A little robot with a salad bowl-shaped head is dropped off on an asteroid by its human family. They're abandoning it, but it doesn't know it yet. Clutching its suitcase in one hand and a talking red balloon in another, it waits. Days turn into weeks turn into months turn into years. The little robot continues to wait, suitcase by its side, the balloon — miraculously — still inflated.
The robot's name is QT3. Its human family abandoned it on an asteroid because — like all the other robots of the same model that have since been discontinued — it lacks humanity. How a robot's humanity is measured is unclear. What is clear is that those who lack it risk being scrapped, unless they can prove otherwise.
After waiting for 32 years, QT3 is found by an alien named Jeff, a jelly bean-like member of the galactic administration assigned to determine if robots like QT3 have enough humanity to continue existing, or if they should be sent to be reset and recycled. Jeff will be watching and taking notes. QT3's future is in the player's hands.
Doki Doki Universe isn't a game of skill. The game, which is coming to PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, PS Vita and has a mobile component, is not about winning, point-scoring or "beating" levels and enemies. At a top level, it's an adventure through a universe full of quirky and quaint stories. Scratch the surface, and it's about teaching a robot how to be human and the surprises and frustrations involved. Go deeper still, and it's a game about you, the player — the human.
HumaNature Studios has its office in a suburban house in Albany, a quiet town across the Bay from San Francisco. It is both cozy and home-like, with engineers and programmers set up in what would normally be a living room, artists and designers in another room, a basement turned into a work space, a dining area that has been converted into a conference room and the general manager's office comes with an antiquated wooden ironing board that flips out from the wall.
The studio was founded five years ago by Greg Johnson, a developer who has been in the games industry for more than 30 years and has worked on games like Toejam and Earl, Starflight and Choo Choo Soul. His office wall is covered with art from Doki Doki Universe — hundreds of expressive line drawings of figures and objects caught in a moment that captures their character perfectly. Around the studio are posters from Miyazaki films, prints from the French novella The Little Prince and art from the developer's past games like Kung Fu Panda.
"The games I've worked on, even though they kind of jump all over the place, like Starflight and Toejam and Earl and Kung Fu Panda, they all have a commonality," says Johnson. "I guess you'd call them soft or warm, human-oriented. They're feel-good games that hopefully uplift and bring people together and make people smile."
The studio was founded with this desire for warmth and human connection. Johnson says it was something he'd been chasing for a while, but the urgency to finally start a studio to make those games came when he ran out of patience. Or maybe it's because he got older. He's not sure which it might be. "I just kind of get tired of all the good graphics and the motor skills and the general emphasis on cinematics," he says. "What I miss are things that I increasingly value in my life, which are people and understanding what motivates people, what moves people and stories about people."
"I felt terrible. I felt so bad. And then all of a sudden I realized I felt bad, and that was wonderful!"
When he founded the studio, he was funding it with his retirement fund. While he'd had big aspirations to create an interactive Miyazaki-style experience, he also knew it was far more than an individual could afford to build on their own with such a small budget. Instead, he zoned in on the concept of people and human connections, making an app called Deko Deko Mail where users can send each other messages, substituting keywords for animated images — a system of emojis on steroids. Users could then express themselves through the words they used in a message and alter or emphasize meaning through the animated art. It wasn't a game, but it helped make some conversations more meaningful.
The studio's next step was Deko Deko Quiz, a Facebook game that used similar assets to Deko Deko Mail where players took an online quiz. The game created profiles for players based on their quiz results, and then asked players to guess how their friends had answered. It was a game about how well players knew their friends, and it brought the studio closer to its goal of making games about people that connected people.
By this point, HumaNature had thousands of assets — simple but expressive line drawings bursting with personality. While they did their job in conveying meaning in Deko Deko Mail and Deko Deko Quiz, Johnson felt that they could do more. The studio began work on Deko Deko Moons, a game that involved traveling to moon-like planets to visit all the characters from the Mail and Quiz apps.
