Alt.CTRL.GDC Showcase: Lil Deer's Orpheus Quest

The Laser Lyre, inspired by the antique Greek instrument, is a wooden controller with green laser strings.

The 2017 Game Developer's Conference will feature an exhibition called Alt.Ctrl.GDC dedicated to games that use alternative control schemes and interactions. Gamasutra will be talking to the developers of each of the games that have been selected for the showcase. You can find all of the interviews here.

Orpheus Quest will have players seeking their lost love in the underworld, using Orpheus' skills with a lyre to soothe the demons and beasts he meets along the way. Players will be assisting with the music, though, playing a laser lyre to calm the monsters. 

By plucking at the laser strings and breaking their signal to the music prompts on-screen, players can help Orpheus bring his love home.

Designed by a 2D artist with a fascination for robotics and poetics, Orpheus Quest seeks to explore a connection between the classic and the modern, bringing the ancient instrument to this modern iteration.

Gamasutra caught up with Laura Palavecino, co-designer on Orpheus Quest, to talk about what brought about this modern version of the tale, and how players will be able to feel the act of creating music through their unique digital instrument at the ALT.CTRL.GDC exhibit.

What’s your name, and what was your role on this project?

Hi, my name is Laura Palavecino. Well, Orpheus Quest was conceived and designed by my brother Raul Palavecino and me. Later on, Anibal Hormeche joined us as programmer. I‘m the Art Director of the project - it’s my responsibility to oversee all the art production such as 2D art, UI, backgrounds, animations and so on. I designed our alternative controller: the Laser Lyre.

How do you describe your innovative controller to someone who’s completely unfamiliar with it?

We’ve designed and built an impressive instrument. Inspired by the antique Greek instrument while combining pieces of wooden cuts and emitting green laser strings, the Laser Lyre was born.
Greek mythology tells the story of Apollo, the god of music; and how he gave Orpheus a golden lyre and taught him how to play it. He mastered the instrument, with his music and singing, he could charm all living things.

What's your background in making games?

Well, I work in the video game industry as a 2D artist, which means I create new art from scratch, illustrate, create 2D animations, and create UI designs.

In my spare time, I develop independent projects in the fields of experimental games and electronics/robotics, in which I try to combine analog and digital aesthetics through personal, interactive poetics. Many of my videogame artwork (The Tale of The fox and the Crane, Dream Interaction) has been exhibited in national museums and cultural centers in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where I come from.

What development tools did you use to build Orpheus Quest?

I do a lot of sketches using the traditional graphite pencil and paper. Then, I take my sketches into Illustrator, Photoshop, Flash, and Unity. The controller was designed, cut by cut, as simple paths in Illustrator. Then, these 2D vector designs were turned into the real product (the lyre) by laser cutting and engraving.

What physical materials did you use to make it?

We used MDF laser cuts, lasers emitters and electronic circuitry.

How much time have you spent working on the game?

We have spent nearly 4 month working on Orpheus Quest.

How did you come up with the concept?

The concept was inspired by different versions throughout history of Orpheus’ myth. But the concept was inspired by Orphée aux enfers (“Orpheus in the Underworld”) an opéra bouffe, composed by Jacques Offenbach, in the 19th century.

I came across, by chance, the 1971 adapted TV version of the opera by Gunter Fleckenstein and Joachim Hess (in fact, this version inspired the first draft of Orpheus Quest) and I fell in love with it. The melodies were simply intoxicating and delicious. So much so that it inspired me to share this charming experience: the power of music and its ability to infuse love in all living beings, even in the creatures of hell.

The concept of the game blossomed into the flowing feeling of music, love, and tenderness abruptly interrupted by some sort of aggressive, dark violence. This disruption, at an especial aesthetic level, in my opinion, is the salt and pepper of the game. In Orpheus Quest we see cute and jolly characters, immersed in colorful backgrounds of starry nights. But then you see how the stars fall onto their shoulders, the scenery darkens because of the recent loss (the start of the game is marked by Orpheus’ loss of his beloved, Eurydice). Funny faces turn into gloomy gestures.

Our goal is to generate empathy towards Orpheus In a poetic manner, our game.

We as a team, in front of this large scope of possibilities, are motivated to recreate the ancient myth, using humorous, ironic, and satirical elements displayed onto a contemporary art style. Our version of the myth is enriched with a narrative dynamics that provided the game with relevant aesthetics and game mechanics. I think that kinetic feeling and body movement is key to achieve the emotional empathic commitment of the player.

What appealed to you about creating a game using a musical instrument as its interface? About using music to face an in-game challenge?

My appeal towards using a musical instrument as an input was the possibility of recreating the myth vividly and making the player identify himself with, and putting himself in the place of, Orpheus, playing his lyre. Although the lyre we built does not emit sounds of any kind, the melodies in game flow on tempo when interacting with the instrument following the on screen markers. The execution follows the rhythm of the music tracks. 

Both the controller/musical instrument and the lyre used by Orpheus in the game represent each other, if the player stops playing so does Orpheus. The richness of the possibility of imitating his movements, the feel as a musician, who, with his gift, can travel through hell in order to save his beloved and return her to life, is a meaningful experience. I yearn to have the chance to transform this game in some sort of theatrical experience so that the gameplay becomes more immersive.

Most players will not naturally know how to play a lyre. How do you create gameplay around an instrument players might not know how to play? How do you teach them how to use your controller within the game?

We are not trying to teach how to play a real lyre - we aren´t musicians, in fact. What we’re trying to do here is to create and experience so the player can feel as Orpheus, our character, by interacting with our singular reconstruction of the ancient instrument. But yes, we need to teach how to use our instrument as a peripheral. We are going to add a tutorial in order to solve this issue, even though, the game is pretty easy.

In our user interface, we’ve put the notes sliding into the strings on a prominent place on the screen, highlighting the relation of order of the lasers in the lyre.

Orpheus Quest's visuals are a mixture of modern and classic visions, and we can see this in the laser lyre as well. What thoughts went into the recreation of an ancient instrument into this digital iteration? Why use lasers as strings?

There were many factors that influenced our intention of recreating the original instrument.
Classical instruments are analog, our version is digital. On one hand, were having issues in the digital conversion of the analog signal for the program to interpret it. Because of this, we wanted to ease processing and make the resulting signal (digital) more immune to noise and other types of interference, to which the analog signal is more sensitive. 

We were already doing tests with Raul using musical instruments as a control interface for a robotic project: "Bambi - Bot". But, of course, the mechanics of our automaton was much simpler than the set of rules that govern our video game. So, in terms of solving that problem, it occurred to us that the solution would come in the form of a stringed instrument, with lasers emitting interruption as a trigger. In short: when the player touches the laser it's interrupting the laser emission and thus blocking communication of the signal. This functions as a button/trigger/fret that the system reads as an input, that will be synchronized or not. The lasers are very attractive; their technological connotation brings the ancient myth to present times.

On the other hand, the luminous nature of lasers is associated with the Apollonian construct that light has the power to vanquish the darkness associated with sadness, the underworld, the emotional darkness and melancholy.

How do you think standard interfaces and controllers will change over the next five or ten years?

I believe the interfaces will change according to contexts more naturalized and integrated with everyday life. It is possible, in the case of the proliferation of the use of VR headsets, that they influence the way we relate to the common interfaces of today, and even radically changes the notion of screen.

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