Feature Article

Solving Murders and Researching Viruses Is a Weird Introduction to VR

If Clue was a VR game.

When developers from nDreams discuss their upcoming game, The Assembly, they stress that it's meant to be an introduction to virtual reality. They want it to ease newcomers into the experience of wearing a VR headset for a long period of time.

As a result, The Assembly definitely does not have any explosions, shooting, running, or creatures jumping out at you. As director Jamie Whitworth explained to me, "We're trying to create something that people can sit down and play for a period of time and get engrossed in the world, rather than something more immediate. We're taking a lot of inspiration from 90s point-and-click adventures--explore the environment, enjoy the environment, discover the environment, rather than anything that's more high-octane."

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The Assembly is a first-person, narrative-based adventure game, and it's built for VR. It has a non-VR mode that you can switch into, but nDreams is heavily emphasizing its VR compatibility. In the game, you move through a mysterious compound in which dubious research is being conducted into viruses, and you uncover clues that hint at what the organization--the Assembly--is up to. You control two different characters: one is a woman who has been abducted by the organization and forced to complete trials and puzzles in order to be inducted, and the other, a man, works as a scientist and begins to realize that his research has been misused.

This is the setup for the narrative that nDreams is attempting to make--a story that Whitworth compares to TV series. "It's an interactive story and that's where we're trying to focus it," he told me. "Obviously we're going for interactions and puzzles… but the core of it is what we feel really is a strong story with a tone equivalent to an HBO TV series that's quite adult, has a few twists, and can be quite dark. But outside of that we also want to explore what life is like at the Assembly. It's not just a fantastical secret organization… but more grounded. So we've tried to use world-building to create an environment that you can learn more about that keeps you digging for more."

During my demo, I was able to see some of what nDreams is doing to achieve its lofty narrative goals. I played lengthy sections from both Madeleine and Kal's stories and explored a typical yet sinister space. As Kal, I sifted through other scientists' desks, voyeuristically uncovering bits and pieces of their personal lives, which helped solidify this space as alive and engaging. I discovered a workplace romance told through emails and phone messages, the two people's naivete charming in its normalcy. I found that one of Kal's colleagues was fabricating evidence to better sell his research.

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As Madeleine, the Assembly and its compound became ominous: the first scene showed her strapped to a gurney, being wheeled into the compound after the organization had abducted her. I then had to navigate Madeleine through a series of tests, beginning with a simple block puzzle and ending with a murder mystery. Unravelling the murder was especially entertaining, as I assumed the role of a detective reading through emails, rifling through lockers, and listening to voice recordings.

The Assembly is shaping up to be a promising narrative experience, and the time I spent with it gave me just enough of a glimpse at its story to want to know more about Madeleine, Kal, and the world nDreams is building.

However, I left the demo uncertain as to whether or not VR would actually enhance the experience that much. Whitworth conveyed to me nDreams's insistence on making the game welcoming and engaging to players new to VR, but I have yet to see why virtual reality is actually vital. There aren't motion controls in the game, so immersion is based only on the head-tracking in the headsets. The inherent benefits of VR certainly enhanced the game's atmosphere, and it was fun to peer into corners or drawers to get better glimpses of what they held inside. The space I moved through felt more real in VR, too, and picking through an office that's clearly still in use felt more unsettling and more interesting as a result.

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But these advantages had only a minor impact on my experience. The limitations of the hardware occasionally frustrated me, especially when I couldn't read text without straining my eyes. During these moments I wanted this game to be on a monitor so that the text and details could be rendered with more clarity, thus making my job easier.

Overall, The Assembly looks promising despite my misgivings. I'm interested in seeing if the developer can unite the two seemingly disparate stories of Madeleine and Kal effectively, and if the narrative will build to a satisfying climax. But nDreams has taken on the difficult task of proving to players why they should play this game in virtual reality, and it's yet to be seen if the studio can show that this game needs VR to reach its greatest heights.

The Assembly is available on July 19, 2016 on Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, and will launch on PS VR in October. It also has a non-VR mode that you can switch into so that you can play it on normal monitors.

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newhaus1994

Alex Newhouse

I'm a news guy, a student of international relations, and I've put way too many hours into Steep.
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