Ready to try something big with Deko Deko Moons, the studio decided to take what it had to one of the biggest video game publishers in the world, Sony Computer Entertainment. Did they know exactly what they wanted to make? Not quite. But Sony didn't need much convincing.
A UNIVERSE IS FOUND
"We showed them Deko Deko Mail and Deko Deko Quiz and Moons, and they said, 'Ooh, we love it, we want all of it, we want you to put to together in one product," Johnson says. "At first we were like, 'Huh. OK. Sure," because when you're in a pitch meeting, that's the only thing you say. Then we went away and scratched our heads a little and really thought about it. How are we going to do this? And the more we thought about it, the more it make sense."
According to Johnson, all the games and apps shared a common theme of self-discovery and expression. Players expressed themselves through the mail, they learned about themselves through the quiz, and if players landed on different planets and interacted with different characters, it could be fertile ground for all the elements to come together.
Sony saw something in this.
"We saw the charm in each of the product types," says Alex Lee, an executive producer at Sony Computer Entertainment America's Worldwide Studios, who now works closely with HumaNature Studios. "It was the charm of the art, their knowledge of the social environment at the time, and the opportunity that we knew they could do it.
"I mean, what a stellar team — they had a history making games, they had the ability to work together. We had a high level of confidence in the honesty and truth in what we were seeing, and the strength of the visuals and the strength of the idea and products."
Sony was intrigued by how HumaNature would pull the three Dekos together into a unified game. It funded the studio's prototype and assisted the studio where it needed help. It mostly gave the studio the time and space it needed to figure out what its game would be.
Doki Doki Universe started out as an incredibly nebulous concept which consisted of floating parts. Lee admits that it was difficult to describe in the early days, especially before the little robot QT3 was implemented. Part of Lee's job was to shield HumaNature from those who were tempted to prod and poke it in one direction or another. The other was to help build internal support from Sony for the game. As he championed Doki Doki Universe, the world of QT3 began to take shape.
TEACHING A ROBOT
QT3 stands on the asteroid, suitcase in one hand, balloon in the other. The news has just been broken to him: if, upon evaluation, it is found that he doesn't have enough humanity, he will be sent to a scrap heap. The player must take him on an adventure across the universe to discover humanity.
Doki Doki Universe consists of 32 planets and 50 asteroids. Every planet is themed around a human emotion or trait — fear, love, jealousy, etc. — and every planet is an opportunity for QT3 to learn about and, subsequently, gain humanity. As players travel with QT3 from planet to planet, they play through stories where they will have to make decisions for QT3, which not only determine QT3's personality, but are also a reflection of the player's personality. When players land on asteroids, they will take personality quizzes. The game collects data from every quiz completed and every decision made and populates the player's home planet with objects that reflect the player's personality. The home planet even has a shrink-in-residence named Dr. Therapist, who evaluates the player's personality.
Within all this are layers upon layers of ways players can connect with others and the game. For example, every player gets their own home planet, and this home planet can be shared with other players online. Players can fly to each other's home planets to see what they've collected, what they look like and how closely their in-game personalities match their real-world personalities. Within the game every character has their own likes and dislikes, fears and worries and a relationship meter with the player. They all have their own favorite greetings, too. Some characters like to be waved at. Others like it when QT3 blows them kisses.
Johnson says that every planet teaches QT3 about a certain human emotion or trait. On the planet Farroh, QT3 encounters Egyptian queen Cleo with her ghost lover, Ramses. She can't see him in his ghost-form, and she believes that he has left her because he doesn't love her any more. QT3's job is to help her have faith that he still loves her. Many of the choices QT3 is presented with range from the sensible and kind to being an outright jerk. Every decision made has a consequence, and if players make a mean decision, the naive QT3, who doesn't know any better, bears the brunt of the repercussions.
"The theme of that planet is bullying, and you learn that he basically hates himself for being cute."
On the planet Suteki, there's a population of little sushis who learn that they're food and become terrified that they're going to be eaten — it's up to players and QT3 to resolve the panic that has swept the planet. On another planet there's a snowman who is embarrassed and ashamed because he hates the cold, but he doesn't want to tell his father. On another planet, there's a cute fluffy bunny who goes around bullying everybody. The planet is full of cute characters, and he hates all things cute.
