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Making Psychonauts humor work in VR -- without making people sick

"There's a million little things that the team learned," says Tim Schafer, joined by Rhombus lead Chad Dawson. "Like I learned that it's not as fun to look behind you as I thought it was going to be."

Alex Wawro, Contributor

February 21, 2017

23 Min Read

Making a game that's genuinely funny is no joke. Try to do it in VR, and you've what seems like a recipe for massive headaches.

You've also got the ingredients for Rhombus of Ruin, Double Fine's first VR game and the first game it's shipped using Unreal Engine 4. The story of how Rhombus came to be -- and the things Double Fine learned in making it -- is worth studying.

Out this week for PlayStation VR headsets, Rhombus of Ruin is also Double Fine's first proper sequel to Psychonauts, the 2005 3D platformer that became a cult classic and, over a decade later, still had a fan community large enough to help crowdfund a sequel last year. Rhombus of Ruin tells a short interstitial story between the two Psychonauts, and in the course of working on it the folks at Double Fine seem to have developed an appreciation for VR game development.

"I think now that we're done with it I was kind of like, 'Oh it was kind of fun making a VR game,'" Double Fine chief Tim Schafer said recently, speaking to Gamasutra alongside Rhombus of Ruin lead Chad Dawson. "VR games are pretty cool."

Here's an excerpt of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Now that Double Fine has its first VR game out, are you at all concerned about the number of headsets that are in the marketplace?

Tim Schafer: Well, when it first came out, I was not one of those people who were like, VR is the future. Everything's going to be VR. I was kind of like, wait-and-see. I don't know if that's where I want all my gaming, as a player. I don't know if I want to come home and see my kids in headsets -- my kid.


"There's a million little things that the team learned, like I learned that it's not as fun to look behind you as I thought it was going to be. It's such a pain!"

But we did want to try something. "We'll make a VR game." And this opportunity came up to do one for Playstation and we were already talking about doing Psychonauts 2 and I wasn't going to tell -- in between Psychonauts 1 and 2 there was going to be this rescue mission that they're just going to be laughing about when they got home, "Ah, that was a great rescue mission, wasn't it?" I kind of want to tell that story but it's a small little, secret mission. Well, what if that's the VR game? And it just started making sense. That's why we did it and we were never planning on -- we didn't know where the markets by the time we launched. We just wanted to see what we could do with it.

Talking about the VR market, you know, it's not something we...You hope it grows. We're not banking everything on it. Even though we're a small company, we're pretty nimble and we can do multiple projects at once. We're doing like four projects, and this is one of them.

I was more skeptical at the beginning of it, but after we made the game and seen what the team has done with it and playing it, it's like, "VR is pretty cool." It proved it out to me, not just as a tech demo or an experience but as a game and as a place to go. You can do comedy in it and you can do emotional stuff, it's just a very active way of empathizing with the character by jumping into their minds for a little bit which was a minor thing you did in Psychonauts 1, but it's the main mechanic of Rhombus of Ruin. I thought it was interesting and so I was like, "VR's pretty cool."

But I feel like it's still just one tool in the game toolset, if you will. I don't know if all games will be VR, but that's because there's a whole bunch of things that we haven't found a way to do in it yet, and there's a whole bunch of new things that we learned about making the game that you can do, so it's just going to be different.

Yeah, I want to actually ask about that, I know -- I mean, I think I know, this is the first time you guys have done UE4, right?

Chad Dawson: Yeah, it's our first time.

Do you feel like doing more? Is this an opportunity to warm up and get a feel for UE4 before you do it on a project?

Dawson: I think so. Psychonauts 2.

Schafer: Yeah, Psychonauts 2 is in Unreal too.

Wow, that's very retro.

Schafer: What? Do we not call it Unreal anymore?

I heard "Unreal Engine 2" and I was like...

Schafer: Yeah, we're doing it in Unreal Engine 2. That's the best one. I think everyone agrees that was the best one.


Schafer: No, it was the right choice for us to start using Unreal, and Rhombus was the smaller of the two projects, so it taught us a lot and we learned a lot on it and Chad's been on the technological cutting edge of that experiment.

Dawson: We built up over the years, starting with Brutal Legend, an engine that we used for a decade. On Brutal Legend we developed in-house an engine that we used for about twenty games that we put out over the past ten years, but it's starting to get a little long in the tooth.

Schafer: You have to pay a lot to maintain an engine.

Dawson: Particularly as we started trying to release our games on every platform that exists. The tech cost of maintaining it were getting a bit crazy, so it was really our first attempt at trying to look at using another engine and it's been great so far. It's a learning curve. Any team will tell you starting out with Unreal and a new engine, there's a lot to learn, but it's really worked out pretty well.

What did you learn from going over to UE4? Was it easier in some ways? Was it harder in some ways?

