#1056: Virtual Virtual Reality 2: Manufacturing Serendipity, Multiple Layers of Story, & Innovative Interaction Design

Virtual Virtual Reality 2 has so many innovations in immersive storytelling structure through a very unique experience of nested contexts allowing for character persistence while the feeling of open world exploration. I talk with the co-founders of Tender Claws Samantha Gorman & Danny Cannizzaro about their unique production process that is able to create inherently satisfying interaction design combined with interesting themes, concepts, and philosophical provocations that are explored through a variety of character arcs, immersive worlds, surrealistic and weird art aesthetic that consistently defies your expectations, and an amazing soundtrack from independent musicians who deliberately cast as some of the main protagonists within this story.

I had so many amazing serendipitous moments within this experience that felt so magical. But at the same time, there’s a certain amount of messiness of having different layers of interaction design, narrative design, and then individual character loops that sometimes collide in conflict with each other. I found that I needed to turn on the captions mid-way through the experience because I was missing too many narrative beats due to some of those collisions, but the end result of manufacturing those magical serendipitous and fortuitous moments made it all worth it.

VVR2 is shipping with a range of bugs, some of which were game breaking bugs for me that required me to start a chapter again. But Tender Claws hopes to ship another update within the first two weeks, and so I recommend either a bit of patience, or perhaps waiting for a first update before fully diving in. Because of the open world nature of exploration in some of the chapters, sometimes I hit some dead end ends that required me to stop the game and start the chapter again. Sometimes that chapter restart helped to trigger a section that wasn’t originally triggered or rendered parts of the world that weren’t correctly rendering, or sometimes it would start me at just the right place to help me know what to do next. There are a lot of times where instructions are given verbally through the dialogue and if you miss it, then you may not know what to do next. Sometimes those instructions are repeated and sometimes they are not, which led me to playing chapter again to hear the instructions more clearly. This is another reason why I decided to turn on the captions as there’s a lot of character dialogue that’s happening while you’re moving around the world or happening simultaneously.

Overall, I really, really quite enjoyed my 15-20 hour playthrough as the story was exploring lots of interesting themes around death, loss, grief, virtual worlds, data ownership, public commons owned by private companies, evolving company priorities & pivots, capitalism, AI, merged consciousness, and living a meaningful life.

There’s also so many creative innovations in this piece that I unpack a bit more with Gorman & Cannizzaro in a conversation that I had with them last Friday after I had finished the first 7 or 8 (out of 20) of the chapters within the experience. I’ve since completed the experience, and very much enjoyed the overall journey that they took me on. We do unpack certain thematic and interactive aspects of the experience and their creative process, but otherwise keep it fairly spoiler-free for the actual story of the experience. VVR2 releases today on Oculus and will release on Steam on February 17th with a bug fix update expected within the first couple of weeks.


This is a listener-supported podcast through the Voices of VR Patreon.

Music: Fatality

Rough Transcript

[00:00:05.452] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast. Hello, my name is Kent Bye, and welcome to The Voices of VR Podcast. So in today's episode, I have the creators of Tender Claws talking about their new experience called Virtual Virtual Reality 2. So Tender Claws has been one of the most innovative, immersive storytelling creators that have been in the industry with Virtual Virtual Reality 1, with TendAR, with Under Presents, and then The Tempest. They've been pushing the limits of what type of immersive stories that you can do within the virtual reality medium, and also giving this sense of open-world exploration. They have a keen focus on interaction design, as well, and how interaction design meshes with the worlds that they're creating. Also, they're just really great writers and funny and irreverent and just this kind of weird indie art vibe with lots of amazing worlds that they're creating with a wide spectrum of aesthetics and music and story characterization and diving into interesting ideas. Virtual Reality 2 releases today. It's got about 10-15-20 hours worth of gameplay and story. It depends on what you're really interested in, because there's quite a lot of different aspects to this piece. It's releasing today. There are some game-breaking bugs that I think they're still in the process of fixing for the first couple of weeks that I personally ran into. I can talk about more of that at the end. But I think overall, this is an amazing experience. I just really, really enjoyed it and found myself really captivated by not only the story that they're telling, but also these different worlds and the interactions that they're exploring, as well. In this interview, we'll be talking more about their process and the generation, and not really getting into too many of the spoilers or specifics of the experience, because I think it's an experience worth experiencing in their own right. In fact, you can probably stop listening right now and just go play the game for a little bit and come back and listen to it. But I wanted to just dig into how they were able to create this experience, because it's unlike anything I've ever seen in VR, especially running on a Quest. It's pretty amazing that they've been able to create what they've been able to create. So, that's what we're covering on today's episode of the Voices of ER podcast. So, this interview with Samantha and Danny happened on Friday, February 4th, 2022. So, with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.

[00:02:17.556] Samantha Gorman: Hi, I'm Samantha. I am one of the co-leads and founders of Tendercloth, and I do a lot of the narrative design, writing. I'm also a professor at Northeastern.

[00:02:31.319] Danny Cannizzaro: And I'm Danny, the other co-lead of Tender Claws and working more on the shader side when I'm hands-on, but both of us kind of, yeah, lead the projects at Tender Claws.

[00:02:43.427] Kent Bye: Right. Maybe you can give a bit more context to each of your backgrounds and your journey into immersive storytelling.

[00:02:49.452] Samantha Gorman: Sounds good. So I'm coming from actually a background in conceptual poetry and writing and I started working in VR in 2002, mainly because I was interested in getting off the page and thinking about the constraints of language in space. So through various experiments with that and dance, it led me after many years into thinking about game design and user interaction and I guess immersive, you know, more like full narrative experiences. You know, we've worked together for 15 years and we've done projects on other platforms and VVR was our first long form VR project.

[00:03:26.972] Danny Cannizzaro: And yeah, and I come originally from like a painting and that led into animation and that led into like flash interactive back in the day and then doing other interactive art projects and installations. Samantha, I've been collaborating together for over 15 years now before we were working on projects and art installations, even before we kind of formalized it as Tender Claws.

[00:03:51.850] Kent Bye: Great. And so you are going to be releasing a brand new experience called virtual virtual reality too. And it's a sequel to the virtual virtual reality, which came out, is it 2016 or 2017? 2017.

[00:04:08.405] Danny Cannizzaro: It's hard because I think a lot of our projects start in one form and then like go to another form. And so we had like, we had a little demo of like the core idea of tossing on headsets as early as 2015, but then when it actually came out on Daydream might've been late 16 or 17.

