If there’s a sensation that comes easy to first-time VR users, it’s discomfort - and an early wave of developers have taken to the technology with the aim of unseating their audience. Valve have experimented with vertigo, and Rift-owning indies are racing to build claustrophobic horror games like Caffeine.
White Lotus are doing the opposite. Rather than accentuate the disorienting effects of virtual reality, they’d rather pitch for peace and serenity. Welcome to the afterlife: it’s got puzzles.
In Xing, the newly dead wake up in the clouds. That’s good news for theists - but potentially bad news for those with a fear of heights.
“We want people to feel really good up there, and that it’s interesting and mysterious,” said designer and artist Koriel Kruer. “But it also is very high. We’re really trying to make sure that you don’t feel scared or sick. We’re trying to take all of that stuff into account when designing environments.”
White Lotus take their role as early colonisers of VR seriously. They know they’re going to leave impressions on people - first impressions about the medium that might stick.
“Our game isn’t about being scared,” said co-developer John Torkington. “You should never feel scared in our game. It’s a challenge to avoid that. Because it’s very easy to naturally go into things that are frightening.”
The White Lotus team harbours a convenient spectrum of tolerances to simulator sickness. While third co-founder James Steininger is “borderline immune”, Kruer is “somewhat susceptible” - and Torkington’s nausea levels lie somewhere in the middle.
“We know when things are getting uncomfortable,” said Torkington. “There’s going to be a huge variety of people trying this game.”
The game they’ll be trying is an exploratory first-person adventure. Players take on the role of a bodyless spirit new to the afterlife, and drift through a series of mystical lands. Along the way, they’ll look for answers to the big questions: what’s this whole afterlife thing about? What are its rules? Is there a moving on? And how do I solve this puzzle anyway?
“We’re not necessarily going for, ‘You’re being tested’, but you’re trying to get a greater understanding of the world,” said Torkington. “And so you explore your environments and you gather up the pieces - fragments, almost, of who you were and what it means to be dead.”
If you think you can feel the influence of Myst descending, you’re right - but White Lotus also cite contemporary inspirations like Portal and The Talos Principle.
“The main difference between our title and the Myst series is probably that we’re not so much focusing on these broad stroke puzzles that encompass entire lands, where you’re running around trying to find buttons and weird switches,” said Torkington. “Ours are more the Zelda dungeon style - although I don’t like to call them dungeons because they’re very open and pretty.”
White Lotus have shot for “serene, peaceful” environments. While Xing doesn’t take place on Earth, per se, they’ve paid a lot of attention to history and “the way things are constructed”.
It’s an approach that’s yielded peaks dotted with East Asian archways and flora; fiery caverns with Anglo-Saxon patterns laced into the stone; jungles peppered with temples from either South America or Stargate. And contrary to common level design, desert doesn’t have to mean Ancient Egypt.
“We’re going for something more unique and fantastical in a lot of instances,” said Torkington. “But we’re trying to heavily ground our artwork in different classical styles of architecture and design.”
Xing: The Land Beyond doesn't yet have a release date. 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 White Lotus Interactive.