One of the best VR experiences I did at PAX West this year was Funomena’s Luna, which is a unique blend of tactile puzzles, creative world building, musical improvisation within the context of an emotionally-charged narrative. Luna is designed by Journey’s Robin Hunicke and Martin Middleton, and is a part of the emerging “deep games” movement that Fast Company describes as games “where players ‘win’ by becoming more enlightened, empathetic people.” It uses the unique affordances of VR with the Oculus Touch controllers to create an experience of imaginative play that is difficult to pin down into an existing genre, but provides an experience that is bound to introduce VR to a new audience.
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The story of Luna is about a lost bird who is trying to find it’s way home. Solving tactile puzzles reveals a totem from the bird’s past that you then use to decorate a near-field mini-world and rebuild the path to getting back home. You’re then transported into this world that you helped to reimagine, and a chapter of the bird’s story unfolds through interactions with different animals. Robin says that each chapter represents a stage of grief, and that the overall experience is about learning to recover from mistakes and heal from trauma.
I had a chance to talk to Robin at PAX West about the design process of creating Luna and how their delightful papercraft aesthetic had a variety of different inspirations from many different mediums ranging from Bertolt Brecht from theater, animator Yuriy Norshteyn, print artist Umetaro Azechi, photographer Georgia O’Keeffe, filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, and sculptors Lee Bontecou, Gabriel Orozco, and Anish Kapoor. We talked about using creative expression to more deeply connect people to the story, and the challenges of exploring deep emotional themes using the most cutting edge immersive technologies. And we talked about Journey and some of the lessons learned from creating a profound cooperative and connecting multiplayer experience within the context of a gaming console.
Here’s the teaser trailer from Luna that gives some sense of the story and art style, but without any of the actual VR gameplay.
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[00:00:05.452] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast. My name is Kent Bye, and welcome to The Voices of VR Podcast. So one of the best VR experiences that I had a chance to experience at PAX West this year was at the Indie Megabooth, and it was Luna by Funorama. So Luna was this interesting mix between a puzzle game with some narrative elements. It was just really super beautiful and delightful and a unique mix of different types of presence that I think just makes it an overall unique experience. So I had a chance to talk to the CEO of Funorama, Robyn Honecke, and she was one of the producers of Journey. And so she's since gone off and been working on this Experience Luna, which is a narrative story about a bird who's going through the different stages of grief. So I talked to Robyn about a lot of her inspiration and design process and some of the deeper messages and story behind Luna. So, that's what we'll be covering on today's episode of the Voices of VR podcast. But first, a quick word from our sponsors. This is a paid, sponsored ad by the Intel Core i7 processor. VR really forced me to buy my first high-end gaming PC, and so Intel asked me to come talk about my process. So, my philosophy was to get the absolute best parts on everything. Because I really don't want to have to worry about replacing components once the second-gen headsets come out, and the VR min specs will inevitably go up at some point. So I did rigorous research online, looked at all the benchmarks, online reviews, and what I found was that the best CPU was the Intel Core i7 processor. But don't take my word for it. Go do your own research, and I think what you'll find is that the i7 really is the best option that's out there. Today's episode is also brought to you by VR on the Lot. VR on the Lot is an education summit from the VR Society happening at Paramount Studios October 13th and 14th. More than 1,000 creators from Hollywood studios and over 40 VR companies will be sharing immersive storytelling best practices and industry analytics, as well as a VR expo with the latest world premiere VR demos. This is going to be the can't miss networking event of the year with exclusive access to thought leaders of immersive entertainment. So purchase your tickets today while early bird pricing is still in effect at vronthelot.com So this interview with Robin happened at PAX West, which was happening from September 2nd to 5th in Seattle, Washington. So with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.
[00:02:47.430] Robin Hunicke: My name is Robin Hunneke, and I am the CEO and designer at Phenomena. My last game was called Journey. It shipped for the PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4. It shipped first in 2012. And after Journey was done, myself and another Journey compatriot, Martin Middleton, decided to co-found a company in San Francisco, which is called Phenomena. And our goal was to build a sustainable community of developers that could build different games, games that expand the marketplace and really address emerging technologies in a way that was healthy and holistic, you know, encourage people who have families to work with us, be very diverse. We have a 75% female leadership team, you know, we work really hard to hire people from all walks of life and all levels of experience. And there are 18 of us right now. And we're working on this game, Luna, which is our first VR title that we've released. And this is our first time showing it on the floor of PAX. We're really excited.
