October 30, 2020
Games Lift: The Amusement gives VR walking simulators a new meaning
It may be powered by a technical achievement, but this novel VR game is all about the story. Players will walk around a dilapidated amusement park, solve puzzles and take in the scenery. There is a layer cake of a tale to discover.
Developing a VR game is complicated. While games on flat screens have settled into a tradition of interactive standards and player expectations, VR games are still wide open for innovation. With the “redirected walking” technology, Dr. Eike Langbehn has made a substantial contribution to the way we might play VR games in years to come. Right now, however, he wants to talk about what he feels is really important: narrative games.
If you wanted to, you could call „The Amusement“ a Walking Simulator. Eike contends that the term „was not originally meant as a compliment“. But he and his fellow developers at Curvature Games believe in the potential of video games as a medium for storytelling. And that is what their game is all about.
Turning on the lights
The Amusement will live by its setting. It is the 1920s. An abandoned Luna Park lies forgotten on a remote island in the North Sea. Luna Parks were a predecessor of modern theme parks. But what may sound like a typical horror games trope is made more meaningful – and less spooky – by the specifics. Players get to experience the trip through the eyes of a woman who has spent her childhood here. She returns and discovers the ruins, the history of the park and traces of her own tale, all through exploration and light puzzle solving. It is a melancholy tale of remembering, of trying to repair defunct rides, of turning lights back on.
Welcome to Luna Park!
The story is at the heart of the project. It is a work of fiction, fed and supported by a well-researched historical background. The forgotten Luna Park of Hamburg-Altona, real islands of the North Sea, the first World War and the Great Depression all come together to color the setting. Players will get to see it through the eyes of the protagonist. They will interact with believable, time-accurate machinery, and they will genuinely walk around the park.
Curvature Games consist of three full-time members: Eike does design and programming, Hannah Paulmann is responsible for art and project management, while Dennis Briddigkeit manages the business and marketing side of the studio. Helping them is a team of artists and programmers. The Amusement will be their first widely available game, but it is not their first project. The hint to their success is hidden in the studio's name.
Eike has spent five years at the University of Hamburg researching VR and perception. He has developed and evaluated ways of tricking the human mind into thinking spaces are bigger than they actually are. Paths curve slightly differently, parts of the game world rotate when the player isn‘t looking, rooms are layered in impossible ways. All come together to create an unrivaled sense of immersion: „Players will actually walk,“ Eike explains.
In VR, the way players move their avatar through the world is crucial. Common methods like teleporting around may work, but they are immersion-breakers. That is the allure of wireless stand-alone headsets like the Oculus Quest: If players have a really big, empty room available as the play area, then they get to walk around in the world naturally. Using your feet instead of a joystick is a central part of experiencing the game world as a real place. Eike’s trick lies in shrinking the area needed for this kind of unimpeded movement. „We are aiming for two by two meters“, he explains. How can you warp and bend a big space into a floorplan no bigger than a king-size bed? Eike laughs: „We have done tests. It is challenging, but it is possible!“
If you believe in VR‘s potential to create deeply immersive stories, you might be in for a surprise when trying to find them. Aside from a handful standout projects, there are hardly any deep games that really center on a story instead of a gameplay hook. When The Amusement comes out, it might help to establish a new trend. If all goes according to plan, it should come to the Oculus Quest sometime next year.