There are three parts to memory, as psychiatrists view it: encoding, storage, and retrieval. It’s the kind of language that naturally appeals to game developers. Encoding is the stage where you take in information from the world, converting it for safe-keeping. Then that information goes into either short or long-term memory for Storage. Retrieval concerns the ways we get at it later. It’s also the bit the dementia sufferer at the heart of Zed struggles with.
Inside the head of this ageing artist, you navigate a lifetime’s worth of jumbled memories in first-person. You’re reassembling fragments so that the artist, played by Stephen Russell – the voice of Fallout 4’s Nick Valentine – can leave behind a gift for his granddaughter.
Eagre Games are just now finishing assembly of the game itself. Developed by Myst veterans and published by its studio, Cyan Worlds, Zed clearly draws on the intricate landscapes, puzzles, and character stories of that early CD-ROM smash hit. But it’s also a deeply modern game, built so that it can be played entirely in VR.
The last time we spoke to Eagre Games founder Chuck Carter about Zed, two and a half years ago, it seemed an even more dreamlike proposition – then very much in a conceptual stage rather than a tangible game. Now we’re on the other side of that process.
“We’re locked down feature-wise,” Carter tells us. “Now it’s just tweaking. I’ll be going through all our assets, making sure everything’s up to snuff, and then testing the living crap out of it.”
The team constructed Zed in Unreal Engine 4, which allowed Carter to quickly transfer the images in his head into code.
VR really does encourage you to look. It makes you want to go up to a wall and read what’s written on that note
“If I want to see what something’s going to look like, I can prototype it out in an hour or so,” he says. “I can get a feel for exactly what it is I’m trying to do, the feeling of the space, interactivity, pathing, and stuff like that.”
High concept ideas often don’t survive the rigours of game development, in which cut levels can strip the sense from a story and require drastic rewrites. But Zed has, for the most part, emerged as it was envisioned.
“The story is still the same,” Carter says. “If anything it’s gotten better and more well-rounded. We added additional characters to it, which I think makes it even more compelling. The gameplay has changed to to some degree – it’s more compartmentalised in order to make it work better for VR.”
When Zed comes out, before the end of spring 2019, it’ll fully support Oculus Rift and HTC Vive – no small undertaking.
“We had to take on a lot of technical considerations,” Carter says. “It’s taken some design changes. I tried to get as much of the same look, feel, and flavour into it as I had originally planned. A lot of it made it, some got cut. But the changes we’ve made, I think, will really let the environment tell a lot of the story itself, in ways that I hadn’t even envisioned initially.”
Zed’s detailed environments grant the game a pace closer to that of immersive story games like Gone Home and Dear Esther than first-person shooters – but Carter fully expects some players to “fly through” as if it’s Quake. In fact, Eagre Games’s own vice president, Seth Mantye, has turned out to be the perfect test subject.
“Seth is one of those guys that will get into a game and see how fast he can finish it,” Carter says. “He doesn’t believe in stopping and smelling the roses, he tramples all over them.”
The studio has developed a couple of mechanics designed to ease players into rose-smelling, however, including one that reveals information about the object you’re looking at and how it relates to the dreamer’s life. If you slow down to piece together the puzzles, you’re rewarded with glimpses of what it is the dreamer is building for his granddaughter.
Conveniently enough, the act of putting on a headset changes the behaviour of players too. When in VR, they’re more likely to examine the strange world around them. There’s something intoxicating about the tactile exploration the medium enables.
“VR really does encourage you to look,” Carter says. “It makes you want to go up to a wall and read what’s written on that note. There are plenty of places in the game people can examine art and story, and in VR you can get right up to it and put your nose against it, almost. Objects interact differently – you can pick up and practically shove them in your face.”
VR was the biggest technical challenge in making Zed, forcing the team to reexamine its approach to the entire game. It’s led to a disproportionate amount of time working out how to stop players from clipping their heads through objects, to pick one example. But in return, the medium has inspired new depth to the game and its environmental storytelling.
“One thing I like about VR is that, while on PC your point of view is normally limited to a certain height, if you get down on your hands and knees in the headset, you can look under a table,” Carter says. “Now we’re sticking gum underneath tables, putting notes and pictures and all kinds of little things that you can bend over and look at.”
Zed is coming to PC in 2019. Unreal Engine 4 development is now free.
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 Chuck Carter.