#432: Embedding a Story within a Place with ‘Obduction’

rand-millerWhen Rand Miller was a kid, he played Dungeons & Dragons with his brother Robyn where they would go on adventures together exploring and creating imaginal worlds. They wanted to embed that same sense of wonder and awe of exploration and discovery into a videogame, and so they were inspired to create Myst together. They tend to think of Myst, Riven, and their latest adventure game Obduction more as places than games since you can’t die, and you’re learning more about the story of the world as you solve puzzles.


Since the story is embedded within the place, then it’s the place that ends up telling the story. With Obduction, there are 3-4 discrete places that each have subzones, and there’s no set linear path to explore these worlds and discover each part of the story. This non-linear storytelling mechanism means that the story will unfold uniquely for each person as they make choices as to where to go and what to see.

I had a chance to catch up with Rand Miller at PAX West where he talked about his early inspirations from Dungeons & Dragons, their world building process for architecting a place with a story and puzzles, and some of the unique affordances and design challenges they faced making Obduction compatible with Virtual Reality.

Subscribe on iTunes

Donate to the Voices of VR Podcast Patreon

Music: Fatality & Summer Trip

Rough Transcript

[00:00:05.452] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast. My name is Kent Bye and welcome to The Voices of VR Podcast. When Ran Miller was a kid, he played Dungeons and Dragons with his brother who would guide him through these different dungeons. And they had this map and they were able to choose which room to go and explore and then Through the process of exploration, they would co-create this world together. And Ran got so fascinated with this process of creating and exploring these worlds that he wanted to try to see if he could create that within a video game. And so, that's what inspired him to go and create Myst, which was a very unique experience that was a little bit more of a place than a game. So Rand was at PAX West showing off Obduction, which is their latest adventure game that was kickstarted three years ago. And it has VR support, so I have a chance to talk to him about some of his design process for creating this experience in VR, but also the process of world building and trying to balance the three things of creating a compelling place, embedding the story within that place, and then having puzzles that give the user a chance to interact with the environment and learn more about the story. So, that's what we'll be covering on today's episode of the Voices of VR podcast. But first, a quick word from our sponsors. This is a paid sponsored ad by the Intel Core i7 processor. VR really forced me to buy my first high-end gaming PC, and so Intel asked me to come talk about my process. So, my philosophy was to get the absolute best parts on everything. Because I really don't want to have to worry about replacing components once the second gen headsets come out, and the VR min specs will inevitably go up at some point. So I did rigorous research online, looked at all the benchmarks, online reviews, and what I found was that the best CPU was the Intel Core i7 processor. But don't take my word for it, go do your own research, and I think what you'll find is that the i7 really is the best option that's out there. Today's episode is also brought to you by VR on the Lot. VR on the Lot is an education summit from the VR Society happening at Paramount Studios October 13th and 14th. More than 1,000 creators from Hollywood studios and over 40 VR companies will be sharing immersive storytelling best practices and industry analytics, as well as a VR expo with the latest world premiere VR demos. This is going to be the can't miss networking event of the year with exclusive access to the thought leaders of immersive entertainment. So purchase your tickets today while early bird pricing is still in effect at vronthelot.com. So this interview with Rand happened at PAX West, which was happening in Seattle from September 2nd to 5th. So with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.

[00:02:56.146] Rand Miller: So my name is Rand Miller. And I'm with a company named Cyan, and I think we're probably known for, back in the day, the Myst and Riven series. And we have just released Obduction, which is kind of our kick-started spiritual successor to that kind of feeling that Myst and Riven provided back in the day. And the VR version is showing here on the floor, and we're probably going to be releasing it within weeks, I think, at this point.

[00:03:26.220] Kent Bye: Right, and so maybe you could contextualize a little bit when Myst first came out, how it was kind of like, what was new about it in terms of the ecosystem of gaming at that point.

