I’m supposed to be investigating a deadly bacteria that threatens the safety of the world but I can’t stop looking inside dirty mugs. I’m playing nDream’s The Assembly, the first adventure game I’ve ever played in virtual reality, and simply walking around a virtual lab looking at everything is one of the most fascinating game experiences I’ve had all year.
The first couple of chapters are a gentle introduction to VR. “We’re aware that we’re aiming for the launch of these headsets so, potentially, this could be the first experience someone has of VR,” Patrick O’Luanaigh CEO of nDreams tells me.
The very first chapter starts with me waking up, strapped to a gurney in the desert. In an opening reminiscent to the Half-Life games, I’m wheeled into The Assembly’s secret facility in an on-rails sequence and absorb the nefarious scientific goings ons taking place around me. There are scientists conducting tests in side-rooms, analysts discussing results, security cameras everywhere. Nothing about this place seems friendly. Though I should probably feel vulnerable and frightened, I’m a little too excited by how it feels to be in an (albeit, virtual) secret underground base for the first time in my life.
My tour comes to an end when one of the researchers spots I’m awake and drugs me back into sleep. Maybe I shouldn’t have been looking around quite so excitedly.
This first chapter was in the body of Madeline, a star scientist whom The Assembly has kidnapped to take part in its test chambers. NDreams wouldn’t give too much away about Madeline’s story but it’s designed to play almost like a Running Man thriller: you compete in the tests, trying to stay alive long enough to escape and solve the murder that first drew you to The Assembly.
The second chapter put me in control of Cal, one of The Assembly’s scientists. Unlike Madeline’s chapters, Cal can take his puzzles at a much slower pace. It’s through him that you learn about The Assembly’s goals. His story focuses first around researching a new sort of deadly bacteria but his investigations lead to him looking into the organisation’s secrets.
It’s Cal who has access to all the dirty mugs. His objectives wanted me to inspect microbes through microscopes and run tests on samples, but I spent most my time peering into mugs, looking behind filing cabinets, and sticking my head into lockers. It’s going to take a long time for the novelty of VR to wear off. There’s something wonderfully freeing about having complete head movement in a game. Suddenly, the mundane becomes fascinating.
I was trying to read every bit of text in the environment. I was putting my head in the fridge to see what the petri dishes looked like. I wanted to see what was in the other scientists’ bins. Partially this was just me being silly and excitable, but also, this sort of exploration is perfect for an adventure game. In older point’n’click games you would scan the environment with your mouse looking for anything you could click on, something that might make your character say something clue-shaped. In The Assembly the designers don’t need to make everything interactive; the environment can tell so much of the story. It feels like a natural evolution for adventure games.
However, one problem is the controller. In the first chapter, when I was strapped down, I was looking around with my head. The moment I had a controller in my hands I slipped into a much more traditional way of playing, making the majority of my movements with the controller instead of actually moving my head.
It’s an uncomfortable sensation to move with a controller that seems so divorced from your head motion. It can make you feel really sick. It’s a challenge the team have had to fight with more than other VR games, particularly the games set in cockpits. “If you’re in a cockpit or a cockpit like experience, a fixed position, you’re used to it,” George Kelion, nDream’s communications manager, explains. “We’ve all been in a car - you’re moving but you’re not moving. Where we are in The Assembly, it’s a different sort of movement, you’re moving but standing still, and for some people there’s an adjustment that needs to take place.
“It’s akin to switch between moving from playing Doom on your arrow keys to using a mouse and keyboard. I remember when that switch happened, using my left hand to move around, I thought it was ridiculous, I spent six months looking at my feet... VR is the next technological leap. There’s a certain amount of language of how we interact with video games that will need to be incorporated but it’s nothing we’ve not done before as gamers.”
It’s also a limitation they can’t, for now, escape. “The ultimate VR controller would be using your hands,” O’Luanaigh admits. “With the Playstation you can use the Move and with the DualShock you can rotate the controller, which is very nice. With the HTC Vive you’ve got the wand controllers which work well. But we’re working with what we’ve got and using a controller that works on all platforms.”
“We saw one really cool piece of tech,” Kelion recalls. “It’s called ultrahaptics, it creates haptic feedback in the air with nothing tangible using ultrasonics. The device sits on your desk and it can create a waterfall to put your hand through, or a sphere, or a square. It’s incredible.”