Dawson: A lot of studios have kind of built up their own tech, so, particularly for programming, there's a little bit of that, "We built it" vs. "They built it" kind of feeling. Because you built up your own tech, you own it and you know it inside and out.

Schafer: And the artists working on it worked around whatever was wrong. Any package has things that are good and bad about it, but you kind of work around it and you grow new limbs to operate the machinery and it changes you.

Dawson: Anytime you start using someone else's engine, they came from a different set of philosophies and part of your game is to get inside their head as developers and say, "How does Epic think? How do they approach a problem?" Once you can kind of figure out their philosophy you can get your code working.

But you initially start out building it like you would've before, and you clash. It clashes and it breaks and everything crashes and you don't know why. So usually that's the first year or so. It's tricky because you're also trying to -- You know we're trying to get the game done during that same year.

Schafer: Yeah, we couldn't have built an engine from scratch in that time. This allowed us to just get in there and start prototyping and playing with stuff really fast.

Dawson: And Epic has done a good job of making VR work with it, so some of that aspect of just getting the VR hardware to work with it, they take on a little bit of that which we would've had to take it on for our own engine. So it was a good chance to look at that.

Has is significantly changed the Double Fine workflow to be working with an external tech company?

Dawson: It has! With a lot of our stuff, it's similar. Our artists still work in Maya. We also integrated a different sound engine for our audio engineers. Programmers are still in Visual Studio, so a lot of the aspects are the same.

Getting the art in the right format to get it into the game, that's a whole different -- That pipeline is different. It has a bunch of gotchas and a bunch of things you have to learn. Things where you're just like, "Don't do that," or, "Do it this way," or, "Get everything named the right way or in the right folders." It's all those little things that add up that can make learning a new engine a little bit trickier.

Once you get them down, you can really start being productive and it feels like we're at a point now that's really great for our Psychonauts 2 team kicking it off to have this experience in this project. Got through a lot of the initial hurdles to be able to come in and hit the ground running with that project, so to speak.

So what have you learned in the last few months on Rhombus of Ruin?

Dawson: We've done more late playtesting where a player actually can play most of the game start to finish. You don't really get to that point in the game until the end. But you always hope that their experience in the beginning will translate into their mastery and skill at the end. it's nice to see people getting to the end. I think an addendum would be try to get that beginning to the end in some form as early as you can. Don't save your last level until the end of the project, try to get it in in some form because it's important to do iteration.

Yeah, I was just talking to Brian Fargo about that, where if someone gave him 12 months to make a game and he could have 9 to build and 3 to test or vice versa, he'd way rather have 9 to test because the game gets much better if you get the whole thing together and iterate on it.

Dawson: Some of that depends on the type of game you're making.

Schafer: I'm already stressed out by just having 12 months to make a game. That's a short time!

Dawson: With this game, it has been one of our shorter cycles. For Tim, it's probably one of the shortest games you've ever written for, to get dialogue done.

Obviously a dialogue-driven game, getting it all in early is even more important; you can record scratch recording and get it in, but that's not the same as having the real voice actors' voices in. Their timing and delivery is different. For humor, timing and delivery can be huge. Just the pacing of a joke. To get that in, and have time to go back and revise it or add an extra line, you always want as much time as you can.

It's nice to have a few years as opposed to a few months. If you're making a game in a new genre -- VR is still new for everybody working in it there is a lot of that iteration. If you're making the same game you made before, as much of that as you kind of know works in that genre, but in VR there's new stuff everyday. You gotta know what works in VR and what doesn't. We relearn things every few months.

Yeah, I'm trying to not allow myself to ask the easy question of, "What did you learn about VR from working on this project?" It's a good question, but Chad you already answered it in your VRDC talk. Tim, you didn't give a VRDC talk. What did you learn about VR?

Schafer: Well the thing is that working with Chad, I wrote an initial bunch of dialogue based on how I write dialogue usually. And Chad was pointing out -- you know, in an adventure game, you say like, "Use hammer on nail," that sentence is in your head. Then when he [the in-game character] is like, "Mmm, I don't want to hit that," it makes sense.

But in a VR game, you're like holding the hammer and you look at the nail, and then you look away and then he's like, "I don't want to hit that," and you're like, "No, I'm looking at -- what are you talking about?" Like there are so many times that you didn't know what the character was talking about and he's like, "I don't want to do that here." And you're like, "What? Here? Where?" Or he's like, "Ooh, that looks interesting." You have to really be specific about like, "I don't want to hit that nail with that hammer." That's more of an interesting dialogue in VR change.

Dawson: You have to focus on attention so much more.

Schafer: You can't depend on the player seeing what you're talking about at any given moment.

Dawson: In a point and click adventure, you're dragging an object on something and you release and the mouse pointer's still there. And like Tim said, you know, "I used the hammer on the door," and that's in your head still when the character responds with dialogue.

