LJMU Immersive Summer Project - VR Escape Room

General / 23 April 2021

For my final project in this master's, I want to create a Virtual Reality experience using some techniques I learned previously as well as some new ones. Techniques like 3D modeling, animation, and photogrammetry are all skills I have researched and put into practice, however, my goal for this course was to create an immersive storytelling experience. 

The next logical step up from animating an object is to then give it behavior and interactivity. This, like most practices in technology, is an inevitable path to the terrifying world we call programming. Personally, I am no wizard when it comes to programming, however, in this culture of idea sharing, experiences can be made without the need to learn a whole language. Many foundational pieces of code come prefabricated within Unity, and many more can be installed through the Unity Store on a modular basis. I'm hoping that with this and my ropey knowledge of C# I can put together a solid experience.

Another thing I want to focus on is some of the more thematic elements of my research. What a lot of my explorations revealed to me is that "man vs machine" is at the core of a lot of what we do. This will be woven into the world-building in the project.

 As a species, we have had a deeply spiritual and personal connection with technology ever since the discovery of fire. And as we sat around that fire we told stories. Our insatiable appetite for narrative drives some of our biggest industries, and technology comes up with it.
Machines tell us stories about what's right and wrong, stories about what to buy and wear, stories about current events, stories about spacemen with machineguns.
 With the ever-looming idea of  "The Singularity" separating technology from our control into its own entity; the idea that technology can autonomously decide, with its own voice, what some of these stories are is both fascinating and terrifying. This is going to be the central premise of the experience.

The reason I am choosing to make this part thematic is that in a sense it's still science fiction. We have a lot of stories about how humans are using technology to manipulate people, but "True AI" is in its infancy. A lot of our online lives are swayed by blind algorithms as explained in this Jaron Lanier interview, however, the end profiteer is always a human being. The other reason I am choosing not to go practical with these themes is that even if I did have the know-how, media indoctrination caused by the advent of technological free will isn't particularly what I'd like to be remembered for. My motives are more those of the court jester than the mad scientist. 

Gameplay

Remember long ago in the far-off time of 2019 when a business model of constraining a group of people in a room together was a viable business model? We had these things called escape rooms, in which a group of weary travelers would pay to be locked in a room in which the key to getting out is hidden behind a series of puzzles.

The following video demonstrates a sort of virtual escape room that's gained popularity with VR enthusiasts. 

This setup ticks many boxes for this project, first and foremost being scope. The small size of an escape room means that it's good to develop in my small student room, but it also means that I don't have to create too many assets either. no vast skyboxes, just a single room and a way out. If anything the claustrophobia acts as a motivator in this situation.

The second box it ticks is environmental storytelling. For a puzzle game such as the one I am proposing, world objects can be the tools by which the player solves problems. I find one of the biggest draws to virtual worlds is what the game critic Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw called "messin with the set dressing". The environment can be engaged with on a personal basis, the mise en scene can be picked up, tossed aside, stacked up, or thrown out of a window. The following video by Jacob Geller talks about how interactable objects give us a better window into the world's built-in games. 

 around the 9:50 mark, he talks about "Rhopography" from the greek Rhopos, the study of trivial, mundane, and small objects. he likens this to still lives and what they tell us of a time or a lifestyle. This struck a chord with me as my studies have previously gone into the readymades of Tracey Emin and Marcel Duchamp, and how photogrammetry is a tool to capture that which already exists. If small ready-made objects can tell us stories in this experience then I'm coining the term "Rhopogrammetry" as the process of digitally capturing everyday clutter going forward.
If anything, I would like this project to be an exercise in photo-scanning mundane items and allowing the player to interact with them as they could in the real world. if there are moving parts then it would be interesting to try to digitally equate that.

The final reason I want to go with an escape room is the possibility of branching narrative. With this smaller scope, I think the possibility of a puzzle having multiple solutions that have different outcomes within the story is more viable. this is not concrete per se, further down the line it may become apparent that a linear story is more achievable, however, the prospect is exciting.

Story

The story I'm interested in telling assumes the singularity has happened to a degree in which machines are the ruling class, however, they are merciful enough to let us live, albeit under strict rules. Our protagonist will remain nameless and faceless so as to allow the player to step into their shoes. Our antagonist will be an Artificial agent existing within some small physical object like an Amazon Alexa, who will be taunting the player and revealing more about the world throughout the experience. The Intelligence has decided through your social media presence and other means of surveillance that you are at dangerously low levels of problem-solving skills and must make your way out of this room in order to prove your usefulness to society.
This is a loose premise for now, but enough to go on. I intend to work with my brother who is a Voice artist, and a writer who is also a very close friend of mine in order to flesh out the story. I think once the AI's character is fleshed out, the story will be much easier to write. 

Much like a VR escape room, the idea of an AI antagonist is quite well covered in media.

It's hard to forget Douglas Rain's chilling rendition of Hal 9000 in 2001 a space odyssey, this set the tone for a lot more of the rogue AI types to come. What strikes me upon inspection is the sheer number of video games that capitalize on this trope.

