News

The Body is a Teacher: Reimagining VR Storytelling with Robin Hunicke and LUNA

This post is part of an ongoing series about writing, storytelling, and critique in VR, in partnership with Galatea, a writing and project management tool for immersive stories.

When you first start talking with computer scientist and game designer Robin Hunicke, the first thing you notice is how effortlessly she can swirl together complex and disparate thoughts that crystallize into thorough analyses of human interaction. What begins as a reference to San Francisco’s food truck culture will magically become an overarching metaphor for how venture capitalists should approach funding VR content.

What you might not know if you’re new to the world of video games is that Hunicke is one of this decade’s pioneers in game design and interactive narrative—with credits including Sims 2 and Glitch on the way to serving as Producer on the 2012 indie-darling-turned-breakout-PS3-hit Journey (which Ryan Clements of IGN heralds as the “most beautiful game I’ve ever played”). Now she’s CEO of Funomena, which she co-founded with Martin Middleton. Suddenly, her scaffolded thought patterns and attention-to-detail make a whole lot of sense. Her knowledge of human interaction isn’t just armchair enthusiasm; she’s studying, processing, and internalized these ideas 24/7. The affable disposition is just the icing on the cake.

I first encountered Hunicke’s work when I demoed Luna at Oculus Connect 3 last October. I was mesmerized by how quickly and thoroughly I was walked into a meditative trance—particularly given that I had come directly from a first-person wave shooter that had scrambled the wiring in my prefrontal cortex (I mean, hey, that’s what it’s supposed to do). But in Luna, I was able to just breathe. I had tasks; it was my job to help a beautiful bird travel the universe and free pieces of the moon from the bellies of other animals, but I could approach each of them on my own time—lingering in any given space as long as I chose. And the more I participated, the more I began to feel the nuanced narrative about the nature of loss, overcoming grief, and personal transformation.

The video below gives a sense of the gameplay (but Hunicke said the experience has come a long way since October, so this should just be treated as a taste):

Yes, Luna is adorable—and it’s meant to be. But there’s something larger at work here than cuteness. This game has been engineered to task players with learning a new breed of interaction with a game environment—in a very literal sense, to learn a new language. How do you derive meaning if there’s not a princess to save, a bomb to diffuse, a race to win? Is it possible to imbue a linear narrative with a non-linear atmosphere? These are just a few of the many questions Luna poses en route establishing this new kind of engagement.

Luna, which will ship two different versions (PC and VR), brings Hunicke’s experience and talent to the fore. In the latest episode of Story Unframed, she discusses how she brought this game to life for VR, and shared some key storytelling lessons, including remembering the body as a storytelling device, paying attention to playtesting, and thinking small to get big results.

Personal Growth is Sexy

When Hunicke set about brainstorming for her next game (what would become Luna), she found herself thinking a lot about personal transformation.

“The game sort of comes from this idea that I had a long time ago that I wanted to understand the process of personal transformation,” said Hunicke. “I wanted to to make a game where there was a transformational element and I initially started thinking about it by doing a lot of paper folding (like origami).”

The more she thought about it, the more she realized how much of an under-explored “goal” this was in the contemporary video game landscape.

“When people play games typically the titles are about like going back in time and getting revenge making everything fine, saving the princess, whatever it is—and these kind of hero fantasies are very valuable in our culture and they’re everywhere—but there’s lots of other kinds of stories too,” said Hunicke. “In fact most stories don’t have everybody winning, and in real life you can’t go back in time and just make everything different. You can’t just erase the thing that you said it did or that caused the breakup….or tell that person you love them before they have the car accident; it doesn’t happen. And we spend a lot of our time, as it turns out, fantasizing about those moments and wishing we could go back in time—which is probably why we make some of the games about about saving the day and making it better. But what if we made games that were about including and understanding the mistakes that we had made and evolving from them?”

This Process Mirrors Real-Life Growth

Positioning this kind of conflict in the context of a game mirrors how growth happens in real life—which gives it the possibility of driving positive change for players IRL.

“Luna [is] a sort of fairytale [with] an underlying message in the narrative…about being able to talk about your feelings and understand yourself in order to let things go,” said Hunicke. “We can’t necessarily remove pain or end mistakes—but we can let the pain of them go. And so in the game we really wanted to build this narrative framework, but we wanted to also explore that narrative framework in a way that was truly based on the things you do in the game. So like Journey…we spent a lot of time building prototypes of gameplay mechanics to get at the narrative without telling you.”

What if we made games that were about including and understanding the mistakes that we’d made and evolving from them?

This begins right from the get-go with the game’s tutorial. Hunicke explained that the three-part progression players are walked through there—remember, build, and then free—applies to each level of the game itself. In turn, each level is a representation of one of the stages of grief. This allows players to learn the “language” of the game in a more fluid, organic mode.

