Exclusive Interviews

nDreams Provides New Details About Their Upcoming Narrative VR Adventure, “The Assembly”

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Chances are you’ve seen, read and/or heard about a virtual reality video game, either in development or already out. Few, however, are as equally focused on story and the experience as nDreams’ upcoming interactive adventure game, The Assembly. Revolving around two scientists who work for a secret organization known only as the Assembly, the game aims to blur the line between good and evil, and posits the question of whether the ends justifies the means.

nDreams recently announced a July 19th release date for the game on the PC for the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive for $29.99. They also revealed a non-VR mode included in the VR version, as well as a separate non-VR version for $19.99 with the option to upgrade to the full VR version at any time.

After speaking with Communications Manager George Kelion, Senior Designer Jackie Tetley and Art Manager Martin Field, we absolutely can’t wait to get our hands on this come next week’s release.

ONLYSP: Can you summarize The Assembly for our readers?

Jackie and George: The Assembly is an immersive, story-led adventure in VR. The game centers around the Assembly, a mysterious organization that has been conducting experiments in a bunker deep below the Nevada desert. Hidden from the world and unconstrained by government scrutiny or society’s morals, this collective of scientists, engineers, and academics has been free to experiment as they choose. The Assembly prizes progress above all else and will go to extreme lengths to keep its operations a secret, and thus uses the concept of moral ambiguity to its maximum extent, blurring the line between right and wrong depending on how one looks at an issue or point of contention. The game begins with a lethal avian virus threatening to escape the confines of the Assembly’s underground laboratory, a chain of events that puts the organization’s existence on the line.

Players take on the role of two individual protagonists, each with their own perspectives and motivations – newcomer Madeleine Stone, and Assembly veteran Cal Pearson – both of whom are in a position to shake the foundations of this enigmatic collective. While an apprehensive Madeleine undergoes her induction to the Assembly, Cal wrestles with events that have made him question his allegiances. Their paths criss-cross throughout the game and players will find that their personal points of view can differ substantially. Over the course of the game’s narrative, players will face challenging moral dilemmas and experience the repercussions of their actions while uncovering the Assembly’s secrets. For better or worse, the impossible decisions that Cal and Madeleine face have the capacity to transform not just their own futures, but that of entire nations.

Players get two different viewpoints of the Assembly as they switch between Cal and Madeleine. The latter is showered with impressions of how the Assembly would ideally like to be seen, blissfully-ignorant of the bigger real truths. The former, meanwhile, sees the Assembly as it really is, and uses his veteran status to investigate and dig up what it really seeks to do.

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ONLYSP: What would you say are the main themes of the game?

All three: It’s really a mix and varies throughout. One of the bigger things has been tapping into real-world anxieties about pandemics and epidemics, particularly diseases that have recently successfully jumped from animals to humans, a phenomenon called zoonosis.

A more central macro theme is the real-world fear that rapid scientific advancements may overpower or overcome the ability of humans to handle/control their development. What if man’s reach were to exceed his grasp? We personally think that our grasp already exceeds our imagination.

We have a situation where a lot of technologies, especially in medicine and pharmaceuticals, where you’ll hear things are being tested several years before public implementation by regulatory agencies. There must be some element of moral turpitude somewhere in there. With The Assembly, we’ve tried to tap into that.

Above all, because we are not the only game inside a secret underground facility, and because this is a common trope in other media forms, we want to imbue a more critical point of view. What do we mean by that? More-completely breaking down the stereotype to see what makes it tick and how it actually would function in the real world.

For example, it’s wonderful to have these fantasies of deep underground labs within a desert, but what is it like to actually work there? Do you commute there daily? If not, do you live there? If so, then you may be separated from loved ones for extended periods of time. How does that affect your psyche? What about your relationships with your colleagues in your workplace? Do little disagreements and conflicts get blown up into major arguments under such conditions?