[00:03:36.130] Rand Miller: Yeah, it was kind of unique because we threw out all the starting over parts. You don't die and you don't kill things, which is really bizarre for a video game now and back then, believe it or not. But the idea was you get plopped into a world. I mean, in some ways, we didn't even look at it as a game as much as a place. We were making places. And so you're plopped into this world. There's no cinematic set up, really. There's not a lot of detail. There's some kind of abstract talk about a book. And then you end up on the dock on an island and you really don't know what you're doing. You don't know who was here before, what this place is. And the idea is to explore, just wander around a bit. get drawn into the place, and your exploring is rewarded by you realizing that there is a story here. There's a history to this place. You've gotten here at kind of a pivotal moment, and you have a chance to make a difference and become part of the story. And that same feeling is what we're trying to get with Obduction. It's just a completely different story. It's with modern day technology, because it's the UE4 engine, and it's in VR, And it's meant to provide, though, that similar experience that was kind of a best-selling thing back in the 90s.

[00:04:54.490] Kent Bye: And so maybe you could talk a bit about the process of constructing a narrative based upon the place as well as the objects that are in the place. And how do you make sure that it still makes sense if they don't gather all the parts, or if it can still kind of be pieced together? Or just talk a bit about that process of trying to architect that.

[00:05:13.878] Rand Miller: Yeah, it's a really interesting time trying to tell a story in an interactive environment. Because if you try and do it linearly, you're shoehorning things, because The story comes out of you living in the world, usually, our own story. So the idea behind it all is, I mean, you can go to a movie or read a book and you're going to hear somebody else's story. But I think what we're trying to do is make people become the storyteller, make it feel like we've given them enough of an adventure, like we've put them into this world that has a history and they've come into this key pivotal moment and they make a difference and they become part of the decision making process that the next day they go and oh, My gosh, you're not going to believe what I did yesterday. I kind of saved the world, or whatever. And I think a lot of interactive is that way. The difference is our accomplishments are not about shooting bad guys and getting a bigger weapon. It's more about, well, wait a minute. I have to understand how this system works. Something went on in this world, and there's no people here because they've battened down something for a war. Well, wait a minute. Where are the people now? And who's this guy? And why is he still here? And he wants me to help him. Well, should I help him or not? The more that the world reveals, the more you kind of feel vested in it if we've done our job. And hopefully, at least the initial feedback is we managed to capture a little bit of that again.

[00:06:32.040] Kent Bye: So are there any kind of branches or decisions that you make that kind of alter the course of the narrative? Or is it more of a local agency where you're making small decisions that flavor it?

[00:06:44.287] Rand Miller: No, the narrative is going to be doled out very differently for different people. Because I mean, once you get past the beginning of the game, It's wide open. Some people are going to go to different places. And since the places themselves tell the story, they're going to get it in a different order. Now, if we've done our job well. It just becomes pieces that you can assemble the story that came before you in your head. You start to realize that, oh, now I see why that piece is over here. And oh my gosh, you have these really satisfying aha experiences where your world opens up when you realize that you put two pieces together and suddenly you realize you can go to a different place because of that.

[00:07:25.541] Kent Bye: So if you were to characterize the number of different places with different components of the story, how do you make sense of breaking that up? I mean, if you have different places, how many discrete places do you have?

[00:07:36.404] Rand Miller: Boy, it's hard to break it up too discreetly. We have four major worlds, you know, well, three major and then probably another three smaller worlds. But even within those, there's zones or areas that tell different stories as you travel through them. And honestly, it's like designing these things isn't even a linear experience for us. I mean, we just draw maps because it feels so, I don't know how to describe it, almost architecturally real. I mean, it's all done top-down maps that feel more like a space than, you know, some kind of spoon-fed story. It really does kind of have its own reality, virtual reality to it.

[00:08:21.290] Kent Bye: Do you see that there's any kind of analogs that you're drawing inspiration from? I mean, one thing that comes to mind is the immersive theater experiences like Sleep No More, where they'll have one narrative in a hundred rooms and you can kind of decide which room to be in, but there's a sequential narrative that's unfolding that's looping, and so I don't get the sense that there's a time component here. It's a little bit like you're exploring a physical space in order to learn the story, but Just curious, what type of other storytelling mechanisms that you've seen that you're kind of drawing inspiration from?

