A beautiful, animated experience set in the afterlife, Manifest 99 sits somewhere in between a film and a game. An ominous and eerie story, Manifest 99 is about finding redemption using a gaze-based teleportation mechanic as players assist four travel companions on their journey to their final destination.
In our latest developer perspective, we had a chance to chat with the creative minds behind this unique experience. Creative Director Adam Volker and Game Director Bohdon Sayre take us behind the scenes of Manifest 99 - sharing what worked incredibly well and what didn’t work so well throughout their development process.
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Tell us a little bit about yourselves and your studio!
Bohdon Sayre: Flight School Studio was formed earlier this year with former creative talent from Reel FX and Moonbot Studios. Each of us has a background in creating new, original content and we wanted to bring those skills to virtual reality and other emerging technology.
Adam Volker: Manifest 99 was my first VR project. I come from a traditional game and film background and I wondered "how hard could it be?" Welp, it was hard....or should I say, there was more to it than I anticipated.
How did your previous experience in film and design influence the development of a VR experience?
AV: We came at VR with pretty clear goals for the story and mechanics. With a clear roadmap in writing and even storyboards, we were able to tackle the unique challenges of VR. It felt more like designing a theme park than any other medium I’ve worked in. It had to be a pleasing space to “just be” in.
Virtual Reality gives players such a strong sense of presence. We were designing a linear story and new mechanics that not only make the most of VR presence but also allow players to progress through our experience at their own pace. We had to flex our plan around making sure the space itself really encouraged the story we wanted to tell.
What was the inspiration for Manifest 99’s painterly stylization?
AV: A couple different artistic influences are at play here. Bernie Fuchs and Edward Hopper were the main two. Hopper has these hauntingly empty paintings, and he manages to make harmonious color palettes out of odd color choices. Fuchs has a masterful use of texture and negative space. Putting these two inspirations together with a bit of my own twist really helped us arrive at the end visual result for the project.
The game incorporates light and shadow in a very thoughtful way. Can you talk about how you used aspects of light to set tone and direct players?
BS: Our lighter on the project, Anngelica Parent, hand-designed the lighting for each train car. We never reused the same lighting layout which was very important for ensuring that the player never got turned around or lost. Because of the unique layouts, each train had different key lighting shapes and shadows which acted as landmarks for players to ground themselves in the space. In earlier builds of the game, it was easy to get lost or turned around and lighting was one of the primary solutions we had for those problems.
Relationship building in games is notoriously difficult. How did you approach creating meaningful relationships within VR?
AV: For Manifest 99, this happened naturally because of one very important mechanic we chose. We started developing our warping mechanic via prototyping. We landed on a system where players had to look into the eyes of crows to warp to their perspective. At first, we thought of the crows as cameras. The same way you might shoot a scene in a film. We placed our crow cameras around the train in spots that gave the player a diverse range of perspectives and highlighted the things we wanted them to see. When it came time to tell the story of the passengers, we thought “sure, let’s just use the same mechanic.” We found players were really engaging with the characters by looking into their eyes. We leaned into that connection and started to build puzzles around it.
How did you incorporate the concept of “gaze” into Manifest 99 and interpret it for VR?
BS: We knew we wanted to create a controller-less experience from the start, and from a technical standpoint the best tool we had to use was the direction that the player was looking at any given time. We also knew that one of the more difficult aspects of designing for VR is making sure the player sees things that you want them to see (grabbing their attention, and also keeping it). We found that using the gaze-based teleportation encouraged players to look around for the next crow, and we could leverage that exploration to queue important events and story moments. There were definitely a lot of details that became important for all of this to work together, such as the timing and delays of animation; but, in the end, we tried to make it all work together as seamlessly as possible.
What were your top 3 challenges when developing Manifest 99 and how did you tackled them?
AV: One of the largest puzzles we had to tackle was the camera. In Manifest 99, we started with a prototype of our main locomotion mechanic. When that started to be engaging, we built the story around it. We are very proud to have integrated the current 'best practice' of warping into our story. It also gave us the ability to force players to engage with the characters in the world by looking them in the eyes. What a cool interaction!
AV: The project started with us wanting to hit a certain tone. Asking ourselves "what images, feelings, or mechanics evoke a spooky and ethereal vibe?" We talked a lot about crows and the current state of VR. Warping was being used in a lot of games we were playing and we asked ourselves if there was a way we could take that and integrate it more closely to the narrative of Manifest. We iterated a bunch until we found a way to make gazing around the world the method of teleportation.
Once warping from crow to crow felt natural, and we also felt confident we could teach it to people, we took a step back. We had something that we liked to play, and we had some key references. We latched onto the idea of a train, we wanted to tell a story that was spooky but not scary, and we did some doodles of animals in suits that we really liked. With those things in hand, we started to experiment and talk through the story the same way we developed the mechanic, by asking a lot of "what if" statements about the story that we could tell. "What if it was about people who had died in a train crash?" "what if one of them had survived?" The most interesting questions yielded the most interesting stories. We built our narrative off of exploration like that.
AV: During development, we generally tested the game in two ways. The development team plays the game all day everyday. Testing happens naturally and often. We make something and polish the way it feels and the way it is presented to the player and all the ways it will be used as a team. We push each other to make sure mechanics are intuitive and clear. Once we have something to a point we are happy with, we try to grab someone who has never played the game before. Usually this means that they find things we never thought of. They break the mechanic. We have to go back and fix it. The process then repeats itself.
If you could go back and change anything, what would you change?
AV: I really wish we had leaned further into adding narrative INTO the train. We set aside moments in the experience to "tell story" where the player watches the backstory of each of the passengers through a theater like set up. After we were further along, I realized that there was more space for storytelling inside the train than I anticipated, and I wish we had integrated more of the narrative bits of the experience into the cars of the train to make them feel richer.
As an illustrator and the principle concept artist on the project, I also really wanted to make a specific artistic statement with the project. Something that was simple and direct, colorful, textural and could flex to bring the player to a variety of different worlds. I am SO PROUD of the way Manifest looks, but there is an issue with the style. Unfortunately, we had to cut some details to improve performance on the platform. Things that your average player might not notice, but I miss dearly. We generally have a toon shaded look, but our team worked extra cycles to add some beautiful nuances to it.
When creating Manifest 99, how did you determine your business/development goals and what are your thoughts on progress toward those goals?
BS: Manifest 99 was our first internally designed and developed project as a newly combined team of creative and technical artists. We wanted to show by example the type of work we aim to create, while at the same time innovating in the worlds of VR and all emerging tech. So far the responses from people who try out our experience are above and beyond what we had hoped for!
Finally, what’s next for the Flight School team?
AV: Tons of stuff! We’re in development on two other titles to round out our portfolio of VR games and experiences. One is a game in the territory that core gamers will be familiar and the other is a wacky and humorous experience. We’re hoping to release both in 2018.