If that’s true, then what disciplinary measures may or may not be taken to “correct” the problem? If the nature of your work necessarily puts you into contact with sensitive and classified information, how can an organization ensure that employees won’t become whistleblowers in the event of a dispute? Keep in mind, though, that the Assembly isn’t a carny kind of group that’s so draconian that it shoots workers who step out of line. No one in their right mind would work in such an environment. So, the question remains: how does an organization institute disciplinary measures?

What about the hierarchy of workers? After all, it’s not likely that those who prioritize running a secret underground laboratory would care about human resources.

We’ve done our best to explore and keep in mind the answers to all of these questions. I suppose the only thing we haven’t discussed is how the heck they managed to haul around the materials for and manage the construction of an underground bunker on a daily basis without attracting unwanted attention. But hey, cut us some slack; good stories and narratives always have frayed edges somewhere.

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ONLYSP: In one of your earlier commentated walkthrough videos, Madeleine comments on the lack of marks and damage on the mountain face, given how large of a project building an underground bunker is. On a related note, Jackie, you mentioned in the same video that The X-Files was partly used as an inspiration for the game. Is that true?

All three: We wouldn’t call it inspiration necessarily. Jackie is just really keen on The X-Files. Mystery, surprise, secrets, the idea that something’s going on that only some know about, while others don’t, so the former needs to keep it a secret. We wanted to draw out what effect that might have on those who shoulder the burden of knowledge.

It’s also a relative sense of what is “good” in The X-Files. The “villain” often doesn’t see him or her self as being deserving of the title. Their intentions can, in retrospect, start off as being quite noble. That sets up a palpable sense of moral relativity, which is very much at the heart of our game. It’s very morally-gray. We’re not gonna say “Oh, this is the right thing to do.”

As is true for many things in real life, there’s lots of considerations. So, which way do you tip the scales when trying to advance science?

ONLYSP: Who would you say came up with the idea for The Assembly?

All three: Everyone pitched in, really. It was studio-wide.

We want to tell a story in virtual reality. We discussed what would be comfortable for the user and player in VR. nDreams has always been about telling stories. For us, coming down from Patrick, our CEO, through the writers and design team, telling a fantastic story while introducing people to this new technology that VR is our goal.

The beginning of development of the game was cultish, less real so to speak, but as time went on, as we thought about it more, as the game got together, it’s evolved. It’s also been a process of extreme trimming, and I think it was a pretty sad day when we had to drop the underground ice rink feature, but I think it was best for the story. *laughs*

ONLYSP: There’s nothing cultish at all about being strapped to a gurney on the first day of work…

All three: Hey, it’s for safety! It’s best to be strapped to something than to be free to move on your first day in a place like the Assembly.

We call it The Gurney Journey internally. A lot of people have seen it in the video (NOTE: which you can view at the bottom of the article). What it fails to capture is the positional audio. When you feel like you’re actually in the environment in the game yourself, the voices sound like they’re behind you.

That’s very important, because otherwise you might think you’re either Cal or Madeleine, rather than definitely one or the other. We’re only able to inform the player that you are either one or the other person talking through positional audio, which is amplified in power in VR. It really stands as an emotional amplifier itself.

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ONLYSP: Sounds really cool. How deep is the degree of player-driven choice in the game?

All three: It’s essential. The game has multiple different endings. We would love it if people played through the game multiple times. It’s the only way to find what they didn’t see the first time around. There’s a lot of incidental choices in game as well which impact the narrative, but don’t necessarily affect the overall outcome of the game

Not to disrespect the Mass Effect franchise because we love it, but in The Assembly, player-driven choice is not delivered by dialogue wheels. Instead, actions you choose to perform, or in some cases don’t perform, affect which story arcs dominate. You can make those choices at will. How, you ask? Rather than through a series of cut sequences, choices and their consequences are made by exploration. VR, by its very nature, emphasizes curiosity-driven exploration. The major choices are not all highlighted or signposted conspicuously. They don’t say ‘this will affect the game.’ But there are some very interesting choices you make that you won’t realize will have ripple effects further downstream in the story.