GLados from the Portal series

The most well-known perhaps being GLaDOS from Valve's Portal series. Her assumed personality is a result of many smaller "personality cores" which dictate her behavior. To name a few these include the drive to conduct tests, the interest in space, and the recipe for a cake. as these cores get damaged she becomes more irrational and antagonistic. during the sequel, she is removed from these cores and gains her own sense of self. I find these games, which also feature a silent protagonist are much more about the antagonist's arc than the protagonist's.

My theory on why video games have been so attached to this idea is that it represents the structure of games themselves. there are foundational lines of code and game theory that push and pull the players in certain ways. there is an invisible hand that spawns enemies, offers reward, and even offers choices. My suggestion here is that an AI antagonist actually embodies that phenomenon. An AI in charge of a facility makes the automated parts of game design feel like the work of an in-game entity. things being conveniently placed in order for you to solve a problem seems like the work of the antagonist's manipulation, not the game designer's desire for you to progress. Themes of disobeying the rules of the game often manifest in these titles, almost a reference to players acting irrationally being frustrating to a developer.

While it doesn't contain an AI per se, The bizarre metanarrative known as The Stanley Parable, designed and written by developers Davey Wreden and William Pugh, treats the player and narrator's relationship in a similar way. the illusion of choice is played openly and honestly. The narrator tells the story of the titular Stanley, and whether or not the player goes along with what the narrator tells them dictates the path of the story. It intentionally draws attention to its own artificiality in a way that is comparable to the use of AI in other games. The themes of disobedience which in games such as portal, also take place here.

without spoiling too much, the dry sense of humour throughout the game both parodies and utilizes many of the core decision-making mechanics in games and reveals its narrative determinism with its multiple-choice linearity we are used to seeing disguised as freedom. this story is as much Stanley and the narrator's as it is the developers'.

This harks back to the idea of narrative trees as a return to an oral storytelling tradition, in which the listener can interject and change the flow of the narrative. Even the most complex web of story branches has an architect and therefore is at its core predetermined.
Fittingly I still find Machine Learning driven narrative to be the closest return to this tradition in games. I believe that with enough training and advances in machine learning, we will find that machines start telling our stories in games, perhaps based on a loose template made by a writer, or perhaps trained on the director's favorite references. Again, this is science fiction and speculation so it will remain thematic, however, if I am to create a branching story it's important to address this.


Feasibility


This project is quite open-ended in terms of the story told. With the involvement of some of my friends, among which are a writer and a voice actor, I hope to flesh out the character of the AI to at least a consistent single branch linear story (multiple branches may be added in if time permits). 

In terms of what I can accomplish on my own, assets are not a problem. I have a very solid understanding of PBR pipelines and 3D animation. Where I may fall flat is in programming. My only real experience with this was a tic-tac-toe game I made for the command window in C#.

I am hoping I can get a lot done just on premade code from the unity store and through tutorials. I may also seek assistance where necessary. 

While this is a potential roadblock, I believe a good project is one that pushes its author into unfamiliar territory.


The biggest concern for me is to avoid something called "Scope creep". Wikipedia defines it as follows

Scope creep (also called requirement creep, or kitchen sink syndrome) in project management refers to changes, continuous or uncontrolled growth in a project’s scope, at any point after the project begins 


In short, it means that it is pragmatic to set a realistic scope and stick to it. I need to know from the start which notes I want to hit and not expand the scope unless the goals are all met. My goals are as follows

1) Create an immersive experience in which a player can interact with objects to solve puzzles. This is the number one goal for a good reason. An immersive experience hinges on interaction. The gameplay must engage first and entertain later.


2) Use the story to talk about the themes of my research. while I have been on this course I have developed a different perspective on our relationship with machines. between machine learning, the ability to change our appearance, and even the ability to change the world around us, their respective future implications on humanity, identity, and reality is what interests me the most as an artist. I would like the narrative to reflect this. 


3)  Tell a story through Voice Acting and Mise En Scene. These are two storytelling techniques that I would most like to focus on for this project. Well-written dialogue and nicely crafted rhopograpic junk can tell the story in a confined environment and also lend themselves nicely to the VR format.

These three goals define the minimum of what I hope for this project to achieve. Until I feel that they are significantly met, I will not add any further goals to these 3 core ideas. Further developments may include branching storyline, music, and multiple levels, but for now, these will remain concepts rather than goals. 



In conclusion, I hope to make a VR escape room experience that engages the viewer and helps discuss our relationship with technology both as a storytelling aid and as our future overlords.

References

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E6N4SmUgNgc&feature=emb_logo -VR escape room examples

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scope_creep -Scope creep wikipedia entry

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kc_Jq42Og7Q&t=2s- Jaron lanier interview about Social Media's grip on its consumers

https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/AIIsACrapshoot/VideoGames -TVtropes entry about video games with AI antagonsits

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0VmsUXzCFkg&feature=emb_imp_woyt - Stanley parable video review