Insomniac Games may still be fresh from a very successful launch of a new Ratchet & Clank game, but it’s not sitting back to rest on its laurels. In fact, the company has become a major player in virtual reality, as it has recently announced two new games coming to the Oculus Rift this fall: Feral Rites and The Unspoken. These are in addition to the horror adventure game, Edge of Nowhere, which releases on June 6.
With three all-new games being published by Oculus this year, Insomniac is now one of the leading studios creating and pioneering VR content. With Feral Rites, players have a chance to unleash their inner beast in all-out brawling action, while The Unspoken takes them to an underground world of magic, where they must learn to fight with magic. Both are set to release this fall, and the latter game will make full use of the upcoming Oculus Touch motion controllers.
[a]listdaily talks to Cameron Christian, lead designer on Feral Rites, studio director Chad Dezern for The Unspoken, and Brian Allgeier, the creative director of Edge of Nowhere. They provide insight into partnering with Oculus to dive into virtual reality, where a lot of fighting, magic and mind-bending horror await.
What is Feral Rites about?
Cameron: Feral Rites is a third-person adventure brawler. It’s a game that combines Legend of Zelda-style exploration and puzzles with the savage brawling from a game like God of War. The game takes place on an exotic jungle island. You’re the son of a slain chieftain, searching for your father’s killer. This takes you through lush jungle environments as you try to track down your father’s murderer.
Players will come across dangerous wildlife and various enemy tribes along their journey, and as they explore the island, they’ll learn about their tribe’s history and unlock the ancient power of the Jaguar Beast. This is a human jaguar hybrid that the player can transform into to aid in combat. Kind of like a new-age Altered Beast.
Combat focuses on melee brawling in both human and beast forms. The combat system encourages weaving these forms together to create dynamic combo strings, which will result in epic finishing moves. Players will be able to unlock new human and beast form abilities, as well as purchase and equip new gear that will modify or alter their existing abilities. Quests and other treasures will pull players deeper into the island, and the deeper they go, the more dangerous it gets.
One of the big pushes for us in doing this game in VR is that it really shows the potential of Insomniac’s stunning worlds in the most immersive way possible. VR gives players a 360-degree view of the lush jungle, which really makes you feel like you’re in it—having the canopy overhead and the wildlife nearby. VR allows us to have some unique adventure mechanics, such as “look at” teleporting puzzles, which allow you to look in a direction to teleport to a spot. Combining that with lock and key mechanics makes for some very interesting puzzles.
Finally, VR lets us show our up-close and brutal combat in both finishers and high-action moments that really showcase the hero and enemies in high-fidelity.
What inspired Feral Rites?
Cameron: The creative director and I had just come off of Sunset Overdrive, so we wanted to look into doing something different. And, like I said before, we make great worlds here at Insomniac. So, we were looking at the VR technology and wondering how we could push it and really showcase the worlds. Plus, what could we add to flip it around? That’s when we started thinking about a third-person brawler. Things like The Island of Doctor Moreau were inspirations for the savageness and craziness of this jungle.
Does the fast action of Feral Rites come out with the Oculus hardware?
Cameron: Definitely. It’s been a challenge for us, since this is the first game where we had to push out 90 frames-per-second while keeping that high fidelity, but when you look at the game, we’re definitely capturing that very immersive world. Part of it is our choice in camera style. It’s a fixed camera that lets us have high-action fast brawler combat while reducing much of the motion sickness you might get with a standard follow-cam, or a first-person view, when you’re moving around as much as you do in our game. We have a lot of backtracking and an open-world feel. Our camera is a lot like Resident Evil, in a way.
How does a fixed third-person camera work in VR, and maintain a sense of mystery, when players can still look around and see everything around them?
Cameron: It’s definitely a challenge, but we knew that we wanted every camera position and shot to not have any dead ends. If you look 360, you see the world expand and continue on. It just took a lot of planning and thought.
What is The Unspoken about?
Chad: The Unspoken is about the fantasy of magic in the real world. It’s a VR first-person action game that’s all about PvP [player vs. player] spellcasting. You use the Touch controller to cast spells with your bare hands. We’re out to give you the feeling that you’re using real magic. You’re discovering what you can do as you play, and not thinking about the controllers at all. Rather, you’re using your hands and natural gestures to make amazing things happen around you.
Story-wise, you fall into a hidden world of ancient cabals and organized crime, and you duel powerful magicians to rise through the ranks and rule the city street-by-street. You learn that you have an affinity for spellcraft, which starts out with just parlor tricks, but as you progress and your powers grow, you can summon golems and shoot off blinding fireworks displays of arcane energy.
This game’s particular flavor of magic is about harnessing the unseen forces of the city itself, and manipulating objects from the world around you. So, it’s very much in the urban magic genre. In fact, your entry point is an urban magician’s fight club. You fight in pocket-dimensions around the city of Chicago, from fighting in a war for control in Pulaski Park, to a hidden rooftop garden on the Gold Coast, and you’ll find the great buildings of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair perfectly preserved underneath the stockyards.