Schafer: The metaphor for a gaze in an adventure game or any sort of game with a cursor is the cursor. Imagine that cursor as it passed over things just triggered everything and all these interrupts were happening all these dialogues were smashing into each other. That's what the early versions of the game was like, because you'd look at something and the game would immediately be like, "That's a neat pillow," and a lot of dialogue was clobbering each other. That was the main thing, the change in the dialogue.

So how did you go about making that stuff not terrible?

Schafer: Chad would be like, you've got to rewrite this to mention the hammer and the nail.

Dawson: There was a little bit of that. It was tough because we were kind of reaching the end of the project, but the more people running through, we went through a bunch of lines and kind of rewrote it and said try to get the verb and the noun -- the object and the verb, because the player will forget what button they pressed.

"Did I just hit pyro or did I just hit telekinesis? You just said 'I can't do that.' What did I just try to do?" The player would lose context as well. So as much as you can kind of reinforce that is good. But then also how much does dialogue stop other dialogue. If the character's in the middle of saying something, halfway through the sentence, and then you poke something else, does he stop that sentence and start talking about the new one?

Initially, we thought yes, because you want feedback on that new thing, but as a first-person character it makes you feel like you're kind of strange. Like you're scatterbrained. That's a nice way to term it. You feel like you're crazy because your character keeps stepping on stuff, "Wait, what was I saying?"

So a lot of the lines, we've transitioned more to let you finish what you were saying before because we found that even though you're trying to interact with something new, you'll keep trying that after this dialogue stops. You won't forget about that and think it does nothing. You'll actually try it again.

For most players when they get frustrated, they just start hitting buttons. It's just a player style -- some players are very patient adventure game players who click and kind of sit back and wait for everything to finish before they click again, but most people want to see cool stuff happen around them, so they're trying to make a mess and toss stuff around. We wanted it to work for both, but we were surprised at how many players approached the game from more of that bombastic "click on everything, hit the buttons as fast as I can" style of play. Probably, at least half do. For them, if a character is just spattering around on what he's saying that didn't really sound very good, so we shifted it.

Schafer: My initial dialogue I was writing for a player, he was just kind of gazing around thinking about each thing as he moved around, but I had to rewrite all of that.

There's a million little things that the team learned. Like, I learned that it's not as fun to look behind you as I thought it was going to be. It's such a pain! 


"I remember when we first wired it up, you're so close to her flapping mouth, it's like, 'Wow, I feel like I'm in her mouth. We need to back up a little bit.'"

Instead, putting a lot more things in front of you is important. I learned how much more intense all of the NPC interactions are in VR than normal. Like when Mia's bending down looking in your eyes, you move your head around she follows your eyes around, it can be more intense than in a third-person game. And even a first-person game. It's my eyes! She's looking at my eyes. When I move my head, she's following my eyes around. It's very intense.

Like playing the Batman game. When Batman looks at you it's a little weird because he's kind of scary-looking and he's right in your face. Whenever Batman looks at you you're like, "Aaah!" You've got to be careful with how you stare down people in a VR game. It's easy to accidentally scare people, so you have to use it in choice spots, where it's really funny.

Dawson: That opportunity for compassion, for empathy and identifying with a character. When you see the character look at you in the eye and you try to look down, seeing that losing your gaze and looking down, they're kind of sad or something, people would kind of lean in and it's sort of a social response, character gets too close to you, like Tim said when Batman is in your face that's a response as well.

Schafer: I like the Batman game, but it was intense to have an evil-looking guy looking at me in the mask.

Dawson: But even in the beginning of our game where Mia is kind of leaning down to talk to you, I think a character that has to lean down to talk to you applies to their sense of they're an adult and you're a kid. That type of relationship.

Schafer: It used to feel like you were inside her mouth. I remember when we first wired it up, you're so close to her flapping mouth, it's like, "Wow, I feel like I'm in her mouth. We need to back up a little bit."

Dawson We did have to put textures inside of her mouth because you can see in her mouth when she's talking. initially that wasn't very good detail. Just black in the back of her mouth and everybody was like, that's creepy. Like you pick up details like that.

I'm still impressed that you would texture the back of her mouth. Did you get like a uvula in there too?

Dawson: Yeah. Some of the characters -- all of the characters are really strange looking characters if you take them out of the context of the game. Like, Coach is a potato head kind of guy. And Lili's eyes are so wide, they're like wider than her mouth. A lot of those we didn't really pick up on being so strange until we got up close to them.

So one of our challenges I think on the art team -- I think they did a great job with it -- was to not make that look scary. Make it still look like the characters from before, but up to modern technology with fidelity as much as we can. Get it to run at a high frame rate, that's also tricky too with VR, that you're always faced off with that challenge of VR can look good, but if you start dropping frames, that can make people sick as well.