[00:03:42.531] Kent Bye: Great. Yeah. So I had a chance to try it out yesterday, and I really loved it. It was a really interesting mix of puzzle and narrative. And maybe you could describe, like, first of all, what kind of genre would you categorize this as?
[00:03:55.947] Robin Hunicke: This is actually one of the hardest problems about VR games in general, I find, unless it's a straight port. VR adds so much to the experience of playing that you really have to redefine the way that you think about games. So we like to say that Luna is a tactile puzzle game that is also very creative. So a tactile creativity experience where you solve puzzles. And then you use the objects that you find to build a world, and then you go down into that world and see the narrative unfold on the stages that you've been building yourself. So it's very immersive. It's a slower game. We really wanted to build something that allowed people who had never tried VR to step into that world and feel the magic the way that we did the first time we saw it in VR. So we had been developing Luna using the Intel RealSense camera to do gesture on the PC, and then as we continued to use our hands to play the game, we started thinking about, well, what if we could have hands in the world of VR, and as soon as we got the touch controllers and started prototyping it, we knew that we had to go there. So it's been very exciting for us because the game itself is emblematic of all of our values. The values of being curious and creative, also solving technical problems that are hard to solve, the challenges of VR itself. But most importantly, building things that are uplifting and about positive change. So the narrative of the game is actually about a small bird that grows up in Golden Gate Park. And the night that it's leaving the nest for the first time to start building its own, it gets called away by this owl. It convinces it to swallow the last piece of the waning moon. And this creates a terrible storm which blow the birds off course. And so your job is to help the bird reconstitute its world by first unscrambling its memories, then using those pieces to build the world back together, and then call forward other animals that can help the bird find its way home. So it's like a fable about why the moon waxes and wanes in the sky that the animals tell each other. But it's also a story about recovering from mistakes. We all make mistakes. And in a lot of video games, you can just go back in time or get revenge. But in real life, that's not how it happens. In real life, when you make a mistake, you have to internalize that mistake, learn from it, and then it becomes part of your story. And we really wanted to build an environment that was safe for people to kind of try and fail little tiny ways in the puzzles and then try and express themselves through the creativity and most importantly be open to the idea that even a mistake can be a learning experience and can be something positive in the long run.
[00:06:25.905] Kent Bye: Wow, that was beautiful. A couple things that was really striking to me was this kind of blend between mental presence where you're solving these puzzles and then at some point you kind of unlock all the different elements where you kind of finish the level and then becomes this open world where you're able to start to dress this little near-field mini world where you're kind of decorating it with different trees and lilies and being able to color it. And then you're transported into that world to see the narrative and story unfold. And so it just kind of felt like a really satisfying combination of these different levels of presence. And also the art style was just really beautiful to be able to really just make it cute and adorable.