[00:08:52.035] Rand Miller: Yeah, it's weird. I don't think the storytelling mechanisms that we've seen are what has kind of driven us through the years. I think it honestly is the world experiences. Well, for example, I mean, I remember playing D&D and my brother DM'd and that was the same kind of feeling it felt very non-linear like we really had a choice you know we were exploring through these dungeons in these places and oddly enough I mean I was inspired to make my own places to explore I still have the drawings and it's a very similar experience like I didn't want to play as much as make places for people to play it you know as much as I enjoyed Lord of the Rings that was somebody else's experience it felt like when I played Dungeons & Dragons, it was I got a chance to explore that and it became my story, not somebody else's. And I just think that's what's driven us over the years.

[00:09:46.496] Kent Bye: Yeah, I just happened to do an interview with Chris Perkins of Wizards of the Coast. He's the Dungeon Master of the Acquisitions Incorporated and really starting to see the parallels between the open world creation process of really collaborative storytelling that's involved with Dungeons & Dragons. The thing that's different, I think, than VR is that it's kind of theater of the mind in D&D, where you're able to allow each of the participants to really collaborate in co-creating the world together. It's kind of a more emergent process. And so it sounds like you're taking some inspiration with that. But yet, at some point, you have to have more of a design aesthetic of building and constructing that story for people to go on adventures and have their own experiences and being able to kind of unfold and discover the story for themselves.

[00:10:29.072] Rand Miller: Right, right. It's this weird kind of balance where we, and well, we have to provide a world that is entertaining. I mean, let's face it, or people would just stop. So we've got to feed enough stuff, even though it feels like you're doing stuff on your own and you're exploring and you have choices, we have to put enough interesting stuff around every corner and behind the locked doors that kind of pull you forward and pull you into the interesting areas and satisfy you enough to keep you going. And so Yeah, it's not like you're building the world, but it does feel like it's packed with juicy things that are just waiting for you to get to. And if we, yeah, again, through the years, we've, you know, it feels like every time we do this, we, we hone it a little more. We started doing kids games that were worlds, but there was nothing to them. They were simplistic and nothing really there. No goals, no story. And gradually over the years, I hopefully we've become better at our craft and we've been able to imbue the worlds with a bit more story and a little more interesting stuff and realize the psychology of how to pull somebody through but still make it feel like they have total control and it's, there's a lot of interesting weaving that goes on in putting all this together.

[00:11:41.722] Kent Bye: I think one challenge with virtual reality is that locomotion and actually moving around can be motion-inducing for some people. And so whenever you're trying to create a sense of a place, which it seems like a lot of what you're doing is creating this sense of being immersed in a space, but whenever you start to teleport around, sometimes that can break the presence of being in that place, but yet you're doing these trade-offs between comfort and then presence of having the place presence. So maybe you could talk a bit about that challenge and trade-off that you've had to do in order designing this experience.

[00:12:11.178] Rand Miller: Yeah, yeah. I mean, it is a challenge. We've got one thing working for us that's kind of amazing. I mean, since we started doing worlds, even our oldest worlds for kids, like the manhole is this old game we started with. They started as I'll describe it as node-based. We had still images that you would see a still image and you would see something in the distance and you would click on it and you would move to another still image. The world was made up of a point-to-point kind of realization. And even our more sophisticated ones like Mist, when it came out in the 90s, we still built on that same thing. It was a very complex still image that When you clicked on it, you would move to the next location. It was all built in a real 3D world, but we just rendered the images as still images. So it was almost like coming full circle for a VR version of Abduction, because we have this legacy of the nodes, of going from a spot to another spot. And in a lot of ways, when people who are biggest fans, who played Myst and loved it a lot, when they go into the VR version, It's going to feel a lot like coming home because that's how they got to know us. And it's a nice place to be. And when that's you, instead of feeling like you're taking a step back, it feels like that's actually a cool legacy to embrace again.

[00:13:31.537] Kent Bye: Great. And so I've done this interview with Alex McDowell, who talks about this process of world building. And it feels like that's a lot of what you're doing here is creating these worlds to explore. So what's that process look like in terms of planning out and really building this world and story within it?

