We're in the early days of modern virtual reality, and developers are still getting to know the technology. They're slowly figuring out what they can do, testing the boundaries of genre, control, and story while trying to ensure that the experiences they create don't make players vomit.
That's what the makers of The Assembly have been doing for years at U.K.-based studio nDreams. Their goal with The Assembly is to create "a perfect introduction to VR," said Jamie Whitworth, game director on the project, in an interview with Polygon last week following a hands-on demo.
The Assembly was heavily inspired by point-and-click adventure games; it's an interactive story with puzzles. In that respect, The Assembly doesn't feel like a game that could only be done in VR, but it does make terrific use of the format in ways that enhance nDreams' storytelling aims in a meditation on bioethics.
"Point-and-click was probably one of our first reference points"
The story of The Assembly switches back and forth repeatedly between two perspectives. You begin the game as Madeleine Stone, a disgraced neuroscientist who was forbidden from practicing medicine after experimenting on — and inadvertently killing — her mother, who was suffering from a brain illness. The opening of The Assembly consists of a series of vignettes that tell this story in stark simplicity.
After that introduction, Stone is kidnapped by the titular group, a shadowy organization that operates a top-secret lab beneath the Nevada desert. The situation became clear to us in a subtle but impressive piece of storytelling. The vignettes continued, but we looked down to see ourselves (as Stone) strapped to a wheelchair and heard voices talking about her. The screen dissolved out of one scene and into the next, and we quickly realized that Stone was fading in and out of consciousness because of the sedative that her captors had administered.
That simple technique is a common device in all kinds of visual media, but it's astonishingly effective in VR. Your entire field of view fades out, and you see a completely different scene when your character's eyes open again. Just like with VR in general, it's difficult to convey just how special this kind of visual effect can be; you have to experience it for yourself.
"To experience it and feel that darkness close upon you, especially, I think is more unique to VR," said Whitworth.
The other playable character in The Assembly is Caleb Pearson, a longtime Assembly employee who is coming across reasons to worry about the ethically questionable work the organization is doing. Pearson's segments of the game take on an investigative nature as he slowly uncovers a mystery from his and The Assembly's past.
"Point-and-click was probably one of our first reference points," said Whitworth. "When we first realized the pacing, what we saw was, players just wanted to take their time in environments and enjoy what was around them."
While Stone is in constant communication with a woman named Elizabeth Chevez, who is administering the five puzzle-based trials that Stone must pass in order to make it into The Assembly, Pearson is on his own for much of the game. One of nDreams' main focuses was to tell a story from two perspectives "without trying to tell the player if it's good or bad or not," said Whitworth.
"feel that darkness close upon you"
I enjoyed Pearson's slower-paced sections, not only as a nice change of pace from Stone's puzzles, but also because they offered a closer look into the inner workings of The Assembly. The game's environmental storytelling is top-notch; the cold lighting of the medical labs and offices stand in sharp contrast to the exposed metal of Stone's trial rooms.
The Assembly also features some experimentation from nDreams on moving around in VR. You can walk through The Assembly with standard analog stick controls, but a perhaps more comfortable option is available as well. By holding the left trigger, you can project an image of yourself to a point in the environment that you're aiming at, and then teleport yourself to that spot. Turning is handled by the right stick in 90-degree increments, which also reduces the chances of developing motion sickness, according to nDreams. We didn't feel ill at all during our half-hour playthrough.
The Assembly will be released July 19 on Windows PC for Oculus Rift and HTC Vive; a PlayStation VR version is scheduled to launch later this year. The VR version on PC will cost $29.99 in the U.S., €24.99 in Europe and £19.99 in the U.K., and nDreams will also offer a non-VR version on Steam for $19.99 in the U.S., €19.99 in Europe and £14.99 in the U.K. Buyers of that version will be able to upgrade to the VR experience.