[00:07:05.136] Robin Hunicke: Yeah, we've been thinking a lot about embodiment. I'm actually going to be giving a talk at BRDC, which is coming up in November in San Francisco, about embodiment called The Body is Back. And when we started working on Luna, just working with the hands and the gesture camera, we immediately realized that there's so much in our posture when we move our hands, like when we're drawing or we're conducting, it immediately gives your body a sensation. And we really thought a lot about this while building Luna. When you're looking up to the stars and you're reaching up and you're moving them with both It feels really good. It just feels good to move. It feels rewarding to stretch and reach. And kids do it all the time, right? Then when you're looking down into the terrarium and you're building it out with these elements, it feels really delicate and like kind of precise, but also there's a moment where you realize everything in the world has musical tones and you can just kind of, you know, wave your hands around in this space and conduct the musical tones of the environment as the score is kind of coming up in the background. And then when you're in the scene itself, that's when Austin Wintory's score really swells and comes to its full fruition. he wrote the music for Journey and we collaborated really closely on that and on this game I really wanted him to have a stage for his own score to really stand forward and to give this sort of feeling that by composing the world with these little musical elements over time you're kind of unlocking his music and then when you hear it finally in that moment it feels right but it feels like you had something to do with it and so this is like this idea of presence and embodiment I think it extends beyond just the visual of like are you above the terrarium looking up into the sky or looking into it or inside of it looking all around you. That's one aspect. But the other aspect is what is your body doing? What are your ears hearing? What sensations are you having physically and emotionally in time with those different viewpoints? I think that they all blend together to create something really powerful. Much like cinema or theater, where when you go into a stage show, if it's really well performed, like an opera for example, you can be transported by the music, but also the set design can be incredibly transformative. When I was in grad school, I went to see Tristan and Isolde, a very, very aggressively artistic, forward-looking stage setting of that Wagner opera, and it was amazing because it was so much contrast, very stark light and shadow, and bright lights, and the costumes were very simplified, but then the music just really shone, you know, because it was so emotional and so strong in that sparse space. So when I was in school I studied a lot I was in computer science and AI but when I first started out I was really interested in theater and narrative and so I think a lot about Brecht and sort of stage dressing and the idea of what you want to do with stage direction and how you want to conduct these experiences, not just from the perspective of making video games, but from the perspective of making theater and then also fine arts. So a lot of the influences for Luna are sculpture. So Lee Bontacou is a huge influence, Gabriel Orozco, Anish Kapoor. I've talked a lot about this in the run-up to releasing the game publicly, thinking about it more as an art form, thinking of VR as a way to communicate using the best of our techniques from sculpture, fine art, and animation. Stop animation, like we're very influenced by Yuri Norstein. printmaking, Umutaro Ozeki, there's a lot of really great artists out there that have already pioneered their mediums and VR allows you to kind of bring all those things together to create this really tactile space. So I'm very excited about the touch controllers and the vibe controllers and the ability to be embodied in this space and I think as we continue to develop headsets that are not tethered and we continue to allow gesture tracking to really be something that's happening from forward-facing cameras. You're going to see a lot of very great systems being designed that are really pushing limits of what interactivity can be.
[00:10:53.841] Kent Bye: Can you expand a bit about what you mean by how you were inspired by Sculpture and how you're able to kind of translate Sculpture into this VR experience?
[00:11:01.690] Robin Hunicke: Yeah, so our art director, Glenn Hernandez, is not here at the show because he just got married, so it's a good excuse not to be at PAX. So I'd kind of be answering a little bit for him, but when we first started working on the game together, I had worked on the story for about a year with Martin, we'd done some prototypes, and when we brought Glenn on board, he and I went through a period of sharing with each other a visual reference that we felt was really inspiring. Everything from George O'Keefe and Ezeki, which was his, to these sculptors like Bontacou and Orozco that I had seen during my travels while working on Journey. I think one of the things we really learned by doing this process from feeling first is that we tried to find art, fine art in particular, that really spoke to us about the same kinds of transformations and processes. looking from the small to the big and the big to the small or simplifying and then complexifying and then simplifying. We really had a lot of conversations about levels of complexity, levels of engagement and views or perspectives as sort of a metaphorical idea about how you see your own problems in your life and how you transform your life, right? The game is going to be about this feeling of beautiful transformation, which can come from a painful experience. Then, so should the art that inspires it, and so should the films that we watch, and so forth. So, we went through a period of about a year of just sharing these ideas with each other, okay? This is a film that I found really transformative. Like, one of my favorite films of all time is Solaris. And I'm also really into Stalker, which is another film by Tarkovsky, the same director. And I'm really interested in this idea that you can tell a story with saying very little. And Journey also has that aspect, you know, it involves story, but there's no dialogue and no one can speak, right? So we really spent a lot of time moving through that phase slowly and letting those ideas blend into the art style and blend into the way that we built the game. And I would say the other thing that we did that was very important was we started building the worlds as sculptures themselves. So we started with Playmobil toys and hydrophilic sand that we sculpted into like terrains and then we put the little pieces of trees and stuff in and