[00:13:48.348] Rand Miller: It's incredibly complex to do the whole thing. And I think it's why it's not done more, frankly, and especially the way we approach it. When we build a world, there's three components to it. the environment, of course, the pretty scenes that you see. And then there's the story, which is, well, what went on here? It's the continuity. Why is this here? And there should be a reason for it. You know, that's the story behind it all. And then there's the friction, which is the puzzles. How do we slow people down where it's just not blah and they get it all and they're done? You know, how do we build a sense of accomplishment, and those three things don't always fit together nicely. They pull on each other, because we can build some really good friction, but it has nothing to do with the story, it makes no sense with continuity, and it makes the environment look like real crap. So you can see where those three things we have to think about. And we think in our worlds, at least maybe our signature, is that we like to balance those three things well. It's not that that makes it right or wrong. I mean, other games can be done by emphasizing one or the other of those. But our hallmark is we like to balance them. With that in mind, that's what we try to do. And they all kind of feed on each other as part of the design process. And so it means that we start drawing a place, this map of a place, and then we put a puzzle in it. And the puzzle is like, well, why is that puzzle there? And it has to feel like it fits. And there's certain amounts of artistic license, obviously, you can take. But then the story has to support that as all. How did that get there? Does it work? Does it look good? Does it support everything? You iterate that process as the world grows, in some ways, before our eyes, even as we're designing it. It feels like it has this life it starts to take of its own.

[00:15:28.902] Kent Bye: Yeah, I think that's one of the big tensions within all interactive storytelling is that tension between having a willful presence for people to be able to interact and express their agency within the environment, but yet at the same time take a step back and be receptive for the story that's being there. And so it's a little bit of like exertion of your will, but also being receptive to what's coming in. And so a lot of games sort of have these context switches where they move to cut scenes or have other ways. How do you see that tension and being able to balance the interactivity with narrative? Is it more of an explicit context shift for you or is it something that you feel like is blended in a certain way?

[00:16:04.233] Rand Miller: No, I mean, ideally for us it's not a context shift at all. We don't want anything to become in the way of this feeling like a place. Even from the beginning, we've shied away from anything on the screen that takes away from this feeling like a world that you get lost in. That's why VR is in some ways really special. We don't do inventory. We've shied away from any kind of frames on the screen. We try not to put up even dialogue paths where you can reply to people. We try to make that feel a little more natural. Now, you know, it's only as natural as not being able to talk somebody on a computer because you can't yet, but we really do try to De-emphasize and take out anything that might distract you from this feeling like a real place So we don't want to shift you into a cinematic. We don't mind bringing a person into it But that should feel natural should feel like they're passing By here and they've got something to say and then they've got something to do and they move on and that's not easy But I think that's what we take pride in and what we've built

[00:17:06.794] Kent Bye: Was there any design decisions that you were able to do or explore that were kind of surprising when working with the unique affordances of VR?

[00:17:14.536] Rand Miller: Yeah, yeah. Well, there were some real general surprises that were kind of shocking because we knew we were doing VR from the beginning, but it was three years ago and there weren't a lot of headsets and they were pretty low quality. So we didn't jump in immediately and check our work, so to speak. So it wasn't until after we had actually done a lot of the design and work in the flat monitors that we got a chance to go into the VR world and when we did we were shocked both in a good way and a bad way. The good way was wow that feels big and it was supposed to feel big and the sense of scale really comes through in VR as anybody who's tried it knows. The bad way was when we missed it. There was one part in particular was a motorcycle that you know on the flat screen it looked perfect. It was great. It looked like a motorcycle that was kind of kludged into a scene that was meant to rotate a giant rock sphere. It was really kind of cool. There's a lot of stuff that's juxtaposed and kludged together in the game. It was until we went into VR and stood next to it and got close to it. It was like, it's a motorcycle for giants. It's like, no, the scale is off. And it was almost impossible to tell that on a flat screen monitor. So it was kind of a a whole pass we had to do in VR to correct those little problems that we weren't even aware of up until we had actually gotten into the world, so to speak.

[00:18:35.767] Kent Bye: So for you, what do you see are kind of the biggest open questions for problems that you're trying to address as your company, Cyan, in terms of trying to create these types of VR adventures?

