Much VR coverage goes towards the bleeding-edge, and understandably so — what’s next in terms of Vive and Rift gadgets and games. But the consumer market for VR in the immediate future seems linked to the more common technology of smartphones. Google’s Daydream headset is one of the players in this space, a reasonably-priced (£69) piece of hardware (with a handheld remote controller) that works across higher-end Android devices. Google being Google, of course, it has backed various software for the device — and one of these titles is Lola and the Giant.
Developed by Climax Studios, the subject of last week’s Britsoft Focus, Lola and the Giant is a storybook-style puzzle-adventure where a player or players flits between the two characters — who have a different scale within the world — each helping the other through. There’s little creative oversight from Google: it’s an idea that they got behind, and left the developers to create. The game’s director, Matthew Duff, found his inspiration in one of life’s big changes.
“The idea came from my daughter,” says Duff. “She’s about twenty months old now and when I was walking around the room with her in my arms, I started to think about how we both occupy the same space but we have very different perspectives in that space – her obviously very small and me obviously very big, and how the things that we can do in that space differ.
“And so then I started to think actually that make for a cool kind of game, you know? And as soon as I thought about the scale idea of things, I see things in one way and you see them in another, it kind of became a perfect fit for VR — because one of the cool things about VR specifically is the sense of place, the sense of scale, and that kind of fit for Lola.”
There’s a lot about Lola and the Giant that, in-keeping with that origin story, has a kind of homely or family feel. This is not, to be blunt about it, a game for the l33t hardcore. It’s a much gentler experience that’s designed to fit the hardware and be accessible — the Daydream headset is extremely comfortable, relative to other VR headsets, and the controller has simple inputs. Initially I was whizzing Lola all over the place before realising that I was spamming inputs when, really, I needed to slow down and enjoy the journey.
These puzzles are gentle, less about the brainpower required to work out a solution than seeing the solution, and then finessing between the two characters to manage it. Initially this is simple but in the second world you start to switch between Lola and the Giant more often, and understand what Duff means about the change in perspective — partnered characters may not be a new idea for videogames, but this realisation in VR is a new experience.
There’s an aspect to this, also, which ties into the nature of the phone as entertainment device. It’s not some mega PC, it’s technology for the living room and something about Lola and the Giant (and its companion app, which we’ll come to) seems especially targeted at that. Nevermind the simple fact that phone VR has a decent installed base that continues to grow as time goes on.
“Yeah we set out to make something that was fun, light hearted, hopefully humourous,” says Duff. “Hopefully you find it funny when you play through Lola, it’s not that taxing, and the art style reflects the narrative of the game. There’s never any real danger to Lola – she’s never under serious threat, you can’t ever really fail anything. It’s slanted towards you just enjoying the experience and being in this world.”
The art style is one of the things that attracted me. As with almost anything vaguely cutesy these days, you have to reference Pixar, but in some character designs there’s a touch of Animal Crossing while in the Giant’s ambiguous eyes I see some echo of the Iron Giant. The way this all ties together is that, basically, this world has some elements of a child’s imagination — toys coming to life, anthropomorphised friends, and hints of clockwork.
“Originally we were looking at sort of stylistic paintings,” says art director Scott Church. “That’s why everything in Lola has got a sort of undertone of paint running through it, so that was where we started, and then we did draw heavily on influences like those you mentioned.
“Bringing all that together, it sort of developed into Lola’s own style and yeah there’s a suggestion of a story there, Lola pushing these toys around in her room and making them into new toys in her imagination, which is why you get things like the weird toy houses.”
The other side to the game is the companion app, which is intended to be used by people alongside someone playing Lola and the Giant using Daydream. The person using the app has a 2D view of what the VR player sees and, in a touch reminiscent of Super Mario Galaxy’s idea of co-op, can zoom around the map from this starting point and place arrows — as well as, of course, talking to the other player. It’s another of these family touches, for want of a better phrase, looking at VR as something that can have a social as well as a solo entertainment element.
“Some of the early issues with VR we’re seeing is the fact that a lot of people feel like when their partner or even when they put on the headset, they become very isolated from the room and that social aspect has gone,” says Duff. “What we’re trying to almost bring back with the companion app is that social-ness, you know?
"I can sit on the sofa, put on the headset and Scott can pull up the companion app and we can play together and experience together. When my daughter is old enough in years to come, I will sit down with her, give her the phone and say ‘Hey watch this – this is a game based on you basically honey.’”
As this is Duff’s first time designing for VR, I ask about those early teething issues and the first big lesson he learned.
“Camera is massively different,” says Duff. “In a very early version of Lola and the Giant we tried doing a more traditional thirdperson style where you would run around and the camera would rotate to keep focus on Lola. Now a lot of us were fine, we’ve got quite hardy stomachs for VR, but obviously there was then 50% of people playing who were like ‘Woah get this thing off my head, I’m gonna throw up!’ That’s the first lesson you learn, big time: limited camera movement.
"Even when we switched to what we have now, which is a camera following Lola through the level, you have to be very careful how much you adjust height and how fast and things like that, so the camera becomes a massive part of your design. Not too dissimilar from a traditional game, but in a traditional game you don’t have to worry about someone vomiting because you’ve swung the camera violently.”
You can see this in how Lola and the Giant’s environments seem to warp and weave around empty space, drawing the eye to future features as you move without requiring any unusual camera shifts. The movement is smooth throughout, with the camera fixing to certain angles for a while as you move through the landscapes and transitioning gently with Lola’s steps. It’s the kind of effect that you wouldn’t notice unless you were trying to, but it makes you realise the subtle details being used as guides.
“If we want you to look in certain places you have to animate the characters to move in certain ways,” says Duff. “Lola yawns at the start to hold your attention so that you’re looking forward, kind of almost like you’re looking at her mouth so that you see a rock fall in the distance — just little tricks like that you have to kind of get your head around.”
Lola and the Giant will be out this year, exclusively on Daydream. It’s a game that, for all its unassuming nature, raises wider thoughts about how I feel about VR. Personally I find the more traditionally-oriented, hardcore-type games that I usually enjoy don’t translate all that well — and I end up much more enraptured by the gentler, more experiential takes on the technology.
“I think in these early days, perhaps you’re right,” says Duff. “But as the medium unfolds and evolves throughout time I think you’ll find that there’s a balance in there — even on console now you have your Killzones and Battlefields but you also have Ratchet and Clank and Zelda. There’s room for both.
“I certainly think Lola & the Giant in particular is designed for this kind of laid-back, casual play-at-home style, take your time with it, don’t rush through it – it’s a game to be enjoyed and experienced rather than smashed through and going ‘Yay I beat it!’ you know? It’s not that type of thing.”