I bought little versions of all of the different kinds of animals that are going to be in the game and all the trees off of eBay like little packs. And then we just had this big playroom filled with Playmobil toys and we really thought about, okay, What is the toy-like aspect of playing this game going to be like? And how can we really engage that childhood feeling? And then over time, as we started looking at, well, what should the graspers look like? How should people engage in touching things? Glenn built a clay model, actually, of the hand that's in the game, which is more like a flower. like a three-petaled flower, or a lily, or almost like a Buddhist kind of image, like a lotus, or you could think of it as maybe a birdclaw, but it comes across as something otherworldly, but it's informed by all these ideas of transformation that are drawn from that kind of literature and then the art that we've been looking at. So really building physical things, we bought a bunch of clay and sculpted certain environments and played with them, made us think about, okay, what would the UX for these environments be like? In my VRDC talk, I'm actually going to kind of go through those experiments and talk about, okay, how do we engage our bodies in the process? And then how did that affect the design? We've had to really relearn a lot of our techniques. We're used to cheating with a 2D camera. You can just direct someone's attention somewhere or zoom in and show a detail. And you just can't do that in VR. You have to be patient. You need to build the experience to the user's own interests and then allow them to decide when they're going to engage. And it means stepping back a little bit from the directorial perspective and really trying to do something a lot more like designing a dinner party or a really great engaging conference, you know, 99% of that experience is about the people themselves, right? And I think that VR titles are going to be much more like that. It's an invitation to participate rather than a communication outward from the team. And I think that that's been very helpful for us to see this as a, as an invitation and as a way to engage in a conversation with the player, not tell them what's going to be.
[00:14:59.495] Kent Bye: So you mentioned that, you know, the animals are talking about the phases of the moon and starting from the waxing and going into the waning. And does that mean that it's sort of like talking more about that death and moving into like a new life?
[00:15:11.392] Robin Hunicke: You know, it's I think that the last moments of the game will have to reflect on this idea that even when you do reach the end of a traumatic experience, you've processed it, you've made a mistake, you've met the challenge and you've learned from it. There's always going to be something else. You know, it's always a cycle. There's no such thing as solving it or getting an A. Right. And then eventually you die. And that's what happens. Like at some point. where whatever phase you're in, you're done. And so I think Journey tried to touch on some of these themes and I think Luna does as well, because all of us feel that it's a short trip and we should be making things that we believe translate into positive action for the players that enjoy them. So we respect the players' time. And in particular with Luna, we really want people to be able to engage their partner or their child or their parent in a conversation about the mistakes they've made and the ways in which they've met challenges, the way that they've grown, and how proud they are of that. Because if we do that as a society, then we'll be a more peaceful and loving society in general, and that would be a good thing.
[00:16:14.198] Kent Bye: When I was at Sundance talking to Eric Darnell of Baobab Studios, the thing that he said was that he kind of sees this trade-off between empathy and interactivity, where the more that you're interacting, you're kind of focusing on your own agency and will, but yet when you're in a narrative, then you're kind of more empathizing with someone else's perspective. I noticed that you kind of have very distinct context switches between that interactivity and the narrative. So maybe you could talk about how you're balancing those two elements of interactivity and narrative.
[00:16:45.298] Robin Hunicke: Yeah, actually this is a really strong and explicit point in the game that we start you off in an open space that's relatively sparse, but it does give you feedback and you can poke at it and it's safe because the bird is isolated from you. It's like, you know, it's in their little terrarium. So you can pet it and stuff, but then you can feel free to poke everything around it because it's mostly rocks. And over time it becomes more alive though. And that life turns into the thing that you use to build the terrarium. When you go into the terrarium itself, Now you've kind of poked your way through the beginning of that space and you've prodded and you've moved things around and now you can have a more engaged and I think delicate relationship with the shapes and the environment and as it comes to life you can care about it a little bit more and have more empathy for the space itself as you put down lily pads and then you see the frogs and then the frogs bump into each other and then there's tadpoles and like you can kind of duck down under the water and see them swimming around, this kind of stuff. you start to feel really intimately involved with the space. Every single environment in the game is drawn from a place along the California coast that we have all gone to as ways of contemplating our own challenges and our own times of struggle or in times of relaxation and rest. So the bird is basically blown from San Francisco up the coast and then comes down along the coast and then crosses back over into Golden Gate Park, which is where it was born. We really wanted to build a connection with those spaces because we think people should use nature to connect with themselves and other people and to the planet itself. When you get back down into the terrarium at the very end, since it's an environment that you've built from pieces that you care about, that's when we give over the stage to the characters and they can step forward. and they can, through the pictograms and the way that they speak and sing, they can tell you their own narrative. And at that point, we want you to be able to sort of let go and just experience that narrative as it is, but because you've built it, hopefully, you'll have a personal connection with that narrative. That's my hope. You know, I don't know that this will work, but it's definitely something that we think about a lot as a direct experiment. We want people to Engage in the narrative without feeling like it's being told to them.
