This was a semester long project where we used Unity to build a VR game based on the Ancient Library of Alexandria. The library has an aura of mysticism and legend surrounding it which we used to build curiosity and mystery on the player. While the mechanics of the game are fairly simple: go through the library and retrieve a scroll. The focus is on the interactive elements and on the immersion of the player throughout the experience.
The game begins in modern times where the player is introduced to the mysterious portal appearance with a news broadcast video; their mission begins. Once the player goes through the portal, they are transported back in time and are in the Library of Alexandria. Throughout this mission, the player must navigate through different scenes and challenges to reach the successful end state, which involves solving a puzzle to retrieve the scroll and return to the portal before it disappears. In order for the player to find the puzzle, they must first find a map in the first room on their arrival which will help them navigate their way through a maze which then leads to the puzzle room.
Due to the time constrains and our incoming level of expertise, we opted to build the game from a story standpoint first and then iterate on it to improve functionality and immersion. Our architecture was segmented into 3 main categories.
This allowed us to build one basic version of the game that was functional and then iterate on it to improve functionality and immersion while giving us an MVP to showcase if something happened.
1. Story Foundation The game must follow a logical order: presentation, challenge, end. We divided the game into 4 main rooms: the initial room, the library, the maze, and the final room. By using the elements listed below, we created a flow of the experience to guide the player through the game.
News Broadcast: The initial room has a TV on it that is playing a news broadcast (featuring yours truly). Within a few seconds of entering the game, the TV will show breaking news, the attention gets immediately drawn towards the TV. The cast explains that there has been a strange portal appearing throughout the world which leads to the Library of Alexandria, it also adds that there is a very valuable document that people have gone in search of already. The cast is meant to explain to the player the reasoning behind the portal appearing in the living room (once the video is over), and more importantly, it builds curiosity and purpose for the player that will prompt them in. Map: Upon entering the library the player sees a map on a table. Having a map uses the metaphor of a treasure hunt to indicate the player they are searching for something in particular. It adds an element of difficulty and object searching in-par with what the player has seen before in movies, games, etc. Puzzle: In the final room there is a puzzle, it is not obvious to the user at first but it is the only interactable element in the room. The puzzle is a lock-key where the missing piece fits perfectly on the pyramid, there are a few pieces scattered around the table, but only one is the key. Once the player inserts the cube in the pyramid a secret scroll appears. The puzzle has a small element of difficulty which helps to add an element of accomplishment for the player.
2. Contextual Assets There are assets that are unnecessary to the flow of the game, but which are important for the story to make sense. They incorporate contextual information about the time setting of the game, some examples are papyruses, statues, textures, etc.
Hieroglyphics: The walls throughout the different sections in the library are covered in textures with hieroglyphics and images of Anubis, Osiris, etc. These elements immediately set the player in our target era, Ancient Egypt. The notion of Ancient Egypt carries mystery and knowledge, there are many myths surrounding that time period we don’t know so much about. How did they make the pyramids, what did they know back then that we do not know nowadays. Scrolls/Papyrus: There are shelves around the pyramid that are populated with thousands of scrolls. They help the player become aware of how much knowledge there was that we do not know about because it was lost. The image of the amount of information is meant to trigger empathy in the player and also purpose to find what they are looking for in the library. Statues: Statues are the opposite of scrolls, they are some of the artifacts that survived from Ancient Egypt. They represent the wealth of those times, statues are often embedded with precious stones. Having them in the final room of the library speaks to the value of this room and reminds the player that they are in a very venerated place; knowledge was a central pillar in the time. 3. Immersion Elements The immersion elements are the small details that make the experience more immersive, they are meant to trigger familiar memories of how elements behave in different circumstances. They encompass passive things like hearing a page flip on the library or a rope twist as the elevator rises, to active things where the player has to push a lever to reveal a secret passageway. Below are some examples described.
Torches/Audio: The library is illuminated by torches hooked on the walls, in making these torches we follow the players mental model which dictates that fire flickers and crisps the closer you get to it; light intensifies, and your face gets hot glowing with the heat. It also reminds the player of what was the fate of the library: burned under the incendio by Julius Caesar. There are also several audio elements distributed through the library. Some are actionable such as the shelf moving to show the secret passageway or the elevator lifting, while others are passive such as having page flip sounds in the background to simulate a real library.
Light/TV Flickering: When the News Broadcast is over, the TV and lights in the room start flickering. Our aim in this interaction is to bring a classical experience seen in many movies and shows: electronics turn haywire when there is a paranormal event happening (i.e. Stranger Things, The Terminator, A Quiet Place, etc). This experience follows the expectation set during the broadcast; before the portal appears electronics behave abnormally.
Corridors: A video game in VR involves a different interaction mechanism for going across levels, the standard reference of the screen fading should not be used. To improve the immersion experience, we chose to create a seamless transition across scenes; we used dark corridors. The player can see the other scene from one end of the corridor and as they are making their way there, the scene changes. We purposely eliminated as many reference points are possible to make the switch seamless.
Challenges While we are very pleased with the end product of this project, the team faced several hurdles while developing the game. Due to COVID-19, we were abruptly forced to adapt to remote development -- losing access to on-campus computers and VR equipment, and forced to meet completely online. This was particularly difficult, as only one member of our team owned a VR headset and was able to actively test the experience as we worked on it. As a result, members who did not own VR rigs tested their work with a 3D character model; once the environment and core mechanics were working in traditional 3D, the member with the VR headset then ported the 3D game for VR, building in the VR interactions.
The other challenge we faced was perhaps more routine: developing a VR game in Unity/ SteamVR with little prior experience was difficult. While learning a new development environment is certainly doable, SteamVR in Unity is experimental and buggy -- exacerbated by a lack of robust documentation or a large online community (with archived forums, etc). Further, SteamVR in Unity simply is not executable on MacOS currently, forcing our team to do testing exclusively on Windows. As a result of all of this, we relied primarily on personal contacts, YouTube tutorials, and trial and error to learn, a process that was ultimately effective but time-consuming.