[00:04:26.538] Kent Bye: Well, I do remember being in LA and seeing a sneak preview of what you were calling like Scottsdale. There was the mech mechanic that was at the first look at Kaleidoscope in Los Angeles in 2017, got a chance to see the beginnings of this world, but maybe you could help set the stage as to this world that you've created and this experience of virtual, virtual reality too.

[00:04:50.065] Samantha Gorman: Sounds great. Yeah. So actually at first look, you know, there was parts of it that we had shown, you know, at first, like that was the one time that we had shown it. And, you know, we had started this project before the under, um, it predates the under and, uh, you know, I can start on some of the inspirations and then Danny can, villain as well, but we tend to do things that, you know, amuse us. And, you know, because we're also coming from media studies, we're interested in like concepts that are in the zeitgeist, right? So we knew that we wanted to do something with like the idea of virtual pearls and, you know, what happens if a, you know, a virtual world shuts down and, you know, we're looking at the real outpouring of grief and the combinations of things like Club Penguin and Sims Online. It's like the jumping off inspiration.

[00:05:34.365] Danny Cannizzaro: And yeah, and the name Scottsdale for this project actually came from the real life city of Scottsdale, which is kind of like a retirement utopia. And so like this project became about trying to create a utopian, what does it mean to create like something that's like a utopia and Scottsdale is kind of famously the home of a lot of the real life cryogenics facilities. And it's partially because it brands itself as the most livable city. That's the official city slogan. And they have a really stable power grid. And so I think we were especially thinking about all these ideas of, yeah, created utopias, retirement, virtual space, um, whole brain emulation and uploading.

[00:06:14.253] Samantha Gorman: Yeah.

[00:06:15.200] Danny Cannizzaro: And so in the game Virtual Virtual Reality, it kind of positions the player as doing these like gig labor, emotional support for AIs under this company named Activitude. And like one of the things that has interested us throughout our time in VR is kind of how quickly the discourse and the hype cycle and the companies pivot from one thing to the next thing. And everything's always just immediately out of date. And it's just a feature of new mediums where it's not like film where things can stick around in a stable form for a long, long time. So the world of activity has pivoted between virtual, virtual reality one and virtual, virtual reality two. And the world of Scottsdale is a utopia where humans are no longer working for AIs, but can kind of live together as equals with AIs and can even merge and share consciousness.

[00:07:04.443] Kent Bye: I've had a chance to play through probably around seven or eight of the 20 chapters. I kind of ran into some motion sickness issues for myself navigating the mech. But once I figured that out, I think after the fifth chapter, I was able to find moving around that was a lot more comfortable. But the structure of this piece is interesting just in the sense that it's these 20 different chapters and you're saying around 10 hours worth of content, you said you wrote around 600 pages of a script. So I'm just curious what your process was, you're starting to build this, if you're writing the script first, or if you're building some of the different mechanics and then iterating to see how that plays in. So what was your process of generating this experience?

[00:07:47.606] Samantha Gorman: It's always an iterative process for us. And I think the concepts came first, you know, and what we found funny or wanted to explore. And then there was in that first look, you saw some, and Danny may be able to, you know, we may have different memories of it. It was a while ago. And the first look you saw was then like, you know, iterating with mechanics. And then, you know, there's a little bit of story design and then it goes back and forth and mechanics. And then, you know, there's scripts and there's a, it's just, it's never a straightforward process, like writing a screenplay.

[00:08:19.433] Danny Cannizzaro: Yeah, I think like Samantha said, it bounces back and forth. So we had the big kind of general ideas. Then we had that prototype where you could play around as the mech. And then we kind of let it sit there. We worked on the under presents for a good while. And then when we came back to it is when we kind of really dove into making the full script scene by scene and working on that. And it still continued to iterate even through the voiceover progress. We recorded like most of the VO as scratch out, like with just our devs and us filling in the voices. And then we put it in and we play it and we change stuff. And so there's a lot of back and forth, even after there's a script.

[00:08:58.124] Kent Bye: I think I remember at the time to 2017, there was a shutdown of alt space. I don't know if alt space was also a part of the inspiration for the shutting down of the virtual world and then it got resuscitated. So yeah. Was that also a part of the mix of

[00:09:12.563] Samantha Gorman: Yeah, we were looking at all sorts of virtual spaces.

[00:09:16.011] Danny Cannizzaro: But yeah, that was definitely like, yeah, one of the big VR kind of like news pieces as we were like coming up with this mech idea. And it kind of like those two parts of it came together, but virtual virtual reality one ends, like one of the endings of it is the player is uploaded into like Chaz's conscious. And there's this little 32nd to like 45 second gag where like Chaz is calling out directions to all the like roommates and saying how much you're going to love it. And you're gonna love ping pong and wings night. And that just seemed like a, a fun place to start in terms of like being able to like have to deal with a shared consciousness and like a roommate kind of situation. And that combined with the fact that in VR perspective switches just work so well, scale works so well. And so we really had this idea that like your body could embody this mech, but then you could hit a button and go to just being a tiny person at the controls of your body, having to deal with like interpersonal roommates in your mind space and going back and forth between those two rays of existing in the world was an interesting starting place for like interaction standpoint.

[00:10:19.927] Kent Bye: Yeah, I thought that was really effective. I mean, you already started to push forward this inception type of experience in the first virtual virtual reality, one where you're putting on the glasses and you're going into another reality, but to be able to have your embodiment where you're controlling the mech from the outside, and then you are inside of the mech. I thought it's a very interesting to do that context, which, and you know, I guess one of the things I wanted to point out from a immersive storytelling perspective is almost like this. spatial audio ASMR quality of the characters that are in your ears speaking. And I'm curious if you could maybe expand upon that in terms of the this narrator that's kind of all around you and this kind of ASMR aesthetic.

[00:11:02.118] Samantha Gorman: Yeah, that was pretty intentional. I guess you could say there's a literal level that's about ASMR. And, you know, I guess part of it is, because I was interested in immersive audio. So then I've been trying more, like more and more over the past few years to get into ASMR. And I'm really interested in like the ASMR, you know, every medium has its sense of tropes, right? ASMR tropes and all of this stuff. So we kind of, you know, brought this ASMR health wellness type, you know, like scene into the game. And then, you know, there's explicit and hidden ASMR, I think. But even the rest of it, yeah.