[00:18:49.082] Kent Bye: We want them to feel like they're almost pulling it from the animals themselves Yeah, that's really interesting that I hadn't really connected those dots until you articulated it there that I was a part of creating the environment and so when I'm actually transported into that environment I had a little bit more of like an ownership and personal connection to it and I I kind of see it as like switching context from a creative presence where I'm actually exerting my creativity in the world and then receiving the place presence. So actually being in that place that I helped to create and then be able to kind of receive the story that's coming there. So did you get inspired by a theater background? You mentioned theater or I'm just curious how you're kind of thinking about architectural space designing.
[00:19:31.973] Robin Hunicke: So I think a lot of what has been instrumental in this particular perspective for me is thinking about being open to receiving in general. You know, running a business is pretty difficult. I started the company just with Martin myself. Now I've been the CEO of it for almost four years, and I have also been the outward facing leader and the inward facing leader. And during the years as we grew the company and each challenge that we faced, I learned a little bit about myself. And one of the things that I thought a lot about, especially in the last couple of years, is being open to feedback and being open to mistakes and being able to own your mistakes. I made so many mistakes. And when you start a business or you start a creative endeavor, like you're building a game from scratch, you sort of have a plan in your mind of like what's going to happen. You know, maybe even like you graduated from college and you had a plan in your mind, like I'll get a job and then I'll maybe I'll find a partner, and then maybe we'll have some kids, or maybe we won't, maybe we'll travel, and you make these plans, but then in the long run, it's really not about the plan, it's about the day-to-day experience. If you're not enjoying the journey itself, then you're kind of throwing away the most valuable part for the husk of something in the future, right? And so I think over the course of the last four years, as we've worked on the games that we're building, and started to think about really trying to bring them to market and reach other people, One of the things we talk about a lot as a team is, well, what does it mean to be open to a new narrative about yourself or about the world? What does it take to build something that can be transformative in a positive way to how people relate to each other just day-to-day? So I've been reading a lot about accepting feedback. There's a great book called Thanks for the Feedback which is just about how you frame events in your life and if you have a perspective that everything's against you and you're one down from everyone else and they're always one up against you and that's kind of your frame then you aren't really as open to the feedback of the world as you could be. Similarly, if you feel you always have to be one up over everybody and everybody else is beneath you, it's the same thing. You're not really hearing all of the tones of the world. It's only certain things are getting in through your filter. And so the game in some ways is, I think, an attempt for all of us to kind of process our own struggles with being open, doing our new jobs, being new in the world. Almost everybody on the team has come from another place to Phenomena in order to grow. and in order to kind of experience this new medium in a way that they feel is in line with their values. And I think that that's a struggle. It's never easy. We'd all probably be getting paid a lot more and have much cushier jobs if we weren't trying to start up this company from scratch and make it a success. But the challenge is really worth it. And I think that that's been a huge influence on the narrative. It's been a huge influence on the work. And then we all also have friends and family who have gone through trying times You know, we've experienced death, we've experienced, you know, the loss of a friend, we've experienced a breakup. We've all had these experiences. And we really wanted to make a game that would allow people to be open to sort of letting that out. You know, let it out, let it go. You know, it's okay. You know, stuff happens. But only at the most abstract level. In the same way that Journey is really about, like, learning to see other people as human in a very abstract way, I think Luna is about learning to see yourself as okay. Like, it's okay.
[00:22:41.755] Kent Bye: Yeah, I gave a talk at the Silicon Valley Virtual Reality Conference showing that there was like 12 domains of human experience that I've done over 500 interviews with different VR developers and I asked them what the ultimate potential is and I see that they can be categorized into one of these 12 different categories and one of those was death and I feel like VR in particular can handle death and grieving in a way that goes beyond what's possible and 2D medium. So for you, how has this game helped with the grieving process?