[00:18:48.154] Rand Miller: Wow. Okay, so the biggest question is not what the creative part is, it's almost like What platform is next? We're at this great, interesting crossroads where VR is incredibly exciting, but it's also a very small component of the installed base. And there's a reality of having to sell your product that means, well, if we spend this much money making it, we have to sell this many units, and VR may not do that. So with Abduction, we get the best of both worlds. We know we're selling a PC version, so we can afford to make it bigger. And I feel like it's going to be one of the larger VR experiences because of that, because we were able to kind of be at the right place at the right time to do both versions simultaneously. But as you move on to VR only, it means that you have to do it at the right time. It's very exciting. And there's really, I mean, my mind gets really excited with all the cool friction and storytelling I can do in a VR world, but it has to be the right time to turn the page so that we make sure we can support that with the installed base. And that's kind of a, you know, a crystal ball to try and anticipate that. I feel like we're pretty darn close. And I think our biggest problem is we're not interested in making small worlds. That's not what we do. We make big worlds. And so we want to make sure that VR is, the installed base is big enough that we can turn that page and really grab hold and rock it from a VR perspective.

[00:20:18.129] Kent Bye: And finally, what do you see as kind of the ultimate potential of virtual reality and what it might be able to enable?

[00:20:25.472] Rand Miller: You know, I, it'd be nice to be able to prognosticate of exactly, you know, where is this going and what will it be? I, since we're standing on the threshold of the, you know, VR revolution, it feels like to me, like I go in and it feels real. It feels like, well, where do you go beyond this? I go in and everything in my body says, well, you're in this place. This is where you are. I think for a long time it's going to do what our other simulators have done, which is get faster and smoother and smaller and more convenient and easier to access. And I think that's going to be a number of years that we kind of tune VR the same way we've tuned our flat screens. And it's kind of exciting because it means it's more accessible. It means more and more people will be able to go down that road, and I'm really satisfied with that for a while. Feels like we've reached a plateau that I'm willing to live on for a long time. It's very immersive and, you know, I could be challenged making some cool places in VR for a while.

[00:21:26.506] Kent Bye: Awesome. Anything else left unsaid that you'd like to say?

[00:21:29.388] Rand Miller: No, it's been great being here. I mean, it's fun with abduction, kind of getting it out to the world for the first time. It's been in the labs, air quotes, for so long that it's fun kind of finally showing it and seeing people's response. And it's been great. I can't wait to have the VR version out as well to really get the response because I think people will love it.

[00:21:50.652] Kent Bye: Awesome. Well, thank you so much, man.

[00:21:52.253] Rand Miller: Thank you. My pleasure.