[00:11:33.152] Danny Cannizzaro: Like you have, even when you're existing as the Mac, you basically have backseat drivers or these like little voices in your ears, kind of commenting and narrating your journey through the world. Yeah. I mean, it's, it's a, it's a, it's a, it's a, it's a, it's a, it's a, it's a, it's a, it's a, it's a, it's a, it's a, it's a, it's a, it's a, it's a, it's a, it's a, it's a, it's a, it's a, it's a, it's a, it's a, it's a, it's a, it's a, it's a, it's a, it's a, it's a, it's a, it's a, it's a, it's a, it's a, it's a, it's a, it's a, it's a, it's a

[00:12:03.567] Kent Bye: Yeah, well, I guess as you're constructing this piece, what I found is that there's often a lot of times you'll be given a clue as to what to do next. And then sometimes I will either forget that clue or I'll reach a roadblock. And then I'm wondering, to what degree do you have different interventions that are also planned out into this piece? Cause there's certain puzzle like elements here that are in this experience. And sometimes you're exploring around, but it feels like an open world exploration, but it's also somewhat linear in its structure. So there's sometimes a place that you need to go, but sometimes I found myself being confused as to whether or not I was going the right direction. So I think you, you did a similar thing than virtual, virtual reality one, where you give this illusion of an open world exploration, but it's really quite linear. And so, yeah, I'm just curious to hear a little bit more about constructing these levels that still have that linear through line, but still at the same time, give some aspect of being able to explore around a space.

[00:13:02.768] Samantha Gorman: Yeah, there's definitely different levels that take that to different ends of the spectrum. And I think that is one of the hardest, because when people think about interactive narrative, it's always usually about branching narrative, and writing branching narrative, but like the type of narrative that I'm trying to really work towards, and I think we both are is like, ones that are agency of exploration and open world while still also crafting the beats of a story. And I mean, as I work in this more and more, there's different things where I think is more successful or less successful. But the process is very much knows that. And that's why there's a large script. It's not necessarily like it's a large linear script like watching an animation. It's because there's all different types of possible responses and areas. you know, we've talking about different types of guide systems where we may or may not implement, but if Danny, if there's anything you want to add.

[00:13:59.254] Danny Cannizzaro: Yeah, just, I think very similar to VVR. One, one thing we do in this game is kind of we switch up kind of like both the interaction mechanics and we keep either adding new things that contextualize it, like the first 35 minutes or something of the game, like you don't even have a mech, like you're just existing in the Scottsdale and then you get the mech. And then all of a sudden you get a very different way of moving through the world. And once you get that, the level that precedes that all of a sudden is much more open where it goes from being kind of like you're going to be in room A to room B to all of a sudden you're dumped in this giant wide open topiary space where you can kind of go wherever you want. And so we do play with areas that open back up, but the overall structure of the game is very much linear. Like this chapter will happen and then you'll go to this chapter and the major plot points of each chapter will unfold in a scripted way.

[00:14:50.638] Kent Bye: playing these games, it's always hard to tell if there are branching or not, or do you have much branching at all in this experience as you go through it?

[00:14:58.659] Danny Cannizzaro: I think a lot of our games and our style narrative telling is not about making it into like a strong choose your own adventure type thing. Like there's usually a pretty specific story. And so it's more about making the world and the characters in it feel responsive to you and to the decisions. that you make and to the tools that you're given. So if you're given like a vacuum tool, we want to go and make sure that you can vacuum stuff up at pretty much any space. Or if you're given the ability to go in and out of the mech, we want to keep that really consistent. So it doesn't feel like you're performing interactions at very scripted moments, but you're using a tool set to explore a space. But it's more about that than it is about like, for us at least, about is character A going to go down this plot point or character A going to do this completely different thing like a telltale game or something?

[00:15:51.616] Kent Bye: Yeah. One of the, I mean, there's a lot of striking things about this piece and everything from the art design and the character development, the story and the music, you know, as you start to piece this together, what comes first? So obviously the story is there as a foundation, but then do you start to do the, art design, and then the character design, and then the music is giving a whole other vibe to the experience. And so as you're starting to piece it all together, maybe you could talk about the process of developing these worlds and the characters and the, and the overall aesthetic and the music that's going along with it.

[00:16:25.254] Samantha Gorman: Yeah, I feel like you might be able to get at something close to it. So we tend to do processes sometimes differently for each of our games or experiences, like things that are what it calls for. You know, it's more art than science per se, but you might be able to get at something closer, but structure by reading in between both of our processes. You know, for me, I think I usually start with like a concept or theory or message or thing I want to really say. And then I think about how that could be embodied through characters and characterization. And I usually kind of, I don't know, like develop characters and character backstories. And then from there, like use that to think through what an outline could be and somewhere in between the characters and the outline. Sometimes that gives rise to like character art development and then, you know, themes give rise to the art style. Yeah.

[00:17:24.316] Danny Cannizzaro: I remember while Samantha, yeah, I was working on some of the characters and backstory. We were watching like a lot of, those very utopian kind of like things like hollow lens and other like tech conference, like videos where they, they, their future vision videos where like Microsoft will create, like, this is what it's like to open up a shoe store in the future. And like, they all have a very specific aesthetic about them.

[00:17:48.822] Samantha Gorman: So like, yeah, that's, I think that was a huge inspiration actually. That's true.

[00:17:53.564] Danny Cannizzaro: is some of these funny just kind of visions of like, you can make any utopia you want, and they all kind of end up looking a little bit like this. And so we started playing with that. And so the Scottsdale Plaza was like some of the early things. We had different versions of it, but I think that's where a lot of the art started was like, okay, what does this look like in its glory days? And then the rest of the game is like, it just glitching out and getting weirder and like more and more just kind of this like jumble of like digital detritus. But yeah, we started with playing with what different versions of that could look like.

[00:18:23.342] Kent Bye: Yeah, and there's quite a diversity of aesthetic design choices throughout each of these different levels as well as I was able to kind of skip around a little bit and check out some of the different scenes and you know, there seems to be a pretty wide range like I feel like you're taking me on a journey through a lot of different types of aesthetics and worlds as you go through here, like different color palettes, even as you go through each of these worlds. And so are you prototyping these out and like gravity sketch or unity, or how do you laying out these worlds and then translating them into like even being optimized to be able to fit into a quest experience? Because I feel like there's something about the iteration of your process over the everything from virtual, virtual reality to the end of presents into the virtual, virtual reality to where there's a progress of being able to develop all these different systems. But it seems to be a pretty well conceived of worlds that have a lot of stuff going on, but still running on the quest, which I think is quite impressive. But what's your process of prototyping out those different worlds and aesthetics?