“What you do is you unravel these memories of the bird which are in sort of star puzzles there, almost like a cat’s cradle,” said Hunicke. “[You] sort of move around and grab stars and pull them into the correct locations and then they reveal little shapes which are kind of like totems or seeds. And then when you’ve found all of the shapes for that level, you can take the shapes and use a pallet to place them down into the environment. And when they land in the environment they grow trees and flowers and Lily pads and stuff like that. Over time what happens is is that a little, almost empty terrarium that you start out in that just has this weird crystal tree slowly turns into a living terrarium filled with bees and butterflies and, you know, leaping koi fish and frogs and music and all kinds of delicious life. Every single time you do that you’re getting more comfortable with and more competent with the systems that we’ve built in the game that allow you to build beautiful terrariums.”

Differentiating Between Narrative Delivery in VR vs. PC

Hunicke wanted to be sure Funomena was making a game that was equally compelling in VR as for PC. In the process, she learned all kinds of insights about VR’s unique affordances and constraints—and how to invite new kinds of participation from audiences new and old.

“We can do a lot of tricks on the PC, especially during the cutscenes and stuff that make the game look super super gorgeous that are a lot harder to do in VR,” said Hunicke. “The PC version is the version that showcases the storybook nature of the game and particularly Glenn’s amazing art, which has just lovely textures and is very tactile. The VR version is like it’s own little living world. It’s like a fishbowl—you look down inside of it and see everything there.”

Funomena used this fishbowl quality as a guide in creating a VR experience that might appeal to non-traditional gamers and people who might not be gamers.

“We’ve done a lot of work building a VR experience that is safe and as engaging as the PC title will be for for people who don’t necessarily play a lot of games,” said Hunicke. “We want kids and parents to be able to play the game together. We really wanted to give someone who was new to VR a chance to just relax and enjoy all the magic that it offers rather than have to think about all these extra cognitive behaviors—all these things they’ve got to do like winning, you know—grabbing things, catching things, keeping things from hitting them, moving, you know all those kind of like, high-level cognitive motor functions…that generally generates a lot of anxiety in new players. So we took away most of that stuff.”

The Body as Narrative Device

The way Hunicke and the Funomena team were able to create such an intuitive game for audiences of all ages stems from an obsession with the ways the human body engages with virtual environments.

“The thing that is so crucial in VR is is thinking about the body,” said Hunicke. “One of the things I think about a lot is that VR is sculpting the form—it’s dance, it’s theater. It’s engaging the body.”

Hands

She references a subject of particular interest in Luna’s game mechanics: how the representation of hands changes user engagement.

“If you think about controller, the controller is a physical object that, when you hold it in your hand, it has grip,” said Hunicke. “So people typically grab these controllers and they hold them like a rifle or a hammer. And that’s called a ‘power grip,’ whereas the grip…which is your index finger and middle finger and your thumb finger just lightly touching as if you’re holding a pencil or pen or a paintbrush–that is a ‘precision grip.'”

Your body is programmed to have feeling based on the way that you move it.

This is more than just a semantic differentiation. It directly impacts the narrative pact between story and participant.

“When you move your arm along in a precision grip, like if you just pretend that you’re painting a line in space with your fingers, the parts of your body that get activated at most are your triceps, biceps, and your shoulder,” said Hunicke. “When you grab the invisible hammer and then strike with the hammer—even if you just grab the hammer before striking —your entire upper torso and your back get engaged. It’s a fist. The physical feeling of the power grip immediately sends signals to your body that you are going to do something with force. Whereas the precision grip sends the signal to your body that you were going to do something delicate. It’s the feeling of fist versus conductor, fist versus paintbrush, fist versus chopstick. That feeling is so important.”

Which is exactly why Hunicke finessed the representation of hands in Luna to look like curvilinear, abstract brushes—”controllers” that ask for precision rather than power.

The Body Creates Feelings That we Attach to Stories

It is the job of writers, narrative artists, and game designers to intimately consider the various mechanics and myriad types of engagement that the body offers in building out a narrative so that all parts—plot, interaction, theme—operate in unison.

“Your body is programmed to have feeling based on the way that you move it,” said Hunicke. “When you watch people do really informed and well-practiced hip hop dance—whether it’s partner or solo, or in line fashion—you see the body locking in position and then smoothing out and then locking in position and smoothing out. This feeling that you create with your body when you move it—you can do it without music, it isn’t the music that gives you the feeling—it’s the body motion also, and together they create something for a third person to watch.”

Kids vs. Adults

In watching so many different people playtest Luna, she noticed something interesting about how people of different ages engaged with the game. Children are “all over the place,” and tend to love the game.

“They’re just there looking at everything from every angle they want to like get behind things and underneath them and poke their head inside of the geometry,” said Hunicke. “It is awesome. They’re so engaged in like, ‘What is this fantasy, where does it end?’ They want to see behind the curtain. They want to know where the wizard is.”

Adults, though, especially those who aren’t familiar with VR, tend to exhibit much more reluctance to put their bodies into the digital fray.

