At the 2014 Global Game Jam, three game creators were desperately trying to come up with an idea for an Oculus Rift game, when they accidentally stumbled across a rather outlandish concept.
Ben Kane, Brian Fetter, and Allen Pestaluky had brought along their Oculus dev kits with the intention of finally getting around to making something with VR, instead of simply trying out all the demos the kit already has to offer.
But when their fellow jammers became aware that a Rift was in their midsts, a crowd began to form as people took it in turns to try this new tech out. That's when the trio realized that an Oculus game that involves the spectators would be perfect.
Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes
is a tasty mash-up of VR game and tabletop saga. One player puts the Rift headset on, and can see a randomly-generated bomb in front of them. They then have five minutes to defuse the bomb before it explodes.
However, this person has no clue about how to defuse said bomb. Rather, a group of people not wearing headsets are given a bunch of instructions on how to defuse the bomb, and must relay the various procedures to the headset wearer.
"We looked at the situation and decided there must be a way to get all of those bystanders involved in the same game as the player in VR," reasons Kane. "Each group could have vastly different sets of information, which roughly fit the game jam theme about differing views of the same things. From there, a few different scenarios came up, but the clear winner was the classic bomb defusing scene."
When it came to designing Keep Talking
, the team's core focus was on promoting interesting yet silly communication between the players, much in the same way that Spaceteam
"One consequence of this is that everything in the game needs to be fair, and a solution to a puzzle always needs to be uniquely identifiable," notes the dev. "If players ever feel it is necessary to guess at an action, they are immediately drawn out of their own communication and it instead becomes more about all of the players attempting to interpret 'what the game wants.'"
It also became increasingly obvious early into development that if the game devolved into a series of "if X, then Y" instructions, then a lot of the potential fun could be sucked out.
"We looked at the situation and decided there must be a way to get all of those bystanders involved in the same game as the player in VR."
As a result, the team aimed to balance the workload between the defuser and the experts, with enough variety that the defuser wouldn't be sat for long periods waiting for instructions on what to do next.
"There have definitely been a few puzzle ideas that didn't pan out the way we wanted," Kane says. "It's easy to make a module that is difficult or time consuming simply because of the density or complexity of the rules, but these result in the experts simply going silent for a while and then giving up."
"Communication needs to be encouraged or outright required throughout all stages of the game," he adds. "Both sides need to be kept busy because the more players can talk to each other, the more they can buy into the scenario, and the more fun they can have."
While the Ottawa-based trio didn't initially plan on making Keep Talking
feel like a tabletop game, the experience gradually began to shift in that direction, to the point that they were invited to present the game at both the Tabletop section of the Indie Megabooth at PAX Prime, and at GenCon, the largest tabletop-focused conventions in North America.
"In both cases, we noticed players were keen on communicating, carefully reading instructions, and generally open to a different style of gameplay," Kane says. "We've spent a good chunk of time consolidating our controls and trying to make them intuitive enough that players didn't need to think about them. The goal is to place the emphasis on the interaction between the players themselves. The communication is where the tension, the challenge, and the hilarity come from."
Kane reasons that when it comes to virtual reality games, there's a notable disconnect between the fidelity of 'presence' offered, and the input methods that were designed for something else entirely (like gamepads or keyboard and mouse).
"In the short term, I think we'll see some games designed around this," he says. "Action and combat can be de-emphasized, and exploration or player-enforced 'rules' will be experimented with. Many (or even most) VR games probably won't be about these things, but I do feel that in general virtual reality will provide an avenue for less traditional gaming experiences."
As a result, a number of VR games will share characteristics of tabletop games, just like Keep Talking
has. VR games can be social, roleplaying events, reasons the dev, "and they can be as much about the people you're playing with as they are about the game itself."
While pondering the implications of the VR functionality in Keep Talking
, I questioned whether it actually needs to be a Rift game in the first place. It seems like it would work perfectly well without the Oculus, and I put this to Kane.
"Up until fairly recently, we've been of the opinion that as long as you had differing sets of information between players (the defuser and the experts), then the game would work just as well as it would with VR," he answers.
"Communication needs to be encouraged or outright required throughout all stages of the game."
"As we've done more and more public testing, we've found there are some subtle things that make VR much more than just a second screen. On a practical level, there's no possibility of 'screen cheating.' Experts can never glance at the bomb and defusers can never steal a peek at the manual. More importantly, being trapped in a VR room provides a sense of isolation that helps immensely with the tension of the scenario. You can't simply look away from the situation and see your friends and your living room around you - you really feel trapped in a room with a bomb."
As a result, verbal communication between the VR wearer and the defusal experts is forced, and no cheeky glances or cheats can be made.
"Players are still able to speak physically face-to-face, which is more convenient than say relocating to different rooms, but speaking is the only option," Kane notes. "Players can't rely on gestures nor facial expressions. There are no visual cues to reassure the defuser that the experts are quiet because they're reading carefully rather than panicking."
"Silence is one of the scariest things to hear as a bomb defuser."
Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes
is currently being developed for PC, Mac and Linux.