[00:19:27.937] Danny Cannizzaro: Yeah, so we actually, we have built up kind of a suite of, we're in Unity and we're working in a variety of 3D programs. Some of our artists use 3D Studio Max, some of them use Blender, some of them use Maya, but it all ends up in Unity. And we've actually built kind of a set of tools in Unity that we use to do a final pass of like combining everything together so that we have a lot of flexibility of taking like individual objects, laying them out as like, different style levels. I mean, there's a lot of just, this is a weird digital university. You can have giant hamburgers. Like we play a scale of a lot of things. It's not just a cactus garden. It's a cactus garden where the cactuses are each the size of the building. And then in Unity, we're able to combine it down into like a number of smaller meshes, even do some stuff like create auto wads so that when things are far away, it's like optimized and down. Cause yeah, getting something like this to run on quest is, is a challenge. Like the worlds are pretty big and there's a lot of stuff in there and we do a lot of fancy shader effects. We do a lot of stuff in the shader cause that runs faster. So a lot of like world distortion and a lot of the pretty effects are done on the tech art side.

[00:20:38.380] Samantha Gorman: Yeah. I think like Danny and our tech art team are crazy. Like, you know, that just in my opinion is that they've been able to like consistently do these things across projects.

[00:20:48.022] Kent Bye: Yeah, yeah, I think that feeling of awe and wonder and exploring these different worlds, I think, is the quality of the experience that I have consistently throughout this experience as I go through these vast worlds and have things that I've never seen before. And I guess it's what it feels like is like calling back that weird indie art that is just not like all the, any of the other experiences that I've seen that's out there. And so I appreciate that being able to, to go into these worlds and see not only these characters, but these worlds that are trying to constantly pervert my expectations. And so, or have a little twist on it, like having a croquet ball has legs that's walking around or, you know, these kinds of things that I think of it as this spectrum between order and chaos, where you're not so ordered as it to be completely predictable. And it's not completely chaotic, but it's somewhere in that sweet spot in the middle that kind of stimulates my mind in a way that has all this novelty that I'm not quite expecting, but it's delightful in a certain way. So I don't know how you manufacture that, but it seems to be pretty consistent throughout this experience of that kind of weird indie art vibe.

[00:21:53.638] Samantha Gorman: Yeah, I think that's, um, I think that's a beautiful description of where we hope to be, you know, it's like the sweet, that sweet spot. I'm not really sure how it happens.

[00:22:04.967] Danny Cannizzaro: I think some of it comes down to production process. Like we now across these projects, we've worked with like a pretty consistent team or core team of like people that like are all very talented artists and like game makers in their own rights. And I think, One thing that is maybe a little bit unique about our process is that we don't have a very super laid out concrete end goal, but we do let people kind of take ownership of different spaces and take it in weird directions that like Samantha and I as like game leads wouldn't necessarily like have thought of from the start. And then what some of our unique strengths are in that collaging it back. And so letting this thing kind of breathe and go out in weird directions where you might have like a, all of a sudden this like larva tournament, I don't know if you've gotten it, but like a larva arena tournament where you're collecting larva to like battle them in this competition and then like figure out ways to take threads of that and tie it back in. Or there's this character Dewey who started out as just a bad date in the early section, but like by the time the game was shipped, ended up being a possible profit like in this universe. and like that was just like just followed through threads and then we cast old man Saxon who's this like amazing rapper and like he took it in a different direction so like there's these things that we do let there be a little bit of chaos and then we try and weave it back together not to perfectly tie together but to like tie together enough that it feels like it's kind of working towards um a whole

[00:23:37.187] Samantha Gorman: I think the larva fight is a great example because like that was a case, um, you know, the Coliseum fight, it was like a, you know, a side note or a mention or had two lines. And then now it's, it became a huge scene because one of the devs got really into the larva Robin. And then she like made this elaborate Viking funeral and like elegy that just like came out of nowhere and we're like, cool.

[00:23:58.674] Danny Cannizzaro: And she wrote that whole thing and like sent it off to the writers who were like, I'm not going to touch this. This is perfect. All the way through. So, yeah.

[00:24:07.724] Kent Bye: Yeah, as I was playing through, I think probably the other big impression I had of this experience was the unique embodied interactions that you have in this experience where you're controlling the mech, but in the process of controlling the mech, you're kind of moving your hands through space to be able to grab different things and to be able to turn it, to be able to control the acceleration, to be able to jump. And so each of those requiring me to kind of move my hands in different coordinated fashion and also just having things that are vacuumed up or punching things. I mean, there's a certain amount of either I'm driving the mech as a person or I'm embodied as the mech and I'm able to teleport around. So I feel like that the interaction design is also something that is unique to this experience in the sense that some of the interactions of just like sucking up leaves is an example of like the brushes. It's just, it felt fun. It was like, I was asked to be able to clear out this whole maze of different brushes. And I'd find myself just kind of meditatively going through and just sucking up all the leaves. And it, it was something satisfying about those interactions and those mechanics that, you know, I guess that's a challenge of some of these VR experiences is like to come up with the interaction design that feels Inherently satisfying. I think of like half-life Alex of like the gravity gloves as an example. And there's similar kind of things where you're grabbing things, but that just by the process of moving around in this world and interacting with it, even if there's no goal, just to kind of play around with it. I felt like that there's something about this world that you've been able to create that also has these interactions that inherently just feel satisfying.

[00:25:45.430] Danny Cannizzaro: Yeah. Yeah. Thanks. I think we, we definitely are always trying there. We care a lot about that, that end kind of game feel of yeah. Like how does, especially in VR where that's one of the unique things to take advantage of in the medium is like figuring out different ways of making you move or like, we like the idea of like, trying out the Mac and trying something that you had to do bigger gestures, but then like in the development, it ended up being a little bit too much to make you do that the whole time. So we developed this other way of moving around and tried to find a nice balance between those two. And I think we do put just a lot of thought into just trying to make individual interactions feel as good as possible.

