I interviewed Yugo : The Non-Game creator Petrit Hoxha at IDFA DocLab 2023. See more context in the rough transcript below.
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[00:00:05.412] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast. Hello, my name is Kent Bye, and welcome to the Voices of VR podcast. It's a podcast about the structures and forms of immersive storytelling and the future of spatial computing. You can support the podcast at patreon.com, slash, Voices of VR. So this is episode number 15 of 19 of Digital Storytelling and Immersive Nonfiction, pieces that we're showing at IFA DocLab 2023. Today's episode is with an interactive game called Yugo, the non-game, by Pietrit Hoxha. So Yugo the non-game is an interactive experience that is trying to replicate the dimensions of like a road trip, but the gaming part isn't necessarily like the main feature. The main feature is that it's a social game where you can interact with other people. So instead of like talking to people on the phone or going on a Zoom call or even connecting to people by playing these first-person shooters like Fortnite, this is an experience where the game is actually like secondary. You're just taking a road trip and it's creating a spatial context for you to feel like you're in a road trip through the mediated lens of a 2D screen, and the central part of the experience is that you're able to connect and talk to somebody. In the context of a festival exhibition, they just had a number of different booths that were spread out throughout the course of the festival, and sometimes not a lot of context to know that the whole point of the game was to to interact with other people if there wasn't anybody there then you sort of like have this game where it's not really a game it's a non-game and so yeah it really works best if you do it with another person and have this opportunity to have a conversation with them so i did have a chance to playing it both ways of just kind of playing as a solo but also it's much better when you're able to actually have a conversation so Anyway, I had a chance to talk to Petri at ifadoclab to get a little bit more context for how and why he developed this Yugo the Nod game and yeah, some of the different experiences that he's seen by releasing this. It's available on itch.io that you can go download it for free and check it out and then yeah, come back and listen to this conversation. So, that's what we're covering on today's episode of the Oasis of VR podcast. So, this interview with Petrit happened on Monday, November 13th, 2023 at EvaDocLab in Amsterdam, Netherlands. So, with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.
[00:02:17.426] Petrit Hoxha: So, I'm Petrit Hoxha. I'm from Kosovo, but currently based in Germany, in Berlin. And I have a background in graphic design and visual arts, but I was always somehow working around games and media art, but yes, now more and more becoming more exclusively involved with games and what I call also non-games that are more like digital experiences.
[00:02:44.266] Kent Bye: Great, so maybe you could give a bit more context as to your background and your journey into making these types of games and non-games.
[00:02:52.703] Petrit Hoxha: I used to work as a UI designer and UX designer but the company where we were working we always had some kind of a game project that we worked on on the side and my first involvement was always like in the graphics and the visuals but more and more I started to think about the game more holistically. And when I made more of a jump was when I was finishing my master studies in Germany, in Bremen, in digital media. And there I tried to work more in games, but always being inspired also by other fields, more like also media art and stuff. I was always trying to find this meeting point with games that don't have to fit the traditional understanding of games, which is like about competition or goals or stuff. But yeah, be more open-ended in how you experience them and how you play with them. And yeah, thinking of them as more also as toys and not just games.
[00:03:55.705] Kent Bye: Great. Maybe you could give a bit more context for the project that you have here, Yugo, the non-game, and how this project came about.
[00:04:02.380] Petrit Hoxha: Well, the idea kind of started during the COVID quarantines, where all of a sudden we were doing all of our communication online. And at that point you could see that communicating only online is way different from face-to-face interactions that you have. And the one thing that was missing out the most for me were these peripheral conversations, these like non-conversations that you have with people when you're like in the same area, same environment and you're often all the parties are involved in doing something and then you talk and then you don't talk but it's different from when you're like sitting face to face and trying to have a direct conversation and these even though they were like peripheral or like not so structured conversations I think they're still very important for the interaction between people So I kind of started with that in mind, trying to create this space where you can have this sort of conversation. And I think the one example that stood out always for me the most was like these types of communications that you have in a road trip. driving for a long time and you talk about something and then you listen to music and then something pops up later and that was missing out from like Skype conversations where you talk about something, go through the topic and then you say bye and then go on with your day. So yeah, I wanted to create this space where you can just hang out with someone, share this virtual car ride. And I tried to put not so many game mechanics there. So for one reason was to remove any barriers for people that don't play games. That's why also part of the reason why I called it a non-game. But also I used to play games with people online during that time and eventually even though you're having like a nice conversation and you get hit by then the actions that you have to take in game like oh yeah now you have to fight like you have to do this and then the conversation stops so I wanted to only have enough stuff just to keep that going.