“They’re even reluctant to stick their hands out, like, to put the hand away from the body and touch something,” said Hunicke. “You’ll see them kind of leaning forward and thinking about doing it. We deliberately put things kind of far from you at the beginning so you have to move—and there’s a reluctance there. It’s like they can’t see their own hand, they’re afraid it’s not real, maybe they’ll hit the television. There’s a responsibility voice inside keeping them from being really free.”

Discomfort Kills Presence

This tidbit can have a huge influence in how a designer chooses to situate objects in virtual environments, particularly in cases where adults make up a major percentage of the players. As an example, Hunicke referenced a friend of hers who was suspicious of VR (in terms of its possible ramifications in amplifying human isolation), but playtested Luna out of friendship. In watching her friend, Hunicke could track the moments where engagement increased or decreased—simply by observing body language.

“I could definitely see there were moments when the curiosity got the better of them,” said Hunicke. “They really really wanted to bend in and pet the bird or like play with the trees and make music or splash in the water or like notice that they were like little koi swimming under the water and like bent down to see them better. But then there were other moments where they didn’t really know what they were supposed to do, and they’re used to games being very scaffolded. And so they would just become kind of vaguely uncomfortable—and in that uncomfortable moment the body leans back from the experience, the hands go down to the sides, the neck turns, kind of crooking, looking like a bird like, ‘Hmmm. Is this safe? I don’t know.’ The motions become much more staccato. There’s a sigh that comes out of the body; you can just see it. You can see someone getting stuck. You can see someone removing themselves from the environment and going, ‘Actually this is just a game I don’t even know why I’m here. What is this thing?’ It immediately becomes available to you as a viewer.”

All of a sudden, the body is not just a communication device within the game itself, it’s an outward-facing communication device.

“When you’re playing VR you are interesting to watch. And that’s something that I think we haven’t really thought about much either,” said Hunicke. “I think that there’s a lot of information coming off the body posture of the person playing that could be used and recycled and brought back into the game.”

Pay Attention to Playtesting & Critique

Leave the Bad Stuff in During Testing

When users offer up feedback, whether it be in their body language or direct feedback, Hunicke has learned that you need to listen.

“I spend a lot of time watching people play when they play in VR,” said Hunicke. “One of the key elements of iterating for the [Funomena] team is that we we leave things in when they’re not great, and we let people play them, and we deal with the feedback which is usually…it’s known, but it’s painful to hear.”

More than just listen—it’s the storyteller’s job to internalize this information to see if they can land on a creative solution to the issue.

“These kinds of feedback are very important to hear—not just once but sort of really let it settle in—because if you react right away to what’s wrong with the game and you just put a Band-Aid on it, you’re not really asking yourself if you’re approaching the problem from the wrong perspective,” said Hunicke. “‘Is there a better, fresher, more interesting perspective to see this design from?’ Whereas if you leave it in there and you really let it sink in that it’s just not working, sometimes you’ll get an inspiration to see it in a different way.”

Designing with People and Usage Habits in Mind

Applying that feedback is a whole new challenge with its own considerations.

“You have to engage at the same time you have to be aware that people are going to get distracted,” said Hunicke. “They’re going to reach out to touch something and then vector towards the right so that they can pet the bird and see it giggle and chirp, you know. They’re going to start to think about doing something and then rotate the terrarium and go to a completely different place, and if you want them to go back to the front and pay attention to some creature that’s down there in the front, you really have to make an affordance such that when they rotate the terrarium back they can go, ‘Oh that’s right. This is a thing I can activate now.’ So we’re really working on that in the in the VR version.”

Funomena is trying to apply as much of this to the PC version as well by leaning less on cinematic techniques like cutscenes.

“We’re really trying to be disciplined in the way that we tell the narrative in effectively 2D-3D because we want there to be that same challenge,” said Hunicke. “It’s really teaching us both the value and the crutch of sort of traditional cinematic techniques. Really trying to allow there to be more freedom and more agency in the player—even in the 2D build—is something that the team is really excited about. It’s a challenge for sure; it’s an opportunity for sure.”

***

Hunicke also discussed advice for aspiring VR storytellers, her hopes and concerns for the industry (including a whole thing about appetizers vs entrees), and her desire to establish a fund to support marginalized voices in the games community. All that and more can be found in Episode 3 of Story Unframed:

Keep an eye out in the coming days for announcements from Funomena at E3 regarding the final launch date of Luna. For any press seeking a demo of the game, email Funomena at info@funomena.com.

About the Scout

Jesse Damiani

Jesse Damiani is Editor-at-Large of VRScout and the CEO of Galatea, a writing and project management tool for immersive storytelling. He's also Series Editor for Best American Experimental Writing (Wesleyan University Press) and the author of @endless$pectator: The Screens Suite #loliloquy (BlazeVOX, 2017). Other writing can be found on Billboard, Forbes, Quartz, IndieWire, and HuffPost.

Send this to a friend