DRIFT Exploring the edges of VR gaming

By Fabien

DRIFT is probably VR’s most experimental game yet. Conceived by a small team of designers without prior gaminng experience, it turns out as a brilliant work exploring new possibilities of storytelling, game design and art direction. And it reward the patient explorer with ever evolving game design and a rich story, as explored in previous Fabbula articles.

To conclude our exploration of Drift we sat down with the co-creator Ferdinand Dervieux, to discuss our impressions.

Ferdinand could you tell us about the conditions in which the game was developed. How did all this start?

Ferdinand Dervieux: It ws in 2014, we weren't making video games back then. We were just motivated by Occulus' organization of a contest called VR Jam. With Aby, here with us today, we were also developing Along the Trail. One day, around a drink, we thought: why not create a game in which you play an object traveling at high velocity in a 3D environment, trying to reach a target? It started there, and we decided to make a demo. The very next day we had one ready, and we thought it had potential. So we added it on the list and decided to have it done at the end of the month. That's how we ended up doing DRIFT.

I feel like there’s a real desire to explore the medium. Were you trying to push the limits, to see what VR could do?

FD: Yes absolutely. On these three projects, we all came from different backgrounds: illustration, design, interface design... We didn't really have a gaming culture, but we did see exactly how to use our knowledge and skills in a virtual environment. We weren't trying to fit in, we wanted to try new experiences, which was a good match for this rising technology.  It was the perfect occasion to try something new, more original.We didn't have much time to test it, so we just focused on the core concept we wanted to develop, ask the most vital visual questions, and go very quickly about answering them.

Did this process allow for more radical choices?

FD: For the very same reasons: all these constraints had us work very radically, because we had to make fast decisions. We couldn't discuss things for hours, test for a week when we had four weeks to finish three projects. If we can't make a decision within minutes, test it within minutes, we can't move forward. There was a real creative flow, which ensured a project that wasn't fixed. And that meant we'd never be bored while working. We'd arrive in the morning knowing what we were going to work on, but with no idea how that would turn out. Plus, we never knew when a new idea would pop up. We had to be very reactive and act consequently if the idea fit what we had in mind for the project.

One of the thing I really liked in the game was the contrast between the speed of the object we play as, and the stillness of the environment we play in. Was that intentional? Where did that idea came from, making the environment completely still?

FD: It's one of the constraint we put on ourselves to go further. We needed to have great textures and nuances for our polygons , since they make up the whole environment of Drift. It is overexposed, with an extremely white front side and various shades. We wanted the shades to have a quality other games wouldn't match. To reach that quality, we had to bake the game, that is pre-calculate all the light effects. We couldn't possibly do that in real time as the phones are not powerful enough. So we created the textures: they are images, as if we applied drawings directly to the 3D models. So the shades have this quality, they're built with many nuances on the various lights within the space, and that had a tremendous impact on what we were drawing. We used it to our advantage by integrating it to the gameplay. It was just logical for the game to be frozen in time since we played as a fast moving object. The environment had a detail quality that was superior than other games in the contest, our than what you normally see on smartphones. That is because it is still, and we inject movement through the player's speed. It's as simple as that.

Furthermore, with VR you can really develop that idea of omnipresence. The motion creates the story: was that intentional, or did it happen during development?

FD: When you place a user in an environment today, he is transported, there's a lot going on in his head. I see the narrative process as something that takes place in the viewer's mind. A painting, for example, can have narrative qualities. If the main perspective lines draw the eyes in a particular direction, then it starts creating a story. So when someone enters the game, he has a point of view assigned to him at the beginning, within the 360° environment. So just in that you've got a narrative decision from the director and the developer. In DRIFT, by adding the dimension of movement, there're infinite points of view available to the user, but also the constraint of navigating a labyrinth, with a set course to reach the target. That's why the narration really works on several levels. Once the player gets used to the environment - and you always need some time to adapt in DRIFT - he will spend his time telling his own story. He'll build the narrative by navigating these set pieces that are frozen in time, but in which a lot of things occur. Some of these things are more or less obvious, but they are the basis of the environment we wanted to create.  

A quick reminder that there was a first version that was made for VR Jam in record time. Then, over several months, you developed a second version for retail, with many levels and great attention to details that make it a fully fledged game.

FD: After the game jam, we decided to turn this experiment into a full gaming experience. That's when we worded on the added narrative dimension. It was to be both a way to guide the player, and to make him thing about what it is to navigate a fully virtual environment. That's what we built with the narration in DRIFT. You didn't get to play with the sound, but when you first jump in the game you're greeted by an artificial intelligence which sets it up as a perfection simulator. It's a way for us to look critically at our game: the aim is to make the perfect trajectory to reach the target, but after a certain time, what does it really mean to do that? Are we trying to aim in the right place to reach the target? What exactly is a perfection simulator? And as the story unfolds, its gonna slip and turn into an adventure which brings the story to another level. It's a reflection of what it means to be wearing a headset, to lock oneself in a virtual universe. These are new things for our society, we're not used to it yet. What is it all going to lead to?

I’ve got a feeling you’re not going to tell us more about Walter and his multiple brains, or why we see octopuses, or any of the many incredible things that happen in the game.

FD: I'm trying not to spoil anything...

Ok, so we invite you to discover this story for yourself. But you had a real screenwriting work done here, you hired a professional, right?

FD: Yes, Maxime Phedyaeff. Ok, no spoiler, but reaching true perfection in the game is terrible. The outcome is that we should never have tried to be perfect in the first place. We made another game that's a bit similar for VR Jam with Julia Spears, who's hear today. It's a game where you play as a prison guard. It's set in a panopticon, which is a prison built at 360°, because we thought it was an amusing comparison with the headset. After all, it is a central point of view with a 360° rotation, in which you do not move. In a panopticon, there is central tower surrounded by inmates in see-through cells. All inmates can see the tower, but not if they're being watched, as the tower's windows are made with tinted glass. The fact that Facebook bought Occulus a year ago makes it all the more ironic, because Facebook has that voyeuristic feel to it: we watch others around us, they don't know we're watching... This is the kind of game that has no ending. Well there actually is an ending, but it doesn't mean you've won. The game is to whistle every time someone tries to break out. The only possible ending is to end up in one of the cells after someone eventually escapes. We then realize that all the people around us are former prison guards themselves, that failed their mission. Maybe that's a game more similar to what you were saying: a game that's not actually about whistling, but about realizing that there are things we do, but don't necessarily know why we do them. Even in DRIFT, we spent about 10 or 15% of our time working on the success side of it: set the target, build a 3D environment around it, then code the fact that hitting this target will create a positive outcome and keep score. But 80 or 90% of the work are the sounds made by the objects you hit on your way to the target. Its designing and setting a course for these objects. That's what actually makes this game fairly long: you spend a lot of time losing. That's how I'd sum up the game, really, em, losing.