[00:23:12.705] Robin Hunicke: It's actually based on the process. So each of the levels is representative of a stage of grief. The characters themselves are drawn from these ideas that we have of being in denial or being angry, telling stories about ourselves that are not true, and then learning to accept them. And it's explicit in the design, whether it will be explicit in the experience, that the bird is able to move forward through a series of stages as it helps other animals, as it figures out its own narrative, as it rebuilds its world, so that in the end, when it comes home, it's a different bird, but it's better. And I think that it's really critical that we learn to be okay with being sad and angry and then we learn to be okay with retelling our stories and letting go of those things so that we can be happy again for however long that's possible. That the moon will eventually wax and wane. It will eventually disappear and reappear. It will eventually be true that things aren't perfect but then they'll get back into balance. I don't know, if you look at stuff from Buddhist literature. I was just recently reading through Be Here Now by Ram Dass. There's a lot of ancient wisdom about accepting and moving through the chaos that's all around us. My next game is actually really influenced by ideas of quantum mechanics and thinking about the ways in which we experience this reality as being not real or just our own lenses. And I think that's really important. And so I'm really excited to actually start working on that. But got to finish Luna first, so.
[00:24:41.760] Kent Bye: VR is such a technically focused medium, so I'm curious to hear your own experience of balancing something that's highly technical but something that's a deep process in the heart of actually kind of dropping in and opening yourself up to that experience.
[00:24:57.211] Robin Hunicke: It's actually really a struggle. When we first started working on the game, we built it in 2D, and it was a 2D perspective camera with a lot of orthographic stuff cheated, you know. We were really interested in this idea of parallax and all this stuff, and then as we started looking at it more and more and realizing it needed to go into VR, it almost had to die and start over. And in the process, I think a lot of us had to let go of certain things that we thought we needed to have perfect. And it took a long time to get the game to where we wanted it to be. We've been working on it, you know, for a long time, like almost two years now. And at the same time, we've ramped up the staff really slowly. And even still, it just got to a point where we're like, you know, we're going to have to scrap a bunch of work and let a bunch of stuff go. And then the game started to really take shape. And I think when we were holding on to our older ideas of what the game was going to be, we were getting in our own way a little bit. And it was exhausting and stressful that it was taking so long for it to come together. So the last three or four months, because we've been able to sort of really focus and staff up and get to the place where we know we're ready to just finish it, that's been a really amazing experience. Not without stress, but the feeling of progress and a forward momentum that happens when you get over the crux of a game design problem. is so palpable. And like on Journey, we built Journey three times. We built it once, and we built it again with a different look. And then the third time, we actually made it all the way through in a way that it held together in a way that it just hadn't before. So yeah, it wasn't without stress, but I think getting to the point where we could see the game really taking shape and then be able to bring it here and have people say the same thing over and over, which is it's relaxing. Somebody said to me yesterday, it feels like a game you want to play when you've had a bad day. I was like, that's great. That's such a great thing to say. And you don't have to say that just because I'm the designer. She's like, no, no, it really is. And then today a kid said, it's a game where you can experience building a world and understanding how it is.
[00:26:58.868] Kent Bye: So you mentioned Journey a couple of times, and I've had a number of people on the podcast talk about Journey as being a big inspiration for them. So for people who aren't familiar with it, maybe you could just quickly describe the experience, because my understanding is that you're kind of randomly paired with another person, and you kind of go through a journey with another random person that you don't even know.