“You could feel switches,” O’Luanaigh says. “You could sense the resistance and push it down. There’s so many cool pieces of tech, but as to whether it will be adopted with VR, it’s too soon to tell. The headsets are getting so good, though, that even with a controller the experience is great. I’d love it if in The Assembly you could reach out for a drawer and pull the drawer open.”
A lot of the work nDreams has had to do involves easing players into this new experience. Everything from the sedate, on rails opening, to using a simple, familiar control scheme is designed to transition players into VR. It’s more than that, though. The team has developed techniques to prompt players to make the most use of their new freedom.
“Something we’ve found is just how important audio is,” O’Luanaigh says. “Much more so than in non-VR games. Using sound that’s coming from around you encourages you to look left, right, above, and below.”
“Visual cues like security cameras encourage you to look in to the corners of rooms. There’s lots of little things moving to catch the corner of your vision to encourage you to start looking around,” lead designer Jackie Tetley adds.
“And we don’t know if we’ve got the right answers,” O’Luanaigh says. “We’re experimenting, and there’s lots of different ways of doing things, but we suspect there will be lots of things that will become standardised in VR. Like, how do you do subtitles in VR? Or what’s a standard control system for moving? What freedom do you give players to configure stuff? We’re making our best guesses.”
There’s also a lot of subtle changes between the two characters that players may not notice at first. Cal, for instance, is about ten inches taller than Madeline. The team has also recorded different audio for their footsteps and background breathing, subtle differences that they hope will make the characters feel different.
“We try to introduce each chapter with one of them talking as soon as we can to reinforce the switch,” Tetley says. “It’s quite different, because Madeline’s in the trial rooms most of the time, they’re very obviously a place The Assembly has manufactured, whereas Cal is in the body of The Assembly, in the labs, in the offices, in the corridors. You’ll feel those differences. I really notice the height. I like it, feeling taller.”
Tetley jokes that they should make a Robert Pershing Wadlow simulator.
“We tried scale experiments where there’d be creatures towering above you,” O’Luanaigh recalls. “There’s something primordial within you that reacts to these giant things. It’s really powerful.”
NDreams also experimented with different perspectives entirely. “Diorama games, where you’re looking down on a world, and god games work really well,” O’Luanaigh says. “You’ve got the positional tracking in the headset you can get down close to the table and pick people up. We’ll see lots of RTSs. Even third-person tracking cameras like in Croc and Spyro we’ve seen working on the Oculus.”
The team found that traditional first-person shooters were actually one of the most challenging games to make in VR because of how inhuman the characters are–”You move with a backpack at the speed of Usain Bolt doing the hundred metres,” O’Luanaigh jokes. Your turn speed is too fast, your jump is too high everything is too quick for the player to handle. O’Luanaigh doesn’t think shooters are off the table for VR, only that “everything needs to be turned down to much more realistic levels.”
The trick, nDreams has found, is that the camera has to move in the way the player anticipates. “It’s unexpected movement that’s the problem, O’Luanaigh says. “We originally tried out head bob, like you have in a traditional first-person game. When you’re in VR and your head is stationary but your view is bobbing up and down…. it makes sense on a screen but when you’re there you feel really sick.”
“Cutscenes are difficult in VR,” Kelion adds. “Especially cutscenes with multiple cameras. Nobody notices a sharp camera cut in a cutscene in a normal game, in VR you’re likely to hurl. Other than when you blink you don’t have sharp transitions in real life.”
The team found that if your camera is consistent and predictable players ease into the experience and begin to feel present in the world. That’s when you can really mess with them.
“I don’t suffer from motion sickness but I do suffer from vertigo and that’s something triggered in The Assembly, massively,” Kelion says. In Madeline’s story, her challenges in the test chambers are really going to test our suspension of disbelief.
The team got the idea from a demo run by Valve a couple of years ago: “You put on the headset and you’re stood on a narrow plank and, on each side, is a chasm, like the Death Star trench. And you’re thinking ‘Oh, this is freaky.’” O’Luanaigh says. “Then they say ‘Right, step off.’ So many people couldn’t do it. They couldn’t break from the immersion. Your vision, your audio, everything is telling you you’re in danger and it’s very hard to switch that off.”
Considering how drawn in I was by its mugs, The Assembly’s high altitude sequences are going to scare me rigid.
My time with The Assembly was brief, less than 30 minutes, but unlike the other VR demos I’ve played, it was more than an entertaining snippet. It’s the first VR game I can see myself spending hours playing in a single sitting.
Now we just have to wait for the headsets that can run the thing to be released.