[00:26:22.663] Samantha Gorman: I think that's the type of thing that isn't, I mean, maybe I'm wrong, but in the longest development. So like, you know, you saw it start and then it probably didn't get locked until like, you know, even before release, you know, that's the time. So that's the type of thing like for the interaction design, like so much thought and evolution gets put into it. You know, we usually did like sometimes a timeline of years and if it feels easy or fun, that means it's been deceptively hard to maybe do.

[00:26:55.473] Danny Cannizzaro: An example of that deceptively hard is just the basic premise of this, where it's like a Mac. like that's walking around, but that mech is a whole kind of like environment you can walk around to. So you're steering and you're piloting this mech, but there's a whole world and there's like six rooms or 10 rooms that you can like walk through and they're all connected and elevators. We originally just did it as like the actual object moving through space, but the physics of doing that would go crazy or wouldn't run on any of these low devices. So we ended up, um, having to create a whole simulation of the Mac off to the side. And it's really like the Mac does not actually move at all. And it's entirely in the shader that it makes it look like it's right in front of the camera at the whole time. And so there's lots of these little things and then getting the transition as smooth as possible took forever to get feeling as smooth as possible to hopefully the point where you don't notice them.

[00:27:44.456] Kent Bye: Yeah, it's a pretty seamless process of incepting into these different layers of reality that I think is that within itself was pretty satisfying to go in between those two different worlds. I did find for myself that I have a number of different motion sickness triggers. One is which the bouncing up and down is something that gets me extremely motion sick. And then turning when I'm controlling the Mac, I usually do snap turn, but there's a smooth turn that also gets me really motion sick. So for the early levels, it was kind of rough going until then I realized that if I kind of squint my eyes, I was able to mitigate some of those different effects. And so I know that there's some aspects of reducing the field of view and trying to do that. I mean, in some ways, having a cockpit usually is a mitigating factor of some of those things, but I found that the cockpit wasn't. out in front of me to be able to create a stabilized field of view and that it kind of still made me motion sick. So I think I personally had a little bit of trouble getting through the earlier chapters up until the point when I could actually teleport within the mech and then I was fine because I could just not have to rely upon that locomotion mechanic because it was making me pretty sick to the point where I had to like stop playing a few times. So I know that there's some motion controls that are in there, but I also feel like that's if there's probably one area that could continue to be tweaked and modified, it's probably locomotion comfort options when it comes to some of those things, because I really enjoyed the story and I was almost like pushing myself past my own personal limits just because I wanted to like get past a level. Like I know my motion sickness triggers pretty well, but even in this, this was such a new thing that I wasn't catching it soon enough until like, you know, I was playing today and then I was able to kind of like have a theory as to what things were going to make me motion sick. And I think that's a challenge because each person has their own sensitivities and their own motion sickness triggers. And because of the novelty of some of these different locomotion mechanics that you have in here, it has a possibility of people not finding a sweet spot for their own selves to be able to work through some of those things. So that's at least what my experience was. But after the fifth or sixth chapter, once you're able to teleport from within the mech, then that mechanic was like my savior, because otherwise it was, uh, it was kind of rough going for me.

[00:30:00.293] Danny Cannizzaro: Yeah, I think, and I think speaking to what you're saying, like one thing we found in VR is just different people's triggers are very different. They're not always consistent. Like some thing will, certain aspects of movement will affect certain people much stronger than others. And so, yeah, we have been trying to like add options in terms of like what types of motion you can turn on or off, whether it's like smooth motion joysticks that get to you. And we have a reduced one for the Mac, but I think you're right that that's probably something we'll, we'll keep listening to feedback and maybe add an option that just like makes the cockpit even encroach a little bit more on you or put, keeps up some grid lines, a little extra stuff like that, I think is always giving the player the ability to like tweak it to their own comfort level. I think it's important.

[00:30:44.655] Samantha Gorman: It's interesting. Like, for companies like us who has an audience that's mixed across them, like people play a lot of games. And like, even like, you know, like you're really used to VR, you know, and I guess what I'm trying to say is like something I've learned that's interesting is like the different way people view different controls. Like, I think it was in the under where we originally didn't have Strafe based on observations of things we had seen at Sundance. And then a bunch of our audience who does play games really wanted Strafe. So there's always these things that like evolve or change.

[00:31:15.795] Kent Bye: Yeah. I mean, even when I first started into VR, I could not do like smooth locomotion, but now that's my preferred method because it gives me more of a consistency as I'm moving through a world. And so I guess the comfort options that you have, it's either you want the smooth locomotion or the comfort settings, which is that you can do teleport only. So, which I guess the comfort option there reduces some of that bounce and other things that maybe I'll, I'll try and see.

[00:31:41.142] Danny Cannizzaro: Pro tip, so if you switch to the comfort option, it turns off the smooth motion on the thing, just as a default, because we figured a lot of people would have those paired. But I believe you can then turn it back on and keep the comfort mode, but the smooth data body motion too. So it'll flip the default of your joystick movement, but then you can override and say, no, yes, I really do want to be able to keep the smooth motion.

[00:32:07.869] Kent Bye: Oh, okay. Yeah. I'll have to check that out. But I think I got to the point where it wasn't giving me as much problems. One of the other things that I think is the quality of your, certainly in under as well as in this piece is the level of music and independent music. And I'm just curious to hear a bit about that process of just even the opening and the song each time I play it, you know, it's just really baller song that's, that's playing there. And maybe you could talk about your process of creating the music that's in this piece.

[00:32:33.575] Samantha Gorman: Yeah. Yeah, I mean, there's something there's, I don't want to give any spoilers about music or future music in some way. So I'm trying to, you know, walk around that. But the general music thing is we, I think we realized we really liked musicals. And then it just that kind of humorous sensibility just started infusing itself more and more to our projects. And of course, like in the under was a natural space. And you know, we met some new piehole curating a lot of amazing New York based acts. And then those songs became really, at least for us, and I think some of the fans listening to them over and over again, became really iconic. And Aaron Markey, who does the song Wet Food, is the person who does the theme song for Scottsdale. We also have, you know, purposely cast the main character. He's an amazing musician, Dakota, who just came up with these wacky lo-fi songs. Danny, I mean, we could go on and on about this, but...