ONLYSP: I’m sure you’ll win some hearts and minds with that answer. In a post on your blog following E3 last year, you mentioned that nDreams re-announced the game after its original debut during E3 2014. What, if any, are the major changes you made since the original, and why did you choose to re-announce it at all?

All three: Mostly under-the-hood changes. The biggest thing was changing from Unity to Unreal Engine. We switched for a number of reasons, but not because we thought Unreal was better. Rather, Unreal gave us the power we wanted for this particular game and flexibility to develop for the various platforms. In-game lighting was also better using it.

Over the course of the game’s development, we’ve worked with three different writers, each on a different phase. Tom Jubert was brought in to develop The Assembly’s initial story outline and he did a fantastic job. As development progressed and the game began to take shape, the sequence of in-game events moved away from Tom’s original treatment. We then brought in Robert Morgan, who’s worked on the narrative and dialogue for a number of other VR-first games including including The Deep, to further develop the game’s dialogue and characterisation. Finally, we brought in Antony Johnston who worked with our designers to expand The Assembly’s narrative and finesse its tone. The end result is a compelling, character-driven interactive story in VR that really grips the player all the way through to its surprising yet ultimately satisfying conclusion We also redesigned some of the puzzles.

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Our greatest effort, however, was put into fleshing out the characters. We already had a pretty strong story, but we think as the game progressed, we wanted to create a game whereby we give it a little bit of that old HBO feel. Y’know, that feeling where the people you are playing as at the start of the game aren’t necessarily who they turn out to be at the end. Deep and rich character arcs are what we ended up deciding on.

On the productivity side of things, the re-announcement was based heavily on the fact that the actual hardware we’re releasing on  has also been extended and advanced. A lot of what we’re doing is, without over-glorifying it, benchmarking for VR. No games of this quality and size have been done yet in VR, so the more technology becomes cut to support VR headsets like Playstation VR, the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive, obviously that provides us with, from a technological standpoint, more opportunities and ways to tell stories we want to tell. As their release dates became more and more delayed and extended, the more time we in turn had to try new stuff.

When we started, the Oculus Rift was the only gaming hardware we knew was happening, we didn’t know what capabilities it would have. And then came Playstation VR and the HTC Vive, and there’s all of these new interesting features that you want to take advantage of. It’s exciting how much enthusiasm there is behind the hardware and VR in general, especially how everyone seems to totally be on board with it.

Over the past year or so, our research and development team has been literally running around like kids in a candy store. When you look at the eye-tracking capabilities of the FOVE VR headset, you’ve got everything in sync then. It’s gonna be really cool.

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ONLYSP: Speaking of development in VR–how difficult is it?

All three: Part of the difficulty of developing in VR is what is well-known about developing for any platform prior to its consumer release. You’re developing for a moving target, essentially. It wasn’t that long ago when we were all moving from the Xbox to the Xbox 360 and the Playstation 2 to the 3. You think it’s gonna be over there, but it turns out to be over there, so it’s always a bit tricky.

Challenge-wise, producing any kind of content for VR, you have to render everything twice; one for each eye. Just to get a game running, you end up using a lot of techniques and skills from previous generations of devices and developers, just to get a small amount of VR content in. Current next-gen consoles are able to run some of the most stunning visuals at blistering speeds. But if you ask them to do that twice, even they wouldn’t be able to do it.

We started with a low base rate, with stuff we know we can get in. We’re not testing the hardware, since it’s too hard at the beginning to ask it to render those things twice. Once we’ve got that baseline, we can start to iterate and get better at that. One of the things that has been challenging is, when we put something down in a VR environment, the player can go wherever they choose and look around an object. What we used to do performance-wise was, if you can’t see the backside of a table or whatever, it doesn’t have to be there. But now, our artists can’t get rid of that half of the table, so we have to render it twice.

