The irony of creating a virtual reality game about world builders isn't lost on Adam Foshko, director of story and narrative at HBO. “It makes me look at myself in the mirror," he jokes. "It’s not wasted on us. It’s become very self-reflexive.”
Today, a “premium” VR game is no easy sell if you're a studio. They’re expensive to build and the install base of VR users still isn’t huge. But when HBO decided it wanted to create a full-blown Westworld VR experience, it didn't want any half measures. It wanted a full writers' room, motion-capture technology, a voiceover director – and a game studio with more than a little experience in the field.
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The result is Westworld Awakening, a VR project built by Sprint Vector studio Survios and overseen by the TV series’ showrunners. Together they gave themselves just 18 months to pull Awakening together, a timeline Michael Patrick Clark, producer on the game, calls “pretty aggressive” for this level of polish. But when you have HBO funneling money and resources your way, perhaps anything is doable in under two years.
We would do table reads to improve the dialogue
And the end product is… not what you might expect from a Westworld video game. While the imagination would probably conjure thoughts of a Red Dead-esque open world where cowboys and robots get violent and sexy, Awakening is a first-person exploration game that melds elements of puzzle solving and horror, mapping out a storyline adjacent to the events of Westworld Season 2.
The game is built on a locomotion mechanic Survios used in its parkour game Sprint Vector: swinging your arms back and forth creates a forward motion. “We found having that physical motion, even if its not one-to-one, still counteracts a lot of the weird disconnects you get with your ear and visuals, and it reduces nausea significantly," says Clark. "So for a game like this that is so focused on exploration of large spaces, it’s really important that we have that kind of technology.”
It's a unique way of solving that problem, but more unique is just how HBO approached Awakening. From the very start it treated the game like a TV show, planting a full writers' room in Survios and bringing in Kilter Films, the production company built by Westworld creators Jon Nolan and Lisa Joy, to work on the project.
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“We cultivated it in the same way we break television,” says Foshko. “We put the beats on the board and worked through it. What are the emotional beats? What are the story beats?” After that it was a case of marrying it to the physicality of gameplay, for which HBO had the story writers actually play the game to ensure the arcs made sense and were satisfying.
“The thing about a writers' room is that it is the crucible, where you come in with your ideas, and they play or they die," says Foshko. "If they die they go away, if they play you improve them. And so I don't care who it is, I don’t care if it's a writer with dramatic licence or a designer who has creative licence. It has to exist in the room and people have to say, is this good for what we’re making? And if it doesn't play in that room, it doesn't play."
In VR… it's all a bit meta
The game begins with you waking up as a host inside Westworld, and from this moment you and your character, Kate, who is new to this world, are very much on the same page. You learn to move as she does. You know as much as she does. You're not just exploring the world, but your own consciousness within this designed universe. It's all a bit meta.
And yes, Awakening really feels like a "premium" VR experience rather than the simple promo demo it could have been, the one we've seen time and time again (the story runs 4-6 hours, and it's only playable on PC-based headsets such as the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive).
It was a rigorous production process, one that's less commonly seen in video games. “We would do table reads to improve the dialogue,” Foshko says. “You do that a lot in any sort of scripted work, but it's rarely done in video games. But that’s a thing we did and we do. And also hiring actors that were a particular kind of actor."
Another example of how video games are being taken more seriously? Sure, perhaps. But it's more about the potential VR has for storytellers, Foshko believes. “For us it was always a matter of balancing story vs storytelling,” says Foshko. “So the beats had to be genuine beats. We couldn’t just do a thing because it would be cool. I come from console backgrounds so Call Of Duty, Destiny, running story for Activision, and I’ve had the conversations where it’s like, this would be incredibly cool if… and sometimes those win, but those are also the games where you go, well the story wasn’t that great, or that moment felt cheap.
“The writers' room is always about conflict, but conflict for good reason. It's not about ego here.”
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