[00:33:22.667] Danny Cannizzaro: Yeah. And I think the other thing is Dakota, who was doing like so much voiceover for, cause they played Gavin, who's like one of the main characters and probably has the most lines of anyone, but like kind of really got to know the character. And so we let them like write the music from that character's perspective. And it became this collaborative thing where we ended up with like a bunch of these kind of like Casio keyboard, like folk electronic, like, diss tracks of the character, like, grumpily complaining about, like, the other roommates, or, like, this is amazing. And we ended up using those just on the shoulders, like, idol routines, where the character will walk onto the mech's shoulder, pull up the Casio keyboard, and just start singing about the other characters in there. And there's, like, little moments like that that I think worked out really nicely.

[00:34:06.053] Samantha Gorman: We very like explicitly and purposely casted independent musicians as voiceover artists too. So there's a bunch of them just, you know, threaded throughout like Dakota and Old Man Saxon and, you know, Aaron.

[00:34:20.120] Kent Bye: Yeah. I noticed there's a page that gives all the credits and there's a number of different actors that I've recognized from, you know, immersive theater actors and the under and, but also just the number of characters and voice actors that you have is also very impressive. I don't like in lots of actors playing multiple characters. And so I don't know if you want to talk about the process of the actors coming in, if they were really getting into these characters or improving or any degree, or if they were just reading through the scripts or what was the process of recording the voiceovers in this piece?

[00:34:51.492] Samantha Gorman: I think sometimes it depends on the actors and having, you know, written a lot of it and then, you know, directed the VO and directed the VO for people that sometimes like Chaz, the person who plays Chaz, I've, you know, worked with for many years, the process can be dependent on the actor. The thing that's actually unique about it, I hadn't really thought about it, is we started VO about when COVID hit. I was used to working in space with people, so it was our first time going remote. It didn't really change too much, but it was just a complication in the process and we had to mail around a lot of recording equipment. It's also a little scary because you can't listen into the studio to the audio, so you have to instinctually feel what might work.

[00:35:37.886] Danny Cannizzaro: And hope that the recording settings are correct.

[00:35:40.192] Samantha Gorman: Like we lost a few good performances. Yeah, we lost like a few days for various things down there.

[00:35:46.842] Danny Cannizzaro: because in the under we were in a studio in New York that could record like six or seven people simultaneously in different little booths. Cause like I had a cast of like 10 people sometimes. And so you be these scenes where like everyone's yelling back and forth. But, um, and this one, we would kind of max out at about like four people at a time on a conference call. And then we'd have to like put some lines in, but it was, it was long. We were doing VO for a long, long portion of the game's development. There's just so much of it.

[00:36:18.029] Kent Bye: Yeah. And the type of characters you have for the voiceover, it's not like you have to do like lip sync for a high level. So it feels like you're able to really have a lot of people say stuff without having to kind of do the other character animation, which I thought was the character designs are also quite unique and have its own aesthetic to them. And so I wanted to ask you, Samantha, because you mentioned that sometimes you're very driven by thoughts or ideas or theories. And now that you've are working part time as a professor, or maybe it's full time, and you're doing two full time jobs, I'm not sure how that is working out. But like, were there any more theoretically driven aspects that you were like, thinking about this larger field of interactive storytelling, and that was a provocation that then led to a certain experiment within this? I'm curious if there's any instances of that? And what were some of those questions or things you were trying to really interrogate? Because I know that your your practice is to put the theory into practice and to kind of have those in dialogue very closely. And so just curious if that was playing out at all within the virtual virtual reality to

[00:37:21.564] Samantha Gorman: Yeah, I think there's definitely elements. It's interesting because there's elements that are, a lot of it informed in what's carrying over. Like, not that you would maybe be able to see at first glance, but my understanding and being conceptually situated in the world of VVR1 is really carrying over in the theme and the contents. And like, it's more like the style and tone of the writing, you know, that is a little different or very specific to these two games. The thing that I was really interested in, and a lot of these concepts I feel I could go really deep, and I think what this game does is still provide at least a surface-like standpoint, you know, of a bunch of different ideas. I was interested in the concept of what is death in the digital age, like digital death and impermanence. And the, I guess, philosophical constant pivoting, you know, and that's something I think Danny brought up and mentioned, but it's really, you know, a story of the first game to this game, to what happened in between of like the identity and the need of industry to constantly pivot. And like, what is the, the human versus the collective good, you know, like the individual versus collective good interest in like what happens if, I think Danny actually said this phrase, but like the public commons is owned. And you know, what does it mean to live in these worlds that are, you know, simulated, that are dependent on sometimes, you know, other resources or hardware or other realities outside of your personal control, I think is interesting.

[00:39:00.803] Kent Bye: Yeah, one of the other things that I've noticed in this piece is just the combination of I'll be doing something or moving around, and then there'll be some narrative beats that are happening, and then sometimes they'll be colliding what's happening in the outside world with the inside world, and they'll kind of clash in a way. But I feel like there's a way in which that you almost have different layers and levels of the narrative that are going forth in terms of what's happening in the outside world, what's happening inside of the mech, you know, like I think of a piece like Half-Life Alex for how there's very much more discreet now as a fighting scene. Now here's a puzzle that you have to solve. Now here's you walking around in an environment and admiring the environment design. And then there's a narrative beat where it kind of has something unfold. And I feel like there's similar kind of gating of that where sometimes everything stops and you're just focusing on the narrative. And then other times there's things that are also happening in the world, but there's also things that are unfolding from a narrative perspective. And so I'm just curious how you start to think about those different layers of things happening and combining those and ensuring that they're not colliding in a way that they're in conflict with each other.

[00:40:10.527] Samantha Gorman: So I think it's a lot of trial and error. Sometimes they collide and like when they collide. So it's the overlapping. There's things that like I think of the writing as intervals. So there might be something that happens, you know, in the outside world and like the interval for, yeah, actually there's a whole subplot that can happen at many different intervals throughout the game, depending on when you do certain actions. And so there's always this element of like chance occurrence in terms of the play experience for overlap. And that is something that is really difficult to write and balance because you'd have to play through so many times. But I mean, there's obvious places that you can fix it. Sometimes you miss it. And there are, I think, more than some other games we've done, definitely, like, discreet, like, all-hands-on-deck-to-story moments that, you know, serve as scaffolding. But I think some of the funnier and interesting moments are just kind of the random, like, weird, like, small humanizing details of the characters when you might not necessarily be fully paying attention to them. And they have different idle routines and dialogue, you know, that they move on their own pace to. I don't know. I mean, this is a really, it's hard to gather my thoughts in one succinct way because it's actually a really big topic and it gets to what is the heart of the challenge of this type of style of writing. Yeah. I don't know. It's a lot of like balance in the way I think about story and the way, you know, for the under presents this laid it painfully bare to me for the multiplayer space was dungeon mastering. So like if you're a lead writer, the main thing you have to do is make space to hold all these things and all these details at once. and try to holistically tie everything together, but also have an idea of timing.

