Close your right fist around the Oculus Touch controller while playing The Unspoken, and you conjure up a fireball. You watch your opponent carefully, waiting to smack your virtual reality dueling partner with a faceful of flame, just as soon as they're struck by a moment of carelessness.
Of course, they have fireballs too, which is why, when you close your left hand, a blue shield materializes that's perfect for deflecting incoming bolts. But there's no lack of other deadly magical strangeness that might come searing across the Chicago construction site in which this battle is taking place, and you're going to need a lot more than your ethereal little shield to win it.
The Unspoken is one of two new Oculus Rift-exclusive games Insomniac is working on, in addition to the already announced Edge of Nowhere. The Unspoken is the company's offering for Oculus' spiffy — but as-yet-unreleased — Touch controllers, which work to mimic players' hands in virtual reality. Armed with those controllers, along with the accompanying cameras that track hand and head movement in 3D space, Insomniac is able to put to work an idea the studio has had floating around for quite a while: a player-versus-player game about dueling magicians, burning each other down with flashy sorceries.
As Chad Dezern, the director of Insomniac's North Carolina studio, put it, The Unspoken is a game about casting magic spells with your bare hands, and (at least in the game) looking cool doing it. Firing up Insomniac's hands-on dueling demo at the event, journalists might not have actually looked cool, but they may have managed to feel it.
Combining Virtual Reality With Magical Reality
Dezern described The Unspoken as a cross between a fighting game and an arena shooter. Players stand in one place, using motion controls to chuck spells at one another (and block those spells). The fireball and shield are available anytime for free; the longer you hold down the trigger buttons on the Touch controls, the bigger your fireball gets, but it doesn't cost anything to throw one. Bigger, cooler spells, however, require a little more power, which is gained by snagging "spell shards" from around the arena.
Players can instantly teleport through a series of preset locations during a fight using the Touch control sticks, giving them the ability to relocate in battle, take high ground, and probably most importantly, pick up shards to power the stronger spells in their arsenal. Hold out a hand palm up and you're greeted with an interface of potential castables. Players reach out and take an object from the space and use it to start a bigger spell. A raven's skull lets you touch glowing objects in the air to summon ethereal birds to dive-bomb the other player. A mystical hammer comes with a magic anvil, which you bang to create a spear that's not at all unlike how you'd imagine the act of throwing Zeus' lightning bolts. The other spells in the demo included a paper airplane that turned into a real, very explosive plane, and a magic marker that could be used to draw a larger, more powerful shield.
making Harry Potter-like sorcerer magic happen with just your hands
Every duel quickly becomes about balancing various elements. Players want to do damage as fast as possible while trying to anticipate enemy actions, blocking incoming attacks of various types. Moving around the battlefield allows for chances to take cover and grabbing spell shards, and players can use their spells to blow up enemy shards to deny them ammunition. Head and eye tracking can give a sense of what the other player is thinking before they do it. And occasionally appearing on the battlefield are special collectibles; grab enough of them, and you can do huge spells, like conjuring a golem made of construction debris to crush your opponent.
Battles are fast-paced and multi-faceted, and while there's a lot going on, the primary feeling Insomniac is going for is the moment-to-moment experience of making Harry Potter-like sorcerer magic happen with just your hands. From the demo available at the event, it's a success, because the Touch controls really do a pretty good job of feeling like they bring your hands into the virtual world. Frantically tossing fireballs, ducking under swarming birds and trying to figure out how to kill that fast-approaching golem is frantic fun that work well with the unique, immersive aspects of VR.
A VR Learning Curve
VR comes with its own problems, though. One of the biggest is attempting to keep players comfortable — that is, not developing motion sickness — as they play. Insomniac has made comfort its big priority for all its VR games: Its other titles, Edge of Nowhere and Feral Rites, solve the problem by using a third-person perspective. The Unspoken is a first-person game, and so letting the player move around is a potential problem. Insomniac solved it with teleportation, much like Epic Games' first-person shooter Touch demo, "Bullet Train."
"It's funny, when we started out, it wasn't a given that we would have movement," Dezern explained. "We thought 'this is a game that's about casting real magic,' maybe we keep both players rooted to a spot, and it's a back-and-forth magicians' duel. But then we had to prototype a movement scheme. We tried a lot of different things and when we got teleportation into play, it really did add a nice layer of spatial thinking to the game. Suddenly we could have cover points and high ground, and really understanding your surroundings and knowing where you're opponent is became a huge part of play."
Apart from cool-looking spell moments and flailing around trying to quickly cast spells, VR adds a different aspect to The Unspoken's multiplayer experience. Head and hand tracking gives the avatars in the game a human-like quality that's not really captured in other multiplayer games yet.
That information allows for subtleties of action that deepen the experience, as players react to their human opponents in nuanced, subconscious ways.
"The story that I go back to is the first time that we got head and hands working, when I was actually winning a match, I could feel someone who I was playing kind of give me a dirty look in the game, which felt like this really cool new thing," Dezern said. "Not only were they kind of glaring at me, but also I knew, looking at what the avatar was doing, exactly who it was. I could see this person's body language come across. That's when you start to feel that, wow, this is really kind of new and a cool way to get human interaction in a game."
A Whole Mess of Magic
There's more to The Unspoken than just tossing fireballs back and forth, Dezern said. Insomniac led with the above trailer, which imagines an urban fantasy world with magical secrets just beneath the surface. Though the game is focused on online player-versus-player duels, the world isn't just set-dressing. Dezern said The Unspoken will include something of a "world story," providing players with context of why they're engaged in these magical brawls and what the magical world is all about. And while it shares aspects with the urban fantasy genre in fiction, Dezern explained that those books weren't were Insomniac looked for inspiration.
"We're into the urban magic genre in general, but at the same time we tried to draw from a different place," he said. "We look a lot like at the films of Wong Kar-wai for example, films like Chungking Express and Fallen Angels, mostly because they have this sense of, like, Technicolor noir that we think is really, really cool. It feels like there is an alternate reality that's lurking just beneath the surface that's somehow more real than actual place that you're in."
"It's cool to see a swarm of ethereal crows fly at your face in VR"
As for actually beating down opponents with mystical weapons, the demo was full of entertaining spells that required players to pay attention to their casting, potentially leaving them vulnerable. The paper airplane, for example, appears as a sheet in front of the player that they have to touch in the right places several times to fold. The big shield materializes only after you use a magic marker to draw complete lines in the air in front of you. This sort of hands-on aspect gives casting spells a more involved feel, because players don't just hit a button to swap to something new as they would on a controller — they actually have to think about what they're doing to get access to their most powerful tools.
The Unspoken also will include more than the small group of spells available in the demo. There's actually a grimoire full of spells players will have access to, Dezern said, and each spell will have properties that allow them to cancel each other out. Players will be able to choose character classes and spell loadouts before matches, tailoring their choices to specific play styles and even swapping out the standard fireball-and-shield base spells.
"We have different types of spells, and for every spell we design, we think not only about what would feel really good in terms of an interaction, but also what the opponent's experience will be," Dezern said. "We want to make sure every spell has a counter, something you can do to nullify it and possibly even send it back at the caster. We do think about those relationships. Also we think a lot about what is cool in VR. It's cool to see a swarm of ethereal crows fly at your face in VR, so we might start with that idea and build around it. But ultimately we want every spell to have a cool ‘only in VR' component."
The Unspoken is slated to land on the Oculus store sometime around holiday 2016.