[00:06:12.982] Kent Bye: Yeah, because I know in the Battle Royale, there's a lot of people who were squatting up and having these conversations where they would be, there's a lot of starts and stops to the action, so there'd be a lot of downtime where you could be with your friends and connect, but then, yeah, the action would start. So in this game, you're essentially, you're in a car, and there's a couple of mechanics where you have to drive, and actually, you know, I found it that it's a little bit easier to crash. Like, you do have to have at least some ability to push forward and move left and right and not crash into the wall. There's another mechanic of just playing radios and having different radio stations that you can listen to and then also the first time I played it there was this ability to basically switch drivers which ended up being this weird almost like violent act of just playing with random people and then all of a sudden I would get kicked out of driving and so I first started playing it at the RT where there was no audio speakers so there was no way to communicate. Here in the Brock Grond location, there's a couple of different installations of this piece where there actually is a headset for people to communicate. But the first time I experienced it, there was no communication. So I was just having the ability to play with these other random people who were also just trying to figure things out. It ended up being this randomly driving and then getting kicked off while I was driving around. But then right before this conversation, I had a chance to play with another person from the XR industry that I know and It did have that quality of being in a car, taking a road trip, and just having a chat. The thing that was different though for me is that because I don't see my hands, I feel like a ghost, and also when I'm driving and I'm a first-person perspective, it's actually hard for me to look to the side. But even if I do look to the side, it's just like a box as an embodiment, and I don't see any embodied representation. So I hear their voice, but I don't see their embodiment. So it actually felt like I was on the phone call with them while driving rather than being in the same car with them. So having a shared embodiment, but also the audio quality was such that there was kind of a cutoff so that it sounded like more like I was talking to someone on the phone rather than a really high fidelity version of the voice that made me be more convinced that I was in the same place with them. It wasn't necessarily spatialized in a way that I would expect it to hear. So it was more disembodied from the location and felt like more of me having a Bluetooth conversation on the phone driving with someone rather than actually being in the car with someone. But the activity provided us this light game that helped facilitate some sort of interaction and for us to talk about when we would crash or something would go wrong, but also just an opportunity to be able to talk and chat without being interrupted.
[00:08:53.955] Petrit Hoxha: One thing that's different from the version that is online is this ability to switch drivers. How it works online is that only the player who's driving can give up their seat. But I felt, having it shown at Amaze in Berlin, I saw the need for also the other people to be able to kick the driver because sometimes there were two booths and someone would sit at the passenger booth and if no one else was playing at that time they could not do anything and they thought maybe oh it's broken or something so it fit more for a festival to be able to just take control forcibly but how it is online it's only the driver can give up their seat And as far as the representation of a person, now we're working on an update which we're gonna focus a bit on that as well. Like at least we're trying to make also like some indication when one of the cubes is talking and then have different shapes or different representation of a person. But still I try not to put video or... Avatars also sometimes can be something cool but I think, at least from my point of view, I thought if I put more of like a video representation of someone, then it would go more to like a Skype call or maybe like an Omegle session, but just in a car. If I try to keep it more at the minimum, it might be this I don't know at the same time I thought you can be maybe more immersed because you're not thinking about the video and you don't think about how yourself are looking like what's your angle of the camera so yeah that's a bit the idea behind it
[00:10:43.918] Kent Bye: Yeah, I can definitely see that and it does have that intimacy of like a phone conversation but having a shared spatial context but you're both essentially able to see the same car although you do have the ability to change camera angles which I feel like is a I felt like a little bit more disconnected when I was in a third-person perspective and I really just preferred the first-person perspective just because it made me a little bit more immersed into this, allowing myself to project myself into that scene a little bit more. But yeah, I mentioned a few things about the audio and I'm wondering if you had considered other dimensions of adding higher fidelity or spatialized audio or I guess in this context we're having different microphones and so there's also the limitation for how good the mic is on the input but also how it's being rendered out in a way that gives it a little bit more of a spatialized or realistic high-fidelity feel of the audio.
