouldn't make players feel sick, and this also made sense within the frame of the universe - but there were other ideas they tried that seemed good for VR, but in reality weren't.
"Some of the initial ideas had the player transporting into the minds of moving characters," he explained, "but as soon as they would turn and you wouldn't turn, you'd be looking out the side of their head..."
Double Fine realised that each character would have to be stationary at the point the player transported to it. It might not seem like a big deal, but it's a good example of VR diverging from traditional game development. "I'd been through that before, where you have a great idea and you try it and it doesn't work, but as you try it you discover something else. I think there are still a lot of discoveries out there".
Unlike a lot of VR games out there right now, Double Fine also wanted to make something that felt like a complete experience.
Chad told us you'll be able to tear through the game in about three hours when it launches on 21 February, but it'll take a lot longer if you're the type of person - like us - who wants to explore every nook and prod every object just to see if it does something funny (and knowing Shafer, it often does).
Double Fine has stuffed these environments with buttons, toys and trinkets to interact with, and truth be told, we ran out of time before completing the demo because we'd spent too much time hurling rolls of toilet paper at people's heads and using our pyrokinesis skills to set fire to everything else.
"Our goal is to not be a tech demo," said Dawson. "We feel it really is a full game. It has a beginning and an end and character arcs."
Funny dialogue has been the bread and butter of Schafer's games since the days of Monkey Island, but delivering it in VR, without losing any of the edge, requires new thinking. "Many VR games have really not taken on interacting with characters, they've been more about mechanics or shooting things out of the sky and things," said Dawson.
"But as soon as you start interacting with a character, how do you have your character talk and not have that feel awkward? How do you deliver lines and not step over them? It's something we've struggled with, we've gone back and forth with how to do it."
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Making other characters feel alive was another interesting task. Creating "presence" in virtual reality isn't just a case of building worlds that look real, but ones that react to you. Psychonauts is filled with colourful characters but adapting them to VR wasn't as simple as just plonking them down and giving them comedy lines to repeat.
"Initially you get them into the game and you say, 'Ok, they'll just sit there kind of idle and look left or right', said Dawson. "And that might be acceptable for a different type of game. But as soon as they don't feel alive, the whole space around you feels like you're on a movie set.
"So having them look you in the eye - and if you move your head they turn their eyes and keep looking at you - that level of social connection with a character is something that we pick up on in any conversation. Or you see someone not look you in the eye and maybe they're not trustworthy, or they look you in the eye and they glance down, you know they're a little nervous."
As soon as characters don't feel alive, the whole space around you feels like you're on a movie set
These little social cues play a big part in everyday social interactions, and they're important for VR too.
Even moments where you use your telekinesis to pick up objects and move them near other characters, who react by swatting them out of the way and making comments.
"All those little things add up to make the characters more believable and interactive."
Rhombus works so well because the game's ideas of psychic powers map well to virtual reality, but we were keen to know if Dawson had learned anything new in building his first VR game since the 90s.
"Don't hold off play testing," he said. "Even someone from of your team - get them in as early as you can, because they'll look at it in a different way to how you will. That's true with every game, but even more in VR."
There's a good example of this in the early part of Rhombus when you're sat on the ship learning how to use Raz's psychic abilities. In early testing, the developers realised that people might not work out that they had to open the overhead lockers, so, to avoid using any explicit prompts that would break the immersion, they used subtle flickering lights and sounds to draw the player's attention upwards.
"You think you have something blatantly obvious that's flashing a light in their face, and they don't see it because there's so much else to look at."
As we hurled yet another roll of toilet paper down towards the cockpit, we could only agree.
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