In terms of first party resources, they’ve been nothing but helpful. It really feels like it’s so collaborative in a way I’ve only ever read about, but never experienced, in the video games industry. It really feels like everyone needs this to succeed as a medium before we start worrying about platforms carving out their little kingdoms. The collaboration between Oculus, Playstation and HTC Vive are quite close-knit because, at the moment, we’re all trying to convince real people in the real world that VR is something worth trying out. You can’t even describe or demonstrate what VR is like on a flat-screen.

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The written word and passive video are the worse ways to tell people about VR, but they are among the most prevalent forms of mass media available. The first parties understood that it’s all experiential, and we’re hoping that HTC, Oculus or PlayStation take upon themselves to put a headset in every mall and have people try it themselves. It’s literally a transformative experience. A lot of people have said that VR is like strapping IMAX to their faces, but it’s nothing like that; it’s not a passive screen in front of your face. Rather, it’s like putting your head in a bubble containing another reality. With Oculus Touch, it’s like having your head and hands in that same bubble. When eye-tracking comes, it’s gonna be mind-boggling, because you’ve really got everything you need. It’s like what we can do is almost beyond what we can imagine doing.

The most interesting thing about this is the concerted effort that’s happening in terms of technological development. Phones, tablets, and PCs were basically developed in silos by computer companies, whereas with VR it’s very much like a knowledge-sharing exercise between lots of different people trying to get this thing off of the ground. The guy running Amazon’s gaming division has said that it’s absolutely impossible to throw this much talent and money at something and not achieve fantastic results. For us, it’s past the point of whether this technology will succeed, but rather, the rate at which it will succeed and its impact.

VR, once connected to the public and socialized, allows us to experience the internet in that wish-fulfilling kind of way–in a tactile, visual kind of way. Rather than a forum being words on a screen, we’re only a few years away from resembling the Greek Acropolis, allowing face-to-face simulations. Our CEO, Patrick O’Luanaigh, says VR, beyond video games, is gonna be used for a variety of purposes, like engineering, education, medicine and other applications. Rather than having two separate devices for augmented reality (AR) and VR, we’re heading towards a convergence where we’ll have a device that does both. That’s the Singularity, like artificial intelligence.

What we’ve seen, and why people want this, and why we made The Assembly, is, in VR, you relate to your virtual environment as you would in the real world. We mentioned emotional amplifiers earlier. What does that mean? In the Gurney Journey video, when you see these two scientists look at you and track where you’re going, you are creeped out by this. But if you saw this in a normal screen presentation, you would only be moderately intrigued.

With VR, your brain thinks that these are two real people. When you walk into a bar in Old Western kind of movies, when everyone stops what they’re doing and look at you, the protagonist gets uneasy. Our goal was to make you get that sense of uneasiness. You’re not passively witnessing this environment, you’re actually participating in being there. Cal is lonely. He feels isolated. How we inform players of that is not by a string of text on the screen, but by incidental monologues only the players hear when interacting with objects and people. We can deliver it so much more subtly in a much more nuanced way. We can rely on it resonating emotionally with players.

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Video games for the past decade have been trying to deliver emotionally-engaging content with varying degrees of success. But with VR, when players go into the environment, you don’t have to do a lot of designing; it kind of just happens on its own. One of the benefits of VR is having a person in real space. Traditionally, in games, you can tell and show someone something, but in VR, you can make someone feel something, like Cal’s loneliness. Rather than inferring it, if we’ve done our jobs right, you can experience it. We aimed to make players feel isolated, just by their surroundings and how they feel.

ONLYSP: I can now check off “get dazzled by techie-speak” on my bucket list. You mentioned why people would want VR; why do you think our readers should invest in headsets at all?

All three: Easiest answer ever! Single-player gamers–we are massive single-player gamers. What we notice is the trend is that single-player content is decreasing in many games. That is because of many reasons, especially monetary ones. Production costs are getting higher and higher. For lack of a better word, many developers try to nickel and dime consumers by prioritizing delivering games to make consumers happy while minimizing costs and production time. Multiplayer modes and DLC are common features to extend game life.