[00:11:35.564] Petrit Hoxha: Yeah I think mainly it might be also the equipment that you're using as far as the audio technology that is implemented in the game it's not like something high fidelity but it's kind of standard quality which if you have like a gaming headset doesn't feel so much as a phone call but more like a conversations similar to the others that you use. Even though I got a lot of feedback from people that they wanted it to sound more and more like this phone conversation, especially how it's in the trailer. In the trailer it really sounds like an old phone conversation because for some people it's linked with this like retro car, the 80s car, the 80s radio and yeah I could see how it would fit for some people but yeah so far now I think the only limitation would be the hardware that you're using
[00:12:33.874] Kent Bye: Yeah, it might be a limitation of how it's being exhibited here at doc lab as the headsets weren't like a high quality So maybe the audio quality was negatively impacted with that But you had mentioned that you showed it at amaze festivals or any other place that you showed it first or was that the world premiere there?
[00:12:49.061] Petrit Hoxha: At AMAZE it was the world premiere. It also then showed at BLON in Lithuania, this animation festival, but there it was on the AMAZE game showcase. But here in DocLab then is the international premiere.
[00:13:05.397] Kent Bye: And then how did you connect that this game that you had created was connected to this broader concept of documentary and immersive documentary? And what was the connection that you had made where this felt like a documentary type of piece? I mean, I know that at DocLab they sometimes curate stuff and they actually go out and select different projects, but what was the dots in your head that you had connected that this would be a good context to show this piece?
[00:13:31.718] Petrit Hoxha: For here I was actually invited from the DocLag people because they saw it and played it in a maze. But I don't know, I cannot have like a really straight answer for how I connected to a documentary. It certainly can be seen as a digital storytelling piece, like the background of the game, like the setting, the car and those monuments are from a certain period of time and representing something specific. And also for the version in DocLab, there's a special feature in the game from the Remembering Yugoslavia podcast, which It's also available since a few days online as well, but it's going to be only for this duration where you can listen to the podcast as one of the radio stations. But I guess, I don't know, one can look at it as it's not really telling a story, it's more giving a platform or like a medium for stories to develop. So I guess that kind of fits in this digital storytelling piece. That's the best answer I can give.
[00:14:42.043] Kent Bye: Well, it sounds like that the curators had seen it and thought it would be a good fit. And, you know, sometimes, you know, from my own experience of documentary over time that I've been coming to DocLab, DocLab has helped to expand my own concept of what documentary is. And there's a theorist named John Grierson who defines documentary as the creative treatment of actuality. And I think with that definition of taking different aspects of reality and doing a creative treatment, this feels like creating a certain cultural context of the road trip where you're enabling these stories to emerge by providing this context for people to connect to each other in more of a social context. And so it feels like a social connectivity of, you know, the types of innovations that we saw with the different types of telepresence platforms during the pandemic. This seems like it's born out of that and finding new ways for people to connect within a digital context, but allow them to tune into different modes of whatever the frame of a road trip provides the opportunity for more of an expanded, extended conversations.
[00:15:44.430] Petrit Hoxha: Yeah, I agree with that, I think. In the end, it was this attempt to not really solve it. I did not start with this idea to solve this difficulty in communicating online or make it closer. one-on-one conversation it was more like from a personal lead to have something similar of that nature but also just putting my experience or like my expectations in the world and see if anyone else relates to that and yeah for some people kind of relate some don't but yeah it's Some people can relate if they had also previous similar ideas of these conversations in a road trip or like if they felt the need for these peripheral non-conversations.
[00:16:36.647] Kent Bye: Yeah, and what were some of the reactions that you've had either at Amaze at the world premiere or here at DocLab and what kind of feedback have you received as people have been going through this experience and what type of typical reactions you see people have when they do the experience?