The battles are PvP turf wars. We think of the play style as a marriage between the physical action of a fighting game with the dynamic battlefield of an arena shooter. Physical action is about skill-based casting. Timing is important, and so are the nuances of your gestures. If you really get into the flow, you’ll cast better spells than you would just flailing around. The battlefield space is also important. There’s cover and strategic high ground. You teleport through the space, so you really have to be aware of the full 360 VR battlefield around you to understand where you can get the biggest advantage.
The duels are like dances, with back-and-forth attack and avoidance spellcasting, where it’s about selecting a spell and countering what your opponent is doing. The combination culminates into the environment around you crashing down. One important thing to know is that you face-off against another human, and you can see that person’s tracked head and hands. If you’ve ever experienced tracked head and hands in VR, you know that that really does give you a sense of presence where you can see all the little ticks of human motion and feel like you’re interacting with another person. You want to see the other person and what kind of spell they’re casting so you can cast a counter or avoid it.
How much floor space do you need to play The Unspoken?
Chad: We designed it as a standing experience, but you don’t need a room dedicated to it. There’s a little bit of sideways movement to get behind cover, but the mechanics are such so that you don’t need to cover a whole lot of ground. You can stay within a two-foot or less space with your trackers.
How do you promote a VR game that relies so heavily on multiplayer?
Chad: The best thing we can do is let people play it. Once you have the experience and really understand what it means to be in an arena with another person and gesturing—that makes the biggest impact. We supplement that with visuals like screenshots and videos, including 360 assets. All of these things help get the flavor of it. We’ll also talk about world backstories and set the tone for it. I think when you hear “spellcasting with Touch,” you probably have an image in your head, and a lot of the things we found players wanted they actually can do in the game. All that plays into getting a picture of what the experience is like.
What can you tell us about Edge of Nowhere?
Brian: Edge of Nowhere is a third-person horror adventure set in Antarctica, circa 1932. You play as Victor Howard, who is searching for a lost expedition. He follows a trail of clues and is led into a monstrous underworld. As he ventures further along, searching for his old mentor, Simon Edwards, and fiancée Ava Thorne, the world starts to warp, twist around and become more surreal. It begins to question what is real and what is not.
This is our opportunity to play with players’ perceptions and to create creepy and unsettling moments. As I’ve found with VR, you immediately feel a little vulnerable when you put that headset on, and I like that aspect of it. Certainly, it’s very easy to go the jump-scare route, and while we do have a few scares here and there, what’s really great about VR is that we have the ability to build tension and the underlying suspense it grows. Whether it’s a monster attacking or sneaking by a giant creature, you really feel that tension.
How did the idea for Edge of Nowhere come together?
Brian: Edge of Nowhere started out back in October 2014, when we were first approached by Oculus. Jason Rubin came to the studio and said that he really wanted to tackle the moving camera problem, because it’s something a lot of games are struggling with. Most people think that a VR game is going to be first-person and that first-person shooters make a lot of sense, but with all that moving, strafing and shooting, people get sick because there’s a whole inner-ear problem. So we decided to start experimenting with third-person controls and a moving camera. That way, you can have the hero move in a lot of different directions and do the crazy motions while the camera glides along a smooth path and people don’t feel uncomfortable.
The result is a very immersive experience as you travel through these dark ice caves, and look around as you deal with these monsters.
How has developing an adventure game for VR been different from traditional platforms?
Brian: We developed this entire game from the ground up, so we had to rethink how we did all of our levels. The way the camera works is that all the rotation is based on the player’s head. So, you don’t rotate a virtual camera.
We had this one situation where we had a bunch of dead bodies that we wanted Victor to walk up to, but when they’re lying on the ground, they’re in front of the hero, so you don’t really get a good view of them. So, we decided to hang them from the ceiling so that you can look up at these dead bodies as you walk under them. That’s something that you don’t typically see in 2D games, because you always want put all the action in front of the player. But with VR, you can look all around.
Has there been any thought given to adding Oculus Touch support to Edge of Nowhere or Feral Rites in the future?
Brian: No, we’ve been developing both games with the controller in mind, and it really works well with the style of game we’re creating—which is less physically active. We see people playing Edge of Nowhere for 2-4 hours straight, sitting back in their chair with the controller, and it’s not as physically active. I think it’ll be very interesting to see where VR will go, and I think there will always be a place for controller-based games.
Cameron: For us, we’re making a hardcore brawler, and I think the amount of button input we’re doing would exhaust players if it were active motion. So, we’re sticking with the controller.
How has Insomniac been working with Oculus to bring these games to life?
Chad: It’s a great situation in that we experiment, frequently play the games with them, and share thoughts about the way things are headed. It feels like a true partnership and collaboration to getting the best possible game we can make. Nothing but great things to say about the relationship.
What convinced Insomniac to work on so many VR projects for Oculus?
Chad: We’re big VR enthusiasts, and we have really liked working with Oculus as a publisher because we feel like we’re in this new experimental situation where we’re learning new mechanics just as the hardware is coming online. There’s a spirit of working together to figure it out and see what we can do with this new technology.
What will be some of the biggest challenges in promoting these VR games?
Chad: I really feel that the biggest challenge we face is getting the experience across to players. A screenshot or video doesn’t really do the experience justice. It turns into a “you have to be in there” situation. We’re doing our best to figure out what tools we have at our disposal and get the feel of the games across, but it’s always going to be a “you need to get the headset” situation.