With VR though, what we noticed is we’re going back to traditional ways of developing games. That is, the emphasis is shifting back to quality of content for single users. This may be because at the moment, not a lot of multiplayer VR games are in development, with the notable exception of RIGS: Mechanized Combat. What VR really does well is amplify emotions and the sense of presence within an environment. This makes it much  more immersive.

The good old-fashioned stuff about playing solo like story, narrative, interesting mechanics, well-defined environments, they’re all making a comeback with VR. The ability to explore environments at any pace that solo gamers want to take, either at breakneck speed or slow-and-steady to do and see and collect everything, that is what we think gamers will be attracted to.

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VR is really focused on delivering the experiences that single-player gamers have come to know and love and probably haven’t had a lot of treatment over five years or so. It’s been great. It really does feel like some of the old-school qualities of  video games that focus on mechanics and telling all-encompassing single-player experiences are really at the fore of VR development. In a way, we don’t really have to do much to try and sell VR because, once you try it, it’s like you don’t have to say anything at all. It’s one of those things that sells themselves.

If you’re a massive control freak, we can see you not enjoying VR. We had this one player turn up at an event who put on the headset and started screaming, yelling that she can’t handle it. It lasted about five minutes, well probably less than that, before taking it off because she didn’t like being disconnected from reality. Her friends told her she was absolutely mental, because they all had a go at it and thought it was great. If you don’t like being introduced to environments that you might not have already experienced, like if you only want stuff that you already know of, then you might find VR a bit weird. But I can’t really see that applying to most gamers.

ONLYSP: So you don’t think that the current introductory prices will be a sticking point for consumers?

All three: We really don’t. We think it’s kinda like advertising high-end electronic appliances to owners of low-quality basic television sets. Worse yet, imagine trying to advertise 4K content to the same people; they just won’t get it. Nothing happens until you actually see it in action for themselves.

It’s the same thing as telling someone to watch VR content on a regular monitor while someone else is playing. Nothing. But with a VR headset, bang, it just happens; and we think, honestly, that the revelation of trying VR will be enough to sell it to most people, whatever the price point for the various devices, both in development and currently out, come to.

As we were saying earlier, so many people are collaborating with VR hardware that actually, with the number of devices there are, there’s gonna be various price points to fit all budgets. And even with sales of headsets not blowing through the roof on day one, eventually, little by little, it’ll get embedded deeper and deeper as time goes on. It’ll spread by word of mouth, and more people will get to try it, and then they’ll say “Oh, that’s cool,” then they’ll get it.

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What we think, and what we’re seeing already, is that, during the first year to 18 months of VR, you’re gonna be in a situation where everyone has a friend whose got a VR headset. They’ll be the person whose house you’ll go around to to try it out. 12 to 18 months of VR post-release, you’ll see massive price cuts, because it’s not just the mainstream headsets, you’re gonna have all these other companies as well, like FOVE and Star VR.

So there’s a lot of people who want to get their devices into as many homes as possible, and obviously the best way to do that is a price cut. With the amount of competition coupled with rapid development, you’re probably gonna see the internal components going down in price. Thus, headsets will see rollbacks in price as well.

So yeah, we would say definitely within the first 18 months of VR, but probably within the first year, you’ll see price cuts that make it more affordable. Most people who are early-adopters, like when Xbox One just came out, know that the first year on the market is probably priced to target them, and that’s who they go for.

Not everyone can afford it in the first year, and that’s fine. What’s important is that they get to experience it at some point, at which time they’ll be sucked in and can’t resist waiting for a good price just to get more.

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ONLYSP: Now that’s elevator-pitch-worthy. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me. Based on what we’ve seen and my own experiences with VR at E3 2015, I’m sure The Assembly will be a hit, both VR and non-VR.

The Assembly is coming to the PC for the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive headsets for $29.99 on July 19. If you don’t want to play in VR, there is a non-VR  mode included with the game. In addition, there is a separate non-VR version of the game also coming out the same day for $19.99. There is currently no information about the dates, pricing and/or compatibility for other VR headsets.

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