[00:27:18.392] Robin Hunicke: It's true, yeah. So when we started Journey, the goal was to build something that would make people feel a sense of awe and wonder towards the unknown and also a sense of connection with a human stranger. So a lot of what Jenova talked about when we first started the project was, he was the creative director, was just like wanting to have that experience that you have when you're on a hike and you pass a human being after being alone in the hike for a long time, you always say hi. Like, hey, have a good afternoon or happy morning or whatever. and, you know, say hi to their dog. There's this moment of, like, when you're alone in nature and you see another human that you recognize that the humans are really beautiful and that we're really special and you feel compelled to say hi. Whereas when you're on a crowded train, like, you don't feel, like, compelled to say hi to anybody. You just want to get to work and you have your blinders on, you're on your DS or whatever. And so when we designed the game, we made an online networking system, which actually my co-founder Martin wrote this system, that does seamless matchmaking and it does it invisibly. So as you're walking through the environment, everybody that's playing around you could potentially be paired with you. And what happens is we basically surface a person near you and then you bump into each other. And that person appears over the horizon, you play together, you walk together. In the game, you can't actually talk, and there's no text chat, and there's no voice chat. You just sing to each other. So when you sing to the other person, and when your singing reaches them, they glow, and they can fly. So immediately, you can sing to each other, and then you can kind of dance on the air together. And it makes the way easier to fly. And as the game progresses, as you go through the different environments, it gets harder and harder to stay together, and it gets harder and harder to fly. We start to take away that ability over time. And at the very end of the game, You have to traverse up to the peak of a very cold mountain and it can be very difficult to make it all the way and so especially it can be difficult to make it together. So when we built the game we really wanted to build this connection and we were successful. A lot of people afterwards said that It was the first time they felt really connected to someone else playing a multiplayer game, that they felt that person was really meaningful to the experience. What was interesting is that there's very little pushback in Journey. It's not like you can't die, like you just always go from the beginning to the end. And so it's really the experience that you get is that each person is different. And it really does surface the different ways in which people use this simple system of semaphores, you know, like the calling to each other, whether they walk together or apart, whether they lead or whether they follow. These things become a mark of how you are. And what was really awesome was that during the game's development, I joined the team when there were just five people working on it, and then I hired up everybody and managed the team. I was executive producer. I worked really hard to make sure that everybody had some critical piece of insight that we got into the game. And so there's a little piece of each of the members of the team in the game, which I think is really amazing. I also really wanted the players to feel like people that they played with had kind of contributed. So at the very end we put in a screen which shows you the names of the people that you played with. And normally they're just symbols and then at the end you can see their PlayStation account names. And I get so many people telling me that they like connected with someone over PlayStation Network. because of that screen and that they were written each other letters. We had a place online called Journey Stories that was developed where people just wrote in and were like, I was doing this thing and then my PlayStation disconnected and I lost you. Or, you know, I remember walking to the mountain with you and you were so great. Thank you for this. And that really was a book that I bought for the team about halfway through the project of a woman who had illustrated lost connections or missed connections from a New York newspaper. And I wanted people to have that experience, and then they did. So it was really great to sort of build that kind of connection with people. And one thing that it taught us, I mean, Journey was a game made by 12 people over the course of three years. It cost a fraction of what most modern games cost, like one-tenth to one-twentieth of what a normal game would cost. just shy of, you know, five million bucks. And it won almost every Game of the Year award. It won so many design awards. It won seven BAFTAs. It was nominated for a Grammy, the first soundtrack ever nominated for a Grammy. It really moved people in a way that, you know, art games get nominated, but they never win, you know. We were coming up on best online multiplayer over and over and over against games that were really like, you know, 10 to 100x as expensive as our game. And like, that's kind of insane. So really feeling like, wow, if a little tiny indie game can make this much of a difference, then we must be doing something right, you know? I started doing video games in 2000, and I was one of the first indie game jammers, which is the first game jam ever done. I started as a programmer and a curious sort of designer, and ended up working on The Sims, and then I went to work with Steven Spielberg on Boom Blox down at EALA, and then I went to work on Journey, and Journey was kind of, I looked back after we made it, and I was like, wow, you know, in the 10 years since I've been in the industry, games have suddenly become more independent, more artistic, more influential culturally, than ever before and it's an awesome time to be a game developer and now I think we have the opportunity to not just be making games but to be making experiences which don't just come from the minds of the people that have already been in our community but really expand our community and reach a lot of young people from all walks of life. People of color, women, I think that now more than ever that there's a real sea change happening and that VR is the place to be for that. That's actually why I wanted Luna to be a VR-enabled title, even though we will ship it on the PC because we also want people to be able to afford to play it, and not everyone can afford a VR headset right now. But I think that this medium is going to be accessible to and create creators from so many walks of life. And I just think that it's really the golden age of game development. And I think VR is a very powerful tool for the empathy, for the connection, for the ability to encourage new ways of seeing the world.