Oh, that didn't happen at all for me: I felt like really everybody was huge, because I felt like Raz was my actual size, so all of a sudden everyone in the airplane is huge. Mia is like eight and a half feet tall.

Dawson: I think with any sort of change in character perspective, there's a bit of that adapting. But if you can get the player to where they get used to it, feels like they're in the world, past that initial shock, you're doing good. But it's hard, there's so many cues that can throw you off. There's so many things that are subtle that takes a person out of the experience.

We had a crazy thing where people would put headphones on the wrong way because most people don't think when they put their headphones on that left has to go on left, not right. But in VR that makes a huge difference, because you'll hear a sound cue over here, but it sounds like it's over here. And you look and the person is over here and that gets in your head, it kind of takes you out of it a little bit. Something that was weird about that game, articulating that is what people have a hard time doing because it's kind of if you're self conscious about those things.

It's neat though, I've talked to sound designers who are super psyched because they're like, "Okay, now if I'm making a VR game, I have perfect positional audio because I know exactly where you are in the VR space and where your ears are."

Dawson: It is neat. Psychonauts is interesting too because we have characters in the world talking to you, but then also talking to you telepathically in your head. So if someone talks to you in your head, where is it in your head?

Is Mia kind of here in your head [gesturing to the left] and Coach here [gesturing right] and Sasha here[gesturing upwards]?

You have a lot of opportunities for that, and obviously playing music is interesting as well because you sort of want there to be music in the background, but it's not coming out of a speaker on the wall, so where is it coming from? We use music for some of our puzzles.

Has this really been Double Fine's fastest game project?

Schafer: As far as dev cycle? No, we've done Kinect Party. I think that was really...

Dawson: And some of our mobile titles were shorter, back in the day.

Schafer: Shortest dialogue time maybe? What is the total dev now after all this?

Dawson: Total time, about a year and a half.

Schafer: Counting all the prototyping?

Dawson: Well, we started in late summer.

Schafer: Yeah our smaller games are usually like two years. No wait, Costume Quest was a year. It's all over the place.

If you had to give one piece of advice after this project is wrapped to another dev in VR, what would it be?

Dawson: I would say try to put some characters in your game. The compelling aspect of interacting with a character is huge and hasn't been explored a whole lot. I think there's a whole lot more to find there. But a lot of game design ideas are more mechanics-based.

Schafer: Yeah, or just in a space.

Dawson: Because it's tricky to do a character, it can get uncanny valley. It's hard to approach, but I think the opportunity's there. I want to see more developers do stuff with characters.

Schafer: I'll say, just because you don't get sick playing your game doesn't mean everybody else won't get sick playing your games. You've got to test it with a lot of different people.

Did you guys get sick playing your game?

Schafer: No, because we strap you to a chair the whole time.

I was going to say, it wasn't always that way, didn't you used to move --

Schafer: No -- Did you move around?

Dawson: Earlier prototypes we had guards patrolling and you'd go in their head and they'd still be walking and you'd just be in their head. But suddenly they would turn and you wouldn't turn and -- Like Tim was saying he didn't initially know what was going to be in the Rhombus of Ruin. That sort of whole area didn't come out until way through development when we were given a better sense of where we were going to put all this stuff in the space.

So initially we knew someone was captured so it would be kind of a prison torture area sort of thing. So we had a lot of guards and you'd go in their brain and they'd keep walking and you know, move your camera for you and they'd be on a patrol path and they would turn, but that would make you sick really fast. As soon as your character turns without you expecting, then suddenly you're looking out the back of their head. We quickly learned, "Okay maybe this isn't so good." But we dove in head first trying stuff and I remember there were days where I just was like, "I can't put on the VR headset any more today." 

Schafer: So we structured the game so it has these breaking points, like you can play it in chunks and stop.

Dawson: Yeah, it definitely got better, but I think a lot of it was our design kind of finding -- Tim's had the philosophy of, "Let's make it a comfortable game." If something is making people uncomfortable, then let's find a way to contextualized a reason not to do that or to change the space around. We'll put another character in front of you and you can look through his viewpoint rather than having to find the guy behind you because we only put two characters in the level. Add another one and give him a different viewpoint. That was our guiding design along the way of let's try to make it comfortable.

Are you at all interested in continuing to explore VR development? Are you excited after this?

Schafer: I think now that we're done with it I was kind of like, "Oh it was kind of fun making a VR game. VR games are pretty cool."

Dawson: Yeah it definitely got us excited about what's out there. When it's your first time doing something you're always lucky to even get it done. You're happy if it doesn't totally fail. But it gives you excitement. You keep going back. If I could've told myself a year and a half ago what I know now, I would've done something cooler. So there's definitely a lot of stuff to explore.

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