"The theme of that planet is bullying, and you learn that he basically hates himself for being cute. You find out he had a friend, balloon, who's on your home planet, and she originally came from this planet and was good friends with Ralph the bunny," Johnson says. "She used to tease him about being cute, and now he really hates himself because he thinks she left him because he's cute. He's got this giant carrot sidekick named Carrot who follows him around bullying people."
In Crayon Land, there's a giant sea monster who everyone's afraid of. The inhabitants all have little pets and are always trying to protect their pets from the sea monster.
"Of course, you find out that his name isn't Sea Monster, it's Matthew, and he just wants someone to call him Matthew. He thinks their pets are cute and he just wants a pet of his own. Everyone's been misjudging him."
"I remember in the game Ico, at one point in that game I jumped over a crevice and I called out to the girl who was adventuring with me to join me, and she was scared," Johnson says. "The developers did a really good job of making her look nervous. She'd go up to the edge, back off, and run and jump. At the last moment, I intentionally backed up just to see what would happen and I didn't catch her. She scrambled on the rock and then fell.
"I felt terrible. I felt so bad. And then all of a sudden I realized I felt bad, and that was wonderful! It was like, oh my god, look at what this game just did. I cared so much I forgot that she wasn't real. That's my goal. That's what I want to do. I want to make people suspend their disbelief."
Johnson admits that Ico and Doki Doki Universe are very different games that aim for very different things. He doesn't necessarily put them in the same league, either. Where a game like Ico is cinematic and uses beautiful art, environments, sounds, atmosphere and a more serious story and vibe to elicit certain emotions in players, Doki Doki Universe uses a whole different set of tools to immerse the player in the universe. Part of it is the art style is so charming and quirky, it puts players in an emotional space.
"I think there are different ways to tap into people's emotional space," Johnson says. "One of them is through immersing them in visuals and lighting and camera and all that stuff (à la Ico), but another way that people don't expect but can work is just through the simplicity of fundamental human interaction."
According to Johnson, the interaction with a naive character who is worried about getting eaten, or the interaction with the Sea Monster who just doesn't want to be ostracized any more — these basic human interactions can engage players, even when the characters themselves are only represented by a few lines with pockets of color.
Even playing as QT3 can be a surprisingly reflective experience for the player. When taking on the role of a naive robot who doesn't realize that he was abandoned by his owner, who doesn't understand why picking up a sushi and throwing it would upset someone, who doesn't realize that blowing another character 50 kisses in a row could creep them out — players can't help but question how it is that they can identify the traits and emotions that QT3 can't, and why they have made the decisions they have in the game. In most games, players project themselves onto a character. In Doki Doki Universe, QT3 is a vessel that reflects that projection back to the player.
In most games, players project themselves onto a character. In Doki Doki Universe, QT3 is a vessel that reflects that projection back to the player.
Johnson says Doki Doki Universe isn't his attempt at changing the direction of video games, nor is it some grand gesture about humanity. He tells Polygon that if players are charmed by the game — if it puts a smile on their face —then the studio will be happy. But if players can get more out of it, then that's no accident, either.
"I think when you're trying to make a game with humanity, all you really have to do is care and take a shot. I think that gets you halfway there," he says. "I'm a strong believer in the proof is in the pudding. Which is to say, you decide if there's value here and there's enough to make you feel like it's worth your time.
"It's a very personal and subjective determination that everyone has to make on their own, so I would never want to claim that we are the be all and end all. But we're offering something," he says. "We're trying."
QT3 stands on its home planet — the player's home planet — with its little suitcase on the floor and the red balloon floating nearby. It stands here because a family that did not understand it did not think it was worth helping. It stands here because the player was willing to try. Regardless of whether QT3's salad bowl head and tin-lined heart successfully fills with humanity, when the little robot blows kisses at sushis and asks giant monsters why they are sad, there's little doubt that this journey across the universe is definitely worth trying.