Trover Saves the Universe uses VR to create one of the funniest games in the galaxy
To see how the studio created Trover Saves the Universe, we interviewed Lead Designer Erich Meyr. The Squanch Games developer talks about how they came up with the story and gameplay premise, reveals how much of the dialogue was ad-libbed, and