[00:41:55.824] Danny Cannizzaro: from the implementation side, like what you're describing is one of the more challenging things to get right is because you don't want to make it so scripted that you lose like emergent and fortuitous combinations of like these magical moments where the stuff happening inside offsets the stuff outside. And it feels like it's all working together and it feels like a real universe, which is like messy, but like responsive. But at the same time, like you do have to try and prevent things that would be clashing in a way that would take you out of the story. If like, And so we try and kind of like push it towards the desirable mix, but we let there be enough chaos that you can get some kind of random moments inside happening during the outside stuff. Sometimes for the better, sometimes probably for the worst, but, um, on the whole, it's more important to have a little bit of that, um, that freedom for chance. Yeah. I mean, it's, it's a, it's a, it's a, it's a, it's a, it's a, it's a, it's a, it's a, it's a, it's a, it's a, it's a, it's a, it's a, it's a, it's a, it's a, it's a,

[00:42:55.338] Samantha Gorman: It's also like you're not, unless you're the one who is laying out dialogue in Unity and seeing character animations, there's always like a really interesting transition process between what you envision happening and how it's implemented. So I think you know, that is something where I'm definitely more like laid back about it because I've come to trust the people that I've worked with for so long, you know, and like, as I said, like the larva Viking fight came out of freaking nowhere, but it's like an amazing. So yeah, it's really also like what is somehow between the vision on the page and the vision in the game.

[00:43:35.649] Kent Bye: Yeah, well, I have lots of other thoughts I'll probably add in the, in the intro and the outro. I'm about halfway through it now and finish up the game. And, but yeah, just to start to wrap things up here. I'm just curious what each of you think the ultimate potential of virtual reality and immersive storytelling and immersive games might be and what they might be able to enable.

[00:43:57.191] Samantha Gorman: For me, I feel like it's less because, you know, we've studied media as well. It's less like there's going to be specific genres and a specific like, I don't really see the future of VR as like, this is VR and this is our medically sealed world. I feel like it's emblematic of a type of engaging in culture and a type of engaging with, you know, like people use facial computing, but I think it even kind of goes beyond that. And I think immersive storytelling is more of like a shifting and cultural framework for how we tell stories.

[00:44:26.501] Danny Cannizzaro: Yeah, I think building off of that, I think one of the things that interests me most in working in VR right now is thinking about it as the early days of developing the grammar of how we interact with the digital in a spatial context, not just on a screen and whatever the device is. brain-computer interfaces or wherever the technology goes, in some sense, we will be interacting with the digital in different ways. And VR is an interesting place to prototype those interactions. I think I'm always hesitant to try and make big future-end prognoses because it's a little bit antithetical to just the process where, how I work, which is much more finding a nugget of an interesting interaction and kind of following it to where it'll lead rather than trying to figure out where it's going to be and work towards that. So I think a lot of what we do at tender clauses. look at what makes the new medium specific, or if there's a new headset and all of a sudden there's eye tracking, we'll get really into like, well, what can we do now with eye tracking that we could never do before? And trying to find what are the interesting side effects or unexpected consequences of now being in a world that knows exactly what you're focusing on. So I think, yeah, I think that's more of the direction we tend to think in.

[00:45:46.214] Kent Bye: Is there anything else that's left inside that you'd like to say to the broader immersive community?

[00:45:49.838] Samantha Gorman: Um, I don't know. I think we're anxious and excited to have this out. It's our first doing a sequel of something. So that's a new experience for us.

[00:46:01.678] Danny Cannizzaro: Yeah, I think just on that, that was a fun thing is to do something that felt, yeah, like a sequel or got to play with idea of what is the sequel. And I think it really tickled us to take the protagonist of the first game and make them into basically like an aircraft carrier mech that you can like pilot around in the second. So.

[00:46:19.691] Samantha Gorman: Hopefully it stands on its own to, you know, it's enriched by the backstory, but can be played on its own.

[00:46:25.482] Kent Bye: Yeah, it's to me, it feels fairly distinct in terms of both the aesthetic and the different types of interactions and everything. I think it's kind of evolving the medium and also the experience of having like fun little interactions and exploration, but also have the narrative through line that there is a direction and a goal that is forming the architecture of this piece. And, you know, there's not a lot of pieces that I think have as strong of a characters and story that's really driving the overall experience along. And so I feel like you're able to tile those things together in a way that is just really, really fun. And yeah, hopefully it will find its audience for folks to be able to dive in and explore through. It ends up being, you know, 10 hours or more of gameplay. So it's really exciting to get that out into the world. So yeah, Danny and Samantha, thanks so much for joining me here on the podcast to be able to unpack it all and This podcast we're releasing on the day that is coming out. So when you're listening to this, it will be available for 29 99. It'll be on February 10th for Oculus. And then actually a week later for, uh, for steam on the 17th of February. So, but yeah, thanks again, Danny and Samantha for joining me on the podcast to be able to unpack it all.

[00:47:34.293] Samantha Gorman: Awesome. Thank you so much for having us. Yeah. Thanks much.