[00:21:53.996] Kent Bye: So that was Ran Miller. He's the founder of Cyan and the creator of Mist and Riven, as well as the new title of Abduction. So I have a number of different takeaways about this interview is that first of all, I think it's super interesting that one of Ran's inspirations was Dungeons and Dragons and the process of world building that happens. And I kind of did a deep dive within D&D at PAX West this year, where I watched a whole D&D campaign in front of like 3,000 people, did an interview with Chris Perkins, who's this amazing dungeon master and one of the lead story designers for Wizards of the Coast. And so D&D is really kind of like the pinnacle of interactive storytelling where there's a dungeon master who's helping guide the overall arc of the story, but yet it's really a co-creative process where each individual has the possibility to be able to both explore this area but also help create the story. And I think it was that world-building experience that ran had as a kid that he wanted to start to imbue that within a video game experience and so instead of dictating everything for you he wanted to have a more open-ended experience and adventure that you could go on where you could help discover the story and then you become the storyteller. There's this really great insight from Eric Darnell where he told me that The way that he distinguishes film from VR as mediums is that film is a way of telling you a story of somebody's experience, a singular perspective of that story usually. Whereas a VR experience is more giving you that experience and you're able to generate your own stories from that. And I think that's what Rand has been trying to do with Myst from the very beginning is to allow people to have their own experiences within it. And that exact same sentiment is reflected by Rand when he's saying that, you know, when you go and you watch a movie or read a book, you're essentially hearing somebody else's story, and that his intention is trying to make the user become the storyteller, creating this architecture for an experience, an adventure for somebody to go on, so that they can go into the experience and then discover the story through the objects that are embedded throughout all of the different worlds. So the challenge here, obviously, is to architect a world in which you have a free choice to go to any different point and pick up an object and then slowly start to piece together the story. So in terms of a design intention, they're really focusing on three things here. First of all, they have to create the world. They have to create that place that's going to be interesting to explore and look at. Then it's the process of creating that story. What's the backstory? What's the past, present, and future of this place? as well as looking at how to give some challenges for the user so that they're not just receiving the story and being a passive consumer of it, but they're actually having to work for it through these puzzles that are somehow also included within this place and the story. So all these things having to work together. So rather than just kind of feeding you the story in a sequential fashion, you're really kind of free to explore this world and discover it for yourself. So I was also really struck that Ran was saying that this process isn't an easy one. And he's not surprised that more people don't do it just because it does take a lot of insight and energy to be able to construct a place that is able to have that story revealed to you in this way. And the moment that they're really going for is when you're able to take two of these disparate parts of the story and then at some point have this aha moment where you're like, ah, these things go together and that kind of unlocks another piece of the story, as well as your understanding that allows you to go and explore new places. So at the bottom line, this is all about exploration and discovery, but using place as a mechanism for storytelling. So this is perfectly suited, I think, for virtual reality experiences in the future, in that I expect to see a lot more emphasis of creating that sense of place, because when you're in VR, that's one of the things that you're more receptive to taking in the environment, so much more than a 2D game, I think. There's so much more emphasis of creating this illusion of being in another world and in another place. And so the VR version for Abduction should be launching here shortly and I look forward to kind of having my first exploration of this game in VR. I don't want to have any spoilers for playing the 2D version so I'm kind of holding off into having the full immersive experience without having much of any information about it. I did do the demo at PAX West where you're kind of going through one of the environments and they do have these different waypoints where You're kind of teleporting from one point to another point that's kind of like this mini blue beam of light that's coming out of the ground. And you kind of have this node-based navigation that harkens back to a lot of the Myst and Riven type of exploration games where you're moving around at a fixed pace. And it actually gives a lot of comfort. But with that comfort, I think there is a bit of a trade-off from being completely immersed. There's a bit of a break in the sense of place presence when you do locomote. For some people, they're going to suffer some motion sickness from walking around using the controller. So I believe that they're going to have both options available. So for people who have no issues with VR locomotion, then... you may be able to preserve a better sense of presence if you're actually kind of moving around with the xbox controller but the advantage of using the waypoint system that they have is it's going to be more comfortable but you can also just use it with the oculus controller that has a button it's a very lightweight way of pointing and clicking and so they're essentially recreating this point and click adventure by you looking at things and pointing with the oculus controller which is just a very lightweight 2-3 inches long and very simple to kind of hold in your hand and push a button and actually creates a little bit more of an immersive experience if you were to kind of hold a controller. So I'm talking to some of the Cyan employees, they say that's actually a way that they recommend playing the game in VR. One just last thought is that abduction has really come up into being at the right place at the right time. I mean, if you think back in 2013, that was back in the Oculus Rift DK1 days. This is before the DK2 had launched and, you know, a couple of years before the consumer VR headsets had even come out. And so they were starting to work on this VR edition way before a lot of the VR was prevalent and out there. And so it sounds like they kind of went through a number of different iterations of having to kind of learn how to do the VR best practices. When you're doing VR design, you really want to start to actually immerse yourself into VR to be able to do this live interactive feedback. And they had to kind of do a whole other second pass through a lot of the artwork just to change the scale and make it look right. And it's one thing to look at art on a 2D screen, but it's a whole other thing to be actually immersed into the world. And there's all sorts of different issues of scale that are kind of hard to really see until you're actually immersed in VR. So it's not too surprising that they had to do a lot of adjustments. So that's all that I have for today. I just wanted to thank you for joining me here on the Voices of VR podcast. And if you enjoy the podcast, then spread the word, tell your friends. And if you'd like to support the podcast, become a donor at patreon.com slash Voices of VR.

More from this show