[00:16:50.453] Petrit Hoxha: Most of the feedback that I have so far is actually from people who are playing it online. There I was surprised to how many people related to these. It was also covered in a podcast when two people discovered it so they decided to include it in their podcast which they talk weekly about games and he had mentioned that it really helped him open up Specifically he mentioned that he had a brother who lives far away and it's been a while since they had these more intimate conversations and somehow the vibe of the game and being in a car helped them open up and talk a bit more than they hadn't talked to in a long while. So I was really surprised and really glad that it happened. And at the maze there were some situations when one that I witnessed, two people happened to sit at the same time and talk to one another. They didn't know each other before, so the booths were in... Yeah, they could see one another, but not overhear them. So they could see like, oh, you're playing from there, and they wave to one another. So after their session they met up in the middle and then they continued to walk the exhibition together. So I think that was like one of the nicest things that I witnessed in the game. But yeah, it's always hard to exhibit these types of games in the exhibition context because Sometimes it needs a bit more time for someone to get into or it needs all the background like if you download it yourself online you already know what you're getting because you probably read the description or something but in an exhibition it's then a bit more hard to like if you sit and you put your headphones no one is there maybe then you just go to the next piece but still the reception was so far really good both here and at AMAZE and online yeah i'm happy whenever this intention of mine works and that's like yeah the best i can get out of this
[00:19:04.083] Kent Bye: And where is it online? Where can folks find it?
[00:19:07.146] Petrit Hoxha: It's in itch.io. Yeah, people can just search Yugo, the non-game, on itch.io and hopefully by beginning of next year we will release it on Steam as well with some additions that people were asking.
[00:19:23.460] Kent Bye: What are some of the features that people have been asking for?
[00:19:26.019] Petrit Hoxha: So far you can only play the game with people you share the password with. Like you create a session and then you share to whomever you want to play and talk with. And the one most requested feature was to be able to just hitchhike randomly. And in the beginning I did not want it to make... I had the reservation to make that because I thought it would be more like an amygdala on a car. But people more and more want that. So far they found different ways to come together. They usually put their password on the comments and say, oh, please join me, I'm playing now. And also through Discord, but we're going to include it as a feature in the game. They also generally want more radios or more music options or also ways to play your own music in your computer and then let other people hear. And yeah, these are the two main ones and the others are some more of a small details.
[00:20:27.964] Kent Bye: Yeah, you've been mentioning Omegle, which is like this peer-to-peer video conferencing platform where you jump on and start talking to random strangers. And I just saw within the last week or so that they've announced that they're shutting down. So it's sort of an end of an era in some ways of people that were having these different types of experiences. I ended up seeing most of videos online of other people, a lot of folks from the VR industry with VTubers and whatnot. But yeah, I guess what were some of the, I guess, fears that you had from what that might invoke in terms of either trolls or other types of things that you'd have to put in different safety measures? Or yeah, what were some of your concerns there?
[00:21:05.075] Petrit Hoxha: Yeah that's like the main concern because the internet sometimes can be quite wild and like I was the sole developer of the whole project so I could not imagine that I can also have like create safety measures or like I cannot moderate what's happening or so but so far The community was on the contrary, it was the community of people who are playing it in Discord and also the ones that are exchanging passwords on itch.io page. It's way more wholesome than I expected, so I think it's still a safe bet to do it. And especially since there's no video, it's a bit more safer. Like, there's only so much that you can troll through only audio. But yeah, that was kind of the main concern that if maybe I make something that goes out of hands. But now I think it's more and more sounds like a nice option. And especially since a lot of people are asking for it and they are finding other ways to come together and like find one another. I think it's now I'm just helping what's already happening.
[00:22:14.572] Kent Bye: Have you played it yourself and with random people? And I'm just curious to hear about some of your own experiences of playing your game.
[00:22:20.698] Petrit Hoxha: I actually mostly played it with my friends because, yeah, as I said I come from Kosovo but live in Berlin and a lot of my circle and all my family is still in Kosovo so it's sometimes nice to talk to people there rather than on the phone. But for me it's easier because I always use it as an excuse, oh I want to test something so... Can you jump in and then but actually happened while I was developing by the late stages just before releasing I was often testing it with a friend and I would test it for 10 or 15 minutes and like what I wanted to check But then we would end up just driving and talking for an hour or two or so. Oh, yeah, at least for me It's working and that's like my reason to do it. So yes It's good enough
[00:23:08.390] Kent Bye: Awesome. And finally, what do you think the ultimate potential of immersive media and these types of interactive games might be and what they might be able to enable?
