Highlights > Gameplay and Close-ups
Early Explorations > Establishing a Setting
Very early on, we knew we wanted to create a game around the themes of a distinctive ambience and the physicality of interacting with familiar objects. Games like Receiver and Before Your Eyes leveraged innate physical intuitions about the world into gameplay mechanics. We first began exploring different possible directions for what the physical setting would be, whether that was in a secluded military base, an offshore oil rig, or the interior of a tank, and the stories that would be core to the overarching mood.
Our aim was to limit the physical setting to both better match the space available to a player in a VR headset and be able to bring together a smaller number of assets to a high level of craft. Adding later content would also be easier since much of it would fit into an existing environment. After a very influential visit to Darkhouse/Lighthouse in Pittsburgh, we were enamored with the idea of extending the notion of communication beyond traditional greetings, an idea we later came to realize reflected much of our disconnected, often-virtual pandemic lives in college the past few years.
Some of these, like flashing Morse code with a flashlight or flag semaphore, seemed too daunting to teach. The radio, with its physical dials and vocal feedback, strikes a balance between ease of access and communicative capability. We settled on the idea of being a researcher in an early 1950s British Antarctic Expedition thrust into the role of a radio operator.
Early Explorations > Visual Development
Initially, we were daunted by what was technically feasible, both given the Quest 2 VR platform we were developing for and our complimentary skillsets. We looked at different examples of non-photorealistic rendering in existing games and media for inspiration on how to handle geometry, lighting, surface texture, and effects. Alberto Mielgo's short film The Windshield Wiper and Mike McCain's series of paintings gave us a direction on visual clutter, inferring information, and setting a mood.
Gathering Antarctic reference material also proved to be another deep, deep research rabbit hole. The US Antarctic Program's historical archives provided thousands of images to pore over, and photos, videos, and stories from past and current researchers who lived in Antarctica proved invaluable to filling in the gaps. We tried to hammer home the brutal physical requirements on people and equipment, crushing barrenness and hostility of the environment, and psychological aspect of living in a world of white.
Development Process > Building the Asset Pipeline
We chose to use a pipeline of Houdini for modeling, Substance for texturing, and Unity as our primary game engine. Houdini gave us the flexibility to model everything from desks and chairs with Booleans to posters and flags with cloth simulations. A fully procedural workflow allowed us to jump back in later and quickly make modifications to the dimensions or placement of assets almost trivially. Bringing the models into Substance Painter, my partner could then paint on surface texture and details as if it was in 3D, which really brought them to life.
Development Process > Identifying the Gameplay Loop
One of our goals was to have no mandatory objectives but rather reward exploration and curiosity. We tried to cram bits of environmental storytelling in every corner of our world. The maps and pictures hung on the walls spoke to the events of that time period and political climate of the world while smaller details like the wear on cups or labels on equipment placed the player in a world that was lived in with purpose and history extending beyond what they could see. Even the dialogue branches themselves were largely independent and entirely optional. As the player discovered their existence one piece at a time, each branch would reference clues from other stations but served more as incentives and rewards for exploring the capabilities of the radio than a linear story progression.
Another idea we committed to was just seeing what people would try to do in-game and then implementing their intuitions into features. Taking quick remarks such as "Can I smoke this cigarette?" or "Can I turn the light on?" and making them real became a straightfoward way of rewarding the next player that tried the same, adding life and moments of delight in the small, mundane actions most experiences take for granted.
Development Process > Designing a Radio
Making a game with a radio as the primary interface forced us to learn a lot about radio function, etiquette, and their role in a larger communcation system. We reached out to the University of Pittsburgh amateur radio club to give us a crash course in everything radio. Seeing firsthand how contacts were made, how a working radio room was arranged, and being able to take pictures and videos of hundreds of pieces of radio equipment going back to the 70s gave us a great start in how we approached our design of Murray Outpost's communications room. We also did further research on period-accurate radios from that time, including the National HRO radio popular among British and US radio operators from around WWII to the late 60s and the AN/GRC-9 "Angry Nine" radio that replaced it in the Korean and Vietnam wars.
After several iterations and playtests from peers that were decidedly not radio operators, our final radio design abstracted away or only made a nod towards much of the technicality of radio operation while keeping as many features as we could that had directly affected the listening experience. We wanted to balance the complexity, overwhelming nature of initially seeing the front control panel, and the out-of-place feelings of the story with immediate feedback loops between dials and the final sound. Our optimal radio was daunting but manageable, giving the player opportunities to have moments of realization and agency over their specific methods of operation while being fully usable with very few truly game-critical affordances needed. Almost every dial, button, and gauge in our final radio were adapted from or influenced by a component from a real radio.
Development Process > Dialogue
The lore behind our story was told through short conversations with other radio operators around the world, distributed to increase the odds of the player stumbling into one when looking for broadcasts. Short stories like Arthur Clarke's The Nine Billion Names of God and Tim O'Brien's How to Tell a True War Story put the focus on using the mood, emotions, and senses of a specific moment to convey reality and letting the reader fill in the blanks instead of breaking immersion with too many details. Taking lessons from Firewatch and Fallout: New Vegas retrospectives, we focused on giving the player as many context-sensitive choices to allow them to play out their preferred personality while keeping all the branches back to central plot points for progression. We ended up mapping out hundreds of lines of dialogue across nine conversations with Figjam's great tools and recorded them in a makeshift sound booth constructed out of sound blankets and folding tables.
With our lines in hand, we used Yarn Spinner to help control conversations and manage state and flow from one branch to another. Audio for lines and script files would hook into Dialogue Runners that would initialize the right line or option views for each point in the story. The whole system was then integrated with our radio, interaction, and sound controllers to allow in-world events to be tracked by and respond to dialogue state, giving an added sense of cohesion and awareness of the player's actions.
Adding Polish > Nice to Haves
With some extra time, we could finally sit down and polish smaller aspects of the game. We felt there was some noble, ironic beauty in making beautiful moments that many players would unintentionally miss. We began by trying to add animations to many of our static assets. We created shaders that turned hand-drawn 2D flipbook atlases into beautiful moving sequences that were placed on quads all over the world. The radio and azimuth displays could then have their own distinct segmented layouts, and we could have multiple possible effects when smoking the cigarette. Smaller environmental elements like the flag waving outside the window or a flock of penguins waddling by were animated with same approach.
We also ensured every object that could be interacted with had multiple hand poses when picked up or grabbed. Depending on which hand was used and its orientation, the player's hands would take on different positions that better matched their intent. While it helped with minimizing the disorienting feeling of not being able to see your real-life hands, we also found that it served as a secondary indicator of the physical nature and affordances of the object. The delicate nature of how an ID card was held reflected its light weight and intent to be examined more closely, while the open-handed grip of the radio's main frequency dial hinted to the player how it wanted to be turned and manipulated.
We also wanted to add nods to the people and places that helped make this whole journey possible. One of the heating pipes we had in our studio was added to the room behind the player to serve as an inside joke of how Pittsburgh weather sometimes really did feel like Antarctica. Next to the window, a large hanging station flag is covered with signatures from all the people who helped make this game possible.