Anna (Building Virtual Worlds: Round 2)

Round 2 of BVW presented us with an interesting challenge: “Create a consistent, highly interactive, and engaging experience that lets naive guests feel like they have a lot of freedom in the choices they make. I started looking at this prompt with my game design eyes and came to realize that there would be several main points to address:

Give the guest a sense of freedom.

Have the choices the guest make appear meaningful.

Cater to a guest that may not be familiar with the genre / hardware.

The third point of gearing the experience towards a naive guest made me realize a key point that often seems to be taken for granted: simple is solid. By having our key mechanic and core loop be something that anyone can relate to and understand, a lot of the hardship is taken care of right there. It can also help pave the way for the remaining points. These other points raised a few questions within our group, specifically, “what is freedom” and “how do we give a guest freedom but still have them go where we want them to go”? This second question is also impacted by the naive level of the guest since too much freedom coupled with a lot of learning can potentially be detrimental and overwhelming.

After breaking up to brainstorm separately, we all came back to see what could be elevated to the round 2 project. I analyzed the aforementioned points and came to a handful of tactics we could take:

A diamond-shaped interaction map.

Simple human interactions with understood mechanics

Implementing a guide of sorts.

By using this style of interaction map, we can ensure the guest always gets to where we want them to at the end of the day without stepping on their toes. The guest would get through the experience by doing an action which is innately understood, and perhaps have some force pushing or pulling them in the right direction. This last point is known as Indirect Control, and quickly became our most important ally on this project.

After all was laid out on the table and discussed, one of my teammates suggested a prison setting, with paper planes flying into the guest’s prison cell. This was an interesting concept, and the thought of paper planes flying into a cell seemed slightly poetic to me. The paper planes quickly became letters that the guest was receiving, and with that notion in mind, we were moving full-steam ahead.

All we knew at this point was the setting and the idea of picking up an item (ie. paper planes), but the simplicity and universality of the concept proved to work in our favor moving forward. If one is in a prison, one would want to get out. So now a goal is in our guest’s mind, and it is one we never explicitly said once. I realized with this that pre-conceived notions are a great method of indirect control. This left the group to decide what would the core loop or main interaction(s) be. Again, we went back to the mantra of keeping it simple. If one of the first actions the guest thinks of doing is picking up the letter that flies in and lands, then that should be it. By having the guest go for an object, pick it up, and interact with it, we have already taught them a mechanic. This might be a shallow and somewhat pedantic way of approaching the issue, but it proved extremely effective. We didn’t go for anything fancy; just basic human interaction and curiosity.

To keep the experience grounded, the interactions were set up as a miniature escape room in which objects can interact with other objects to give you access to more objects, and so forth until you can literally escape the room. Having experienced around five physical escape rooms in the past, I attempted to put this knowledge to good use. I set out to design an interaction map (which went through numerous revisions and evolved greatly over time) and ended up with this Interaction Map at the end of the day. It’s not perfect, but it certainly was able to get the job done.

A major challenge of this round was to keep things simple and streamlined. For instance, when we initially had the paper plane fly-in, the player could take it in both hands and unfold it. However, upon initial testing, players would just take the paper plane and throw it out (which should have seemed like an obvious choice). We shifted this mechanic to have the paper plane unfold on pickup and trigger the event automatically to prevent any player from getting stuck and/or breaking the experience.

I then turned my vision back to our old friend Indirect Control, since I knew we would be leaning heavily on it for this project. In terms of aesthetics, the group landed on using stark grayscale visuals and minimal sound. In this way, we can use visuals and auditory cues to guide the guest towards key moments and interactions.  Since the world is colorless, objects in color would pop out and draw the player in. Also, with the absence of background or ambient noise, sound effects that alert the guest to a successful interaction or new “phase” proved to work wonders. I can’t stress enough when I say that this round taught me how VITAL indirect control is and can be for an interactive experience.

While a large chunk of the intended narrative got chopped to spend more time on ensuring the interactions were solid, I’m still incredibly proud of my team and the experience we created in only two weeks.

 

Programmers = Shiva Sankar Kannan & Chi Zhang

Artists = Rong Fu & Namrakant Tamrakar

Sound Designer = Lawrence Plofker

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