[00:33:19.897] Kent Bye: And finally, what do you see as kind of the ultimate potential of virtual reality, and what am I able to enable?
[00:33:26.520] Robin Hunicke: I think that VR's potential to educate is really great. One of the things that I would love to do is work on simple applications that improve your ability to see the world from a different perspective. So one of the things I'm thinking about a lot is just how language separates us. And so I would really love to build something where you don't understand the language being spoken, but you still can do it, you know, with no translation whatsoever. And I've been thinking about that a lot. But I think we have a very strong ability now to reach people and to embody their learning in all kinds of ways. Like literally, okay, now you are the gravity of this solar system. Now you are this. Now you are that. Now see what it means to be gravity. That's really amazing. just never had that before. I'm a Star Trek nerd, so I'm all about the holodeck, you know, I just really want, I want data, and I want the holodeck, and then I'm good to go. Then Guinan and I can have a drink on 10 forward and it'll be awesome. But I'm a TNG girl. But I really do believe that we have the potential to sort of cure a lot of our ills, which include a lack of empathy with one another, a lack of education, a lack of opportunity, by creating more opportunities for people to develop their sensibilities and their aesthetics and their designs into experiences for others.
[00:34:41.069] Kent Bye: Awesome. Well, thank you so much.
[00:34:42.089] Robin Hunicke: Yeah. Thanks a lot. Thanks for coming by.
[00:34:44.150] Kent Bye: So that was Robin Haneke. She's the CEO at Funorama and the designer of Luna. So I have a number of different takeaways about this interview is that first of all, I think it's pretty amazing that this experience is based upon the different stages of grief. And there's a huge, really interesting, compelling backstory to the story that is being told here all about death and grief and surrender and transformation. So I'm really actually excited to see where the overall story goes. The other thing is that I think they are doing some really interesting mixes of different types of presence. So you're doing a puzzle at the beginning and you start to have this mental presence of trying to figure out how to solve the different puzzles and it's just kind of a fun mechanic to be moving these lines around and trying to figure out what the shapes are. There's another dimension of audio that I didn't necessarily pick up in the first time going through the experience. Perhaps it's because it was on the expo floor and it wasn't reactive enough for me to take note. But in talking to Robin, that was another dimension that was kind of wrapped up within the experience. And then there's a process of kind of having this near-field mini-world where I started to take the objects that I had discovered through the process of solving the puzzles and then started to do a little bit of set decoration where I was able to place these objects as well as change the color and really try to make the space my own. And so then when I was teleported into the space that I had just been a part of creating, then I actually did feel a lot more connected to that space. And I think it helped me feel a little bit deeper of emotional connection to the story that was unfolding there. I think the other thing that's really interesting is that they're trying to bring together all these different mediums where they're looking at everything from theater to sculpture to animation to print illustration to photography and film. taking all the specific artists that they're then trying to synthesize their insights and put them all into the VR medium. I think that's what's interesting about the VR medium is it has the capacity to contain all these other mediums that come before it. So I know that Michael Abrash has talked about VR as being the final medium and I think this is part of the reason why is because you're able to explore all these other different mediums within the VR context. It's also interesting to hear about their design process of actually building out miniature sculptures of this world and trying to make sure that it had a couple of qualities which Robin said that they're really going for this toy-like quality of the game as well as how to invoke the childlike feeling of play and discovery. So Luna was definitely one of the most inspiring and delightful experiences that I had a chance to try out at PAX West and I'm really looking forward to seeing this project once it comes to completion and has all the different segments of the story fleshed out. So that's all that I have for today. If you'd like to support the Voices of VR podcast, then spread the word, tell your friends, and I've got an email list on voicesofvr.com. You can sign up for more updates for upcoming events, as well as some announcements that will be coming up here shortly. And you can become a donor to my Patreon. You know, every donation really helps out, even if it's just a dollar a month. Just consider sending a tip for all this work if you're enjoying all the different insights that are being shared from the VR community. So you can donate at patreon.com slash voices of VR