Flavio Parenti, the charismatic Italian driving development on Loading Human, wants to “nail virtual reality where it’s important”: right in the sense of presence.
“Everyone is doing cockpit games, and cockpit is amazing, it works really well in virtual reality,” said the creative director. “But there’s one problem: the sense of presence is based only on shooting things.
“So you have to think about everything and come up with the best genre. We don’t want to create a passive experience, we want to create an active experience. And adventure games are the perfect genre because they match reality.”
Since that realisation, Parenti and Untold Games have been working with the best tools for the job: the Razer Hydra, Unreal Engine 4, and some of the most ambitious in-game audio ever committed to headphones. In VR, it turns out, hearing is believing.
Parenti isn’t interested in coining any David Cagisms to describe Loading Human: it’s not an interactive movie, nor a dynamic story engine. It’s an “old-style” adventure game, like Monkey Island – but one radically adapted for a new medium.
This adventure game presents players not with a series of sidelong screens, but a first-person, three-dimensional view into a tactile apartment. And rather than clicking to ‘Take’, ‘Open’ or ‘Pick Up’ puzzle pieces, they’ll have access to just two multi-purpose verbs: their own hands.
It sounds like Untold Games are writing a new rulebook – but Parenti cites the “perfect” design bible Ron Gilbert wrote in 1989, the year before The Secret of Monkey Island. Gilbert argued that game design should be stripped back to only those elements that help tell a story.
“That’s why we chose this kind of genre for VR,” explained Parenti. “Because it’s easier to manage. Other game designs like first-person shooter or real-time strategy, they’re all about rules and playing by those rules to beat someone else.
“Adventure games, they’re about experiencing something that is almost lifelike; natural problem solving that is completely embedded into the story. So it’s actually simpler to develop for us.”
Simpler, it’s important to stress, does not mean simple. Untold are developing for VR in the brand new Unreal Engine 4 – even before the Eve Valkyrie team have finished clearing a path through the code. And they’ve compounded their potential tech problems by combining headsets with compulsory hand-tracking.
Loading Human runs a “full body simulation”. When players don their goggles and pick up their Hydras, the game takes note of the position of their head and hands. It takes educated guesses at the rest – twisting in-game arms and spine to match the player’s expectations.
This highly unusual form of input brings unusual design problems with it. Untold Games switched engine from Unity to UE4 – “just perfect for what we needed” – so that they could simulate physics at a truly granular level.
Where past PC game protagonists have shifted crates, rocks and cars, players in Loading Human need to be able to accurately lift pencils, paper and USB sticks.
“Normally in videogames, everything is three times bigger than real due to perception of the main character,” said Parenti. “In virtual reality, we’re talking one-to-one scale for everything.”
Elsewhere, the team have placed objects in the virtual world only to find that players can’t access them – because they’re out of arm’s reach.
“You need to always think about spatial perception,” said Parenti. “You have to be in the game and physically try it to understand if it works or not.”
One of Untold Games’ most effective tools for spatial perception is, according to Parenti, “completely underrated”: sound.
In traditional game audio, a study-spanning speaker setup simply isn’t necessary to immerse the player in a world – since they’ll always be facing the screen anyway.
“If you do 5.1 Dolby it’s going to be kind of weird, because you’re always going to look at the same position but the sound is going to move,” explained Parenti. “It’s nice, but it’s a bit pointless.”
In VR, by contrast, 5.1 surround sound would be a perfect fit – but developers are restricted to working with the headphones strapped to Rift users’ heads. Untold Games manage to mimic 360 degrees of sound using binaural recording – a method of splitting sound between the headphones’ two speakers to trick the player’s ears.
“It works by moving the frequencies left and right, in a way that actually fools the brain into perceiving movement to be at the top or bottom of your body,” said Parenti. “Up-left, bottom-right or whatever.
“Visual is good, but if you can fool the ear it’s even better, because hearing is a more primitive sense and goes deeper into your brain. So if you fool the ear, you’re actually doing a better job than fooling the eyes.”
There’s an early scene in Loading Human in which the player answers a call: physically taking the phone in their hand, lifting its receiver to their ear, and listening to the noises spill from the in-game object into their headphones.
“It’s a very powerful moment,” said Parenti. “It’s something that was completely unachievable with old-gen videogames.”
Binaural audio has not only worked wonders for Loading Human’s sense of presence, but sharpened its adventure mechanics too. In one puzzle, the developers send the player searching after an object they can pinpoint exactly via the beep it emits.
“There are things that are still missing for virtual reality specific games, I think,” said Parenti. “Everybody talks about the graphics and sometimes audio is almost forgotten.”
Perhaps Untold Games can help the industry remember. They’ve been in contact with Epic about some of the technical solutions they’ve come up with in UE4.
“We usually speak with the Unreal guys and the UDN guys, and some features that we requested will be added in the future,” said designer Matteo Sosso. “So I think we are helping them just a bit to create an engine for virtual reality and not only for ‘old’ games.”
“Virtual reality is a complete paradigm shift for us as designers and as developers, and it has to be a paradigm shift for them too,” added Parenti. “The only way that we can actually improve VR is if we try and we tell them. They improve, we improve and we go that way until we have something that appeals to the mass market.”
Untold Games are convinced the best way into that mass market is through its heart.
“We think that in virtual reality, the most important thing is the emotion that comes from the sense of presence,” said Parenti. “This is what we’re most proud of with Loading Human: we’re working on the emotional side of virtual reality, and everything we’re doing is to empower the sense of presence.”
Loading Human can be pre-ordered now. Unreal Engine 4 development is available to anyone for a $19 monthly subscription fee.
In this sponsored series, we’re looking at how game developers are taking advantage of Unreal Engine 4 to create a new generation of PC games. With thanks to Epic Games and Edge Case.