[00:47:37.299] Kent Bye: So that was the co-founders of Tender Claws, Samantha Gorman. She does a lot of narrative design and writing and has a background in conceptual poetry, which is really fascinating to find out. Danny Cannizzaro has a background in painting, but also does a lot of the shader side and leads projects at Tender Claws with Samantha and also has gone from painting to animation, flash to interactive media. I've remembered different takeaways about this interview. First of all, the experience itself is just a lot of fun. I just felt myself in this space of awe and wonder. There are these amazing serendipitous moments. Like Danny said, they don't want to have it so scripted as to not have the messiness of having these real moments of magic and serendipity. I just remember these moments of sitting on the shoulder and coming up and listening to one of the characters sing a song. I was just like it felt like I was at a concert and that I had just stumbled upon but also Just the overall experience of the characters and the worlds that you're exploring and interactions There is a lot of variation in terms of the different types of interaction design I mean if you look at it as a game that you're killing a handful of different enemies But you're finding new ways of killing them throughout the entire experience which keeps it fresh and interesting If there is one critique, I'd say sometimes the killing of those enemies gets a little rote or repetitive. I feel like some of those different things could have been tightened up. What was really interesting to me was aspects of the characters and the characterization and the storytelling, and how there are the outside world, and then there's the inside world, where it's almost like your home with your roommates. But when you are embodied as the Mech, then you are fully embodied into that world, and you hear your roommates as a part of your merged consciousness, as like an ASMR type of aesthetic, which I thought was really quite effective. So when you're embodied as a mech, it has this feeling of kind of like an ASMR. And then when you go back into the context of the mech, as you're walking around to these different rooms, then it's more spatialized audio. I did find that the sometimes the audio mix was hard to hear what they were saying, and that sometimes it's challenging because you are asked to be going to these different quests and ventures and Very specific, you need to hear what the instructions are. Sometimes those instructions would get repeated if you missed it, and sometimes they wouldn't. I find myself being a little lost. It reminds me of this book by Rebecca Solnit, The Art of Getting Lost. There's a bit of how they're really trying to cultivate this sense of getting lost. Even though that's still fairly linear, there's still pretty specific goals that you're trying to get to. I found myself that I ended up turning on the captions because I just wanted to be able to fully take in all of the different dialogue. The captions, unfortunately, occlude a lot of what's happening in the world, so it makes you feel less immersed within the world as your sense of embodying environmental presence. There's so much of the story that is about the social presence of these characters that I thought it was worth being able to read along. I don't know if people who've ever watched different shows on Netflix or on streaming websites where you turn on the captions just because you end up missing a lot of the different things. I found I had to do that in this experience, which I think it helps to understand the different characters and their arcs and how they're developing over time. It sounds like Samantha is starting with these high-level themes that she's trying to explore, whether it's from concepts of death and that these worlds are outside of your control, that sometimes these companies go through pivots, and then you have these whole entire worlds that are part of people's contexts of their lives, but then they're not in control of that context. It's sort of like this public commons that's being controlled by these public companies and what happens when that gets taken away. That's a sort of large, broad swath of themes that are being explored in this piece. the corporations and the profit motives and the data and to what degree people have ownership of their data. A lot of these themes that are obviously still really relevant in terms of things to be figured out within this future of our digital lives and our degree of agency within that. But the ways in which they're using the interactive design to be able to explore that, as well, I think keeps it fresh. There are some game-breaking bugs that I experienced within at least the press preview. My understanding is that they're actually shipping with some of those game-breaking bugs, unfortunately. For whatever reason they're not able to push some updates until like two weeks after launch Which means that they're gonna be fixing some of these things that are there Which I imagine must be incredibly frustrating to know that there's some game-breaking bugs But not to be able to fix that for whatever reason I don't know the specifics of what's happening there, but I know that there are going to be some things that are breaking. My advice is that sometimes I ran into these dead ends or things where I actually had to stop and then start the chapter again or at least come back, and it would put me into a place where it was the next part of the quest of where I'm supposed to be doing. I did find that that happened a number of times, which is frustrating whenever you have to replay different things. I think for me, the overall wanting to explore these different worlds, there's 20 different chapters, and the story has these characters that are developing throughout the course of that. There's just an overall thrust of the story that kept me coming back to it, despite all my frustrations. You know had to kind of work through those various different bugs so overall the experience like Danny said they don't want to have it so scripted as to be Just kind of wrote, but they're trying to blend this like there's a main story. That's happening There's main interact so there's there's the main interactions you can have then there's different story beats in the main world and then on top of that there's these subroutines of these individual characters who also have their idle routines where they go off and do their own thing and have their own dialogue and so Even though they said it's around 10 hours of gameplay, I ended up spending around 15-20 hours. Maybe some of that is around the bugs that I was encountering, but also some of it was just trying to pay attention to these characters and their arcs. There's just a lot of stuff that's in there. I think there's even stuff that I didn't even see all of. There's some subplots that are involved with Butter that you have other subplots in. I think there's things like that where you can trigger different moments. Sometimes, some of those bugs were actually some of the most serendipitous parts for me. Somehow I had triggered Butter's sequences to go into these headsets with a gray shader in the background and some of the coming out of it was broken. And so I ended up being trapped within these experiences, but it was just such a surreal, magical experience to be able to go into all these different worlds. And it felt like a dream-like quality of going into that. Normally, you wouldn't be able to do as much exploration into that sequence. It ended up being really a serendipitous bug that I quite enjoyed. Anyway, there's that chaos of trying to have things be emergent and responsive to whatever your interactions are, and not to have it be so prescriptive as to how things unfold and what order. Overall, I just really loved this experience and really, really enjoyed it. I hope it finds its home. There's lots of people who are big fans of Tentaclaw with their previous work in The Under Presents and Virtual Virtual Reality. If you haven't played Virtual Virtual Reality 1, it's a classic in terms of an immersive storytelling experience within VR. I think this is doing a lot of other innovations, as well. Just the way that they're exploring the story through these different characters and The characters are themselves abstract enough that when they're talking, they're just bouncing around. You're not seeing high-level animations relative to what the script is. That gives them a lot of flexibility to be able to experiment with what the script is without having to do an enormous amount of production design of the motion capture and the lip-sync and They're just really concerned about the story and the concepts and the ideas and the emergent nature of it all. It is a little bit chaotic and messy sometimes, but I think the result is, it results in those serendipitous, magical, fortuitous moments, as Danny says. So it's releasing today, and it's also going to be coming out on Steam next week. So I highly recommend checking it out. I had a lot of fun playing through it, and I'm actually looking forward to playing through it again just with the captions on. Like I said, you can play without captions, but I think the second time around, I'm going to play it with captions for the whole time just so I can get the whole sense of the character arcs. Now that I know where the story is going to go back again and play it. So. Anyway, that's all that I have for today, and I just wanted to thank you for listening to the Voices of VR podcast. And if you enjoy the podcast, then please do spread the word, tell your friends, and consider becoming a member of the Patreon. This is a listeners-supported podcast, and I do rely upon donations from people like yourself in order to continue bringing you this coverage. So you could become a member and donate today at patreon.com slash voicesofvr. Thanks for listening.

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