Later this afternoon, a man will come to my flat to collect a desk. The desk will go into a van, and then sometime later it will go into a skip. I built this desk from five components: four ‘legs’, and, in the parlance of an expert woodsmith, a ‘top bit’. I followed detailed instructions written by fastidious Swedish craftsmen. And somewhere between screwing the legs to the top bit and… well, actually, that’s the only step, I ballsed it up. So after two years of wobbly desk work I have now paid a man to destroy it. To mulch my shame into wood pulp.
This is why I (and I suspect a lot of other people) don’t build things. Let alone design them. But even the people that do – the mechanics, who make supercars; the architects, who build houses; the Swedes, who build everything – at least they’ve got something to work from. Points of reference. Cars have wheels, houses have doors and desks have legs. Stupid and wobbly or otherwise.
But where do you start when you’re asked to design and build something that doesn’t exist? A thing that isn’t even close to existing? How do you build a proper, laser-cannon-firing-barrel-rolling spaceship in a world where even the Space Shuttle doesn’t fly anymore?
Weirdly, you start with World War II.
“We looked at a lot of World War II fighting; the traditional dogfighting that you see in the classic World War II movies,” says Andrew Willans, EVE: Valkyrie’s lead designer. “With those [films], you always [have] the Spitfire after the Messerschmidt with a fixed, iron sights crosshair and the fixed-wing cannons. So you’re getting these shots where you’re looking right down the iron sights, you’re manoeuvring the aircraft, you’re lining up the gun and then” – Willans does a good job of making a machine gun noise with his mouth – “hot lead, straight at them.”
Using dogfighting from over 70 years ago as the model for far-future space combat might sound weird, at first. But if you’ve played Valkyrie already at an expo (the game is a poster child for the Oculus Rift, and comes bundled free with pre-orders of the headset), it starts to make sense. Modern air combat – with its million-dollar computerised doohickeys and missiles that buzz off and explode somewhere over the horizon – just isn’t as cool as inverting your plane and chasing an enemy in a dive, rattling your machine guns at him. As such, Willans admits there were elements of Valkyrie’s combat needed “sexing up”.
Take your ship’s laser cannons for example. Lasers in science fiction are cool – even the dreariest seven-year-old knows this. But in real life, military lasers are… well, still cool, but a bit underwhelming to watch. There’s no bright red flash of light, no high pitched scorching sound effect, no juddering recoil – they just get pointed at things, and then a second later those things catch fire. A jaw-clenching, sweat-beading space dogfight these things do not make. So Willans and the Valkyrie team took a little artistic licence.
“We tried to avoid the whole ‘pew pew’ [thing],” Willans says. “I’m not going to say ‘cheesy’ sci-fi, but we want to be ‘believable’ sci-fi. So when we do lasers, it should feel powerful. We try to sex up the sensation of firing a laser, so there is this pulse, this flash and this dust of particle effects to make you feel that even the lasers are giving you kick-back, the same way it would if you were launching a grenade from a launcher.”
Building Valkyrie’s ships, then, is a balancing act between presenting you with something that feels real without getting bogged down in too much tedious realism (“If we were obeying the rules of physics as we know them, it wouldn’t have looked as cool!” Says Willans, as a general guide to the team’s philosophy). But to sell that illusion, Valkyrie’s technologies still have be coherent. The ships need certain things – a cockpit, engines, weapons bays and so on – that all have to fit together in a way that looks believable.
“I think that if you are an artist working on a process like this, then you automatically have to think about functionality,” says Kari Gunnarsson, EVE: Valkyrie’s Art Director. “In order to sell the fantasy to somebody else, you have to sell the fantasy to yourself. So, all the artists working on the project are thinking very functionally, meaning that when we [for example design] a cockpit, we are thinking about where the life support system is, where the emergency brake system is, how you eject yourself – stuff like that. Not stuff that directly affects gameplay, but that’s part of the environments look believable.”
“A lot of the time the form follows the function,” Willans agrees. “I can give you an example: the Wraith is one of our Fighter class ships, one of the default cockpit layouts which has been refined for dogfighting, and obviously influenced by real-world jet fighters. But [in the case of] something like the Support ship, which is all about being a medic, you need increased visibility. So the form of that ship is dictated by the fact that you need to have a wide field of view. You need to look around the battlefield and spot your teammates, so there’s a lot more glass in the cockpit. And we have to then consider where the instruments live within the cockpit so that you’ve got maximum visibility.”
This is the junction at which Valkyrie’s WWII dogfighting gameplay collides with modern military influences.
“From being children and going to air shows and seeing aircraft first hand, that sense of presence and scale you get when you see an F-14 in the real world is something that inspired how we lay out the ships. It was always our goal that, in VR, we could make you feel as though you were visiting and air show. So you’re sat there with these huge ships in front of you, rotating them in 3D, customising them and looking at the detail – so as well as being in the cockpit of these fighters, you can also look at them as a by-stander. I think we’ve really nailed that sensation.”
The design team also scavenged more specific odds and ends from modern military aircraft in efforts to ground the ships further in modern day air combat. The lock-on system for your missiles, for example, works in the Rift through head-tracking, the same way as the real-world system in an Apache helicopter. Aesthetic elements big and small were also pinched by looking at airframes.
“We’ve scoured a lot of aeroplane footage from military air shows, and looked at things all the way up to the stealth bomber and the look of the wing,” says Willans. “You can see influences of the stealth aircraft with the Wraith, can’t you?”
“Yeah, you can,” Gunnarsson agrees. “That was one set of influences we took a look at in the beginning, just to set the style of how spacecraft in Valkyrie would be different to other sci-fi spacecraft, and part of that was to give it a very sharp look; those very sharp angles that you have on the stealth bomber was a clear reference. And [there were also] smaller elements: stuff inside the cockpit like release handles for the glass [with which you] eject. That’s something that people might recognise.”
But ultimately, whether it’s your ship’s combat systems or its rugged exteriors (there’s something not a little bit Robot Wars about all the gunmetal plating and scratched paintwork of Valkyrie’s ships, like they’ve each been repeatedly flipped into a spike pit by Sir Killalot), realism has to take a back seat to the jolly business of exploding other players. At least, most of the time.
“We’re 90% gameplay-driven,” says Willans, when I ask him about the balance between what looks real and what feels good. “We identify the needs of the game through playtesting and our own ideas about what we want to do, and then it’s more a case of, ‘in this scenario, I felt I didn’t have X,’ and then we’ll work out what X could be,” Willans says.
“[But] I’m not going to lie, there is that 10% window there, where someone sees something on the internet and says, ‘Holy shit, that looks badass! How do we get this in the game?’”
You’re asking the wrong person, Willans. That’s the way I feel about desks.