At eve of its announcement we got to ask 3rd Eye Studios lead designer Greg Louden a bunch of questions about their upcoming co-op space thriller Downward Spiral: Horus Station.
What was the vision for the game as you set out to develop it?
The vision for 3rd Eye Studios is to create sophisticated and atmospheric co-op games and groundbreaking tools and tech for game developers.
Horus Station is a combination of this through our goal is to create a mysterious and atmospheric zero gravity co-op space thriller and the creation of 3rd Eye Core, to be shared with developers ahead. Our key thematic references have been 2001: A Space Odyssey, Twin Peaks, Black Mirror and There Will be Blood. In terms of games my goal has been to create an experience that blends the complete visual storytelling of Inside and the atmosphere and hub design of System Shock, Bioshock or more recently Prey.
Space stations are certainly a popular setting in video games. What would you say it is about this sort of setting that is appealing to a game developer and in what way does it suit the story and themes you want to convey in Downward Spiral: Horus Station?
From a technical perspective I feel space stations have been popular setting among video game developers because it allows the ability to easily scope a game, build detailed stories and control the players movements for a tightly scripted experience. However, it also fits perfectly for our locomotion to allow exploration without motion sickness with our VR-only debut Downward Spiral: Prologue. It also allowed us to setup more of a mysterious and metaphorical story with Horus to be discovered, plus our artists wanted to capture the retro-futurist styled past. So space and space stations has been a great fit for Horus Station.
The game takes an environmental approach to the storytelling with an overarching mystery that the player needs to solve and find answers to interpret. What games have inspired you in the respect and what went into the decision to avoid more direct narrative techniques?
We take a completely visual or environmental approach to storytelling. In Horus Station we don't have VO, audio diaries or cinematics. We felt that this had been proven, and we felt our story is stronger when left to the audience and not forcefully explained. We want our story to be discovered and not told. In terms of games there's been great complete visual storytelling and we've been heavily inspired by Inside, all of Fumito Ueda's work and Rime where players interpret what they're shown and then find meaning. Story and themes wise we want our story interpreted so we won't be commenting much on what it means, but I can promise the story has a great world, message and question for players to discover.
Is there anything in particular you need to consider when it comes to the narrative in a VR-compatible title? What was the main challenge?
Narrative design in VR I've found is largely similar to traditional games. I was previously Senior Narrative Designer on Quantum Break and Remedy's upcoming games, and I found that it's all the same techniques. However, a big difference is player guidance, or the way that you guide the player. Most games are played on the ground so if you put something on a table players generally notice. In Horus Station because it's a truly 360 degrees experience without gravity and our new locomotion it's a lot harder to guide the player to notice things when they can be floating in all directions.
Is zero gravity a benefit or a hindrance in terms of avoiding nausea if played in VR? What have you found?
Zero gravity is a great benefit for solving nausea when played in VR. The founders at 3rd Eye Studios struck gold in discovering that using grab to move locomotion allowed exploration, meant no motion sickness and was a perfect fit for space and zero gravity. We feel we solved motion sickness with our locomotion in our debut Downward Spiral: Prologue and we're taking those lessons further with Horus Station. It's really worth trying out, and we've found it works for almost all players. We also found a few other things - sudden stops causes motion sickness so we use curves to slow the players on impact, old locomotion methods don't work so we created our own and finally we always try to ensure a very high framerate of around 90FPS for VR when allowed so it's crazy smooth.
In addition to a strong focus on the narrative there seems to be some rather intense action as well. How have you treated this and how do you pace the experience?
Great question, and it's a tough balance and largely a question of variety and taste. If the player is constantly in action, puzzles or constantly without any activity it becomes stale. So in order to pace I traditionally do a pacing chart first to ensure levels have variety, different play styles, different starts and finishes. Afterwards it is a matter of constant testing, to see how it works and gathering feedback through questionnaires from externals.
For Horus Station the experience is also episodic in which the game is paced into a series of chapters. We've found this allows better pacing, and it is also a good time to take off a headset if you're playing in VR.
Last but not least for players that only want to explore and solve puzzles there is "Explorer" mode that completely removes combat, leaving a much slower and more exploratory version of our experience we are including well. I think this will make the game even more accessible, and when played in Online Co-op with our in normal or Explorer mode even better.