[00:23:18.438] Petrit Hoxha: Yeah, I think where I want to keep focusing is in this other communication communities that come in online games. But in my opinion, just like my personal opinion, it's still these communities that happen in online games like being in World of Warcraft or Fortnite now, they still have this barrier that only the people who invest a lot of time in these games, then can also be part of this online sphere, online bio. And by trying to bring the social aspect and also different types of games, it can attract more people who don't play, for example, who are not hardcore RPG gamers or who are not hardcore shooter gamers, but still create communities similar to the ones that happen in these games. I'm not saying that there isn't now, but there's still space for it to be more.
[00:24:19.005] Kent Bye: Great, so anything else that's left unsaid that you'd like to say to the broader Immersive community?
[00:24:24.571] Petrit Hoxha: I don't know. The message would be to go on itch.io and maybe download the game but also play other games there because I think itch.io is a very overlooked platform where you can find really interesting gems, really interesting games that don't get so popular or don't get so much attention but there's a lot of interesting experiments and interesting games there.
[00:24:52.808] Kent Bye: Awesome. Is this a free game or is there a cost?
[00:24:55.169] Petrit Hoxha: No, it's free. It's pay as much as you want.
[00:24:59.090] Kent Bye: Awesome. Well, I very much enjoyed playing through this game and experimenting with some of the different social dynamics. And I think for me, I had a much better experience when I was like actually in communication with someone that I knew. I'm so glad I had a chance to at least experience that dimension because in a festival context, it can be a little bit random, but yeah, just to providing a new kind of road trip vibe that you can be doing something that's you know, it adds some level of interactivity and light interaction and some moments to talk about different things in the game, but also just an opportunity to connect in a different mode with this context of a road trip. So, yeah, very much enjoyed experiencing it and thanks for taking the time to help explain a little bit more about your journey and process in creating it. So, thank you.
[00:25:39.829] Petrit Hoxha: Yeah, thank you too for taking your time and playing the game and also for having the conversation. And yeah, thank you too.
[00:25:47.380] Kent Bye: So that was Petrin Hoxha. He created an indie game called Yugo, the non-game, which is available on itch.io. So a number of different takeaways about this interview is that, first of all, So I love the idea of creating these casual gaming type of experiences that are very lightweight that doesn't take a lot of cognitive load or it's maybe as much cognitive load as it would be when you're driving a car and trying to recreate the different spatial context and experience of like a road trip and the tenor of different conversations that can happen within that context. So rather than just calling someone up on FaceTime or Zoom or having a phone call, it's creating like a game-like context where you can switch back and forth between who's driving or listening to the radio and just kind of have these moments where you are able to interact with someone. A little bit more of how immersive environments can create a specific context for different social dynamics to unfold I think is the big takeaway here. We've already seen that with a lot of these different social games, social VR experiences, where the world really sets a broader context for the tenor of different conversations. And so in this context, it's just like more of a road trip and maybe some music. There are podcasts that you can listen to. And so, yeah, I think Petret was looking for opportunities to have a little bit deeper connection with people. I'm just noticing how he would have some really great conversations that may have happened within the context of like either his friends or strangers and like a game like Fortnite, and then like all of a sudden battle breaks out and then you both die and then it's over. He wanted to create a situation where he could have those meaningful conversations without getting ambushed within the context of a first-person shooter So yeah kind of a light-hearted game that originally showed at the amaze fest We had a lot of different like indie games and one of the curators from doc lab solid and invited it to the festival so again another experience that when you think about either immersive nonfiction or digital storytelling how a Really, the core of the experience is the other person that's there. The game within itself has got very little narrative hooks or narrative elements, but it's creating these social dynamics between people that I think is interesting, again, exploration to contextualize this with the larger festival context of DocLab. Again, I point back to John Grierson's definition of documentary as the creative treatment of actuality. And so, experiences like this that are reflecting upon these different spatial contexts and how those spatial contexts can drive specific types of conversations. So that's all 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 listener-supported podcast, and so I do rely upon donations from people like yourself in order to continue to bring you this coverage. So you can become a member and donate today at patreon.com slash Voices of VR. Thanks for listening.