Distress Signal : Post-mortem
Distress Signal is a short VR experience created in Global-Game-Jam 2018. It was presented in numerous VR festivals, and we've recently added it to Peanut Button Labs, where you can download it to play on Oculus Rift or Quest. If you're sensitive to spoilers, check it out first before continuing to read this post.
Our previous projects were developed for google-cardboard/gearVR/DK2. This is actually the first time we created an experience that plays with controllers, so we had a chance to just try stuff and see what works with hands in VR. And sure enough, it was a crash course in VR design.
The theme of that year's Game Jam was "Transmission", and that led us to think about the idea of an astronaut lost in space that tries to communicate with a spaceship and ask for help. But the AI on the spaceship won't help if the player couldn't prove their humanity. We brainstormed a dozen different game mechanics that could tell this story, but most of them were too complicated for the 48 hour time frame of the game jam.
Eventually we settled on one simple mechanic: sending visual signals with your hands. The player could draw in the space around them, and the drawings were sent to the spaceship as input, to which it responded with another question to the player, thus moving the dialogue and the situation forward.
Here are some design elements that proved to be very effective -
Characterized hands - the player wears an astronaut suit, which contributed to their sense of identity in this experience. In addition - all hands look the same under these gloves - regardless of the player's gender, age, or skin tone, so everyone could easily relate and feel like they're there in the flesh.
Giving the player a creative activity - Drawing in space using your hand-held controllers is a fun activity that suited the medium and kept the players engaged through the whole experience. This kind of creative game mechanic gives a feeling of freedom, as apposed to your typical button-pressing and knob-pulling interface.
Gradual learning of the interaction - the tutorial was part of the experience. We took into consideration the time it took players to understand how to interact with the game, and wrote the story to work with it seamlessly.
An illusion of a bigger decision tree - the story begins with an urgent premise. Your oxygen is about to run out and you need to save your life. This urgency pulled the player into the situation, which amped up their suspension of disbelief. The answers they got from the spaceship were written in such a way that they felt organic and sensitive to any player signal. It felt like the spaceship actually reacts to what the player. That gave the player the feeling of agency and control. We don't say that sophisticated game systems for believable AI is bad, just that when you're in a 48 hour game jam you learn writing techniques that take you a long way. Why not use them?
Space - It's such a great location for a VR experience. It's vast, full of ambiance, and it allows for great movement and scene composition.
Interactive music - we worked with a musician who composed three synced layers of music - one for the background and one for each drawing hand. It was a great way for us to emphasize the psychedelic atmosphere.
A computerized voice - it just worked like a charm. Gave a real "2001 a space odyssey" vibe. It also enforced the feeling of a true AI that reacts to the player's every action.
Dynamic environment - there are spinning metal scraps around the player that move further away from them as time goes by, which connects to the feeling of abandonment this we wanted this experience to give.
The VR industry sure did evolve a lot in the last couple of years, but when we returned to this experience as we ported it to the Oculus Quest we found that it encapsulates a lot of the design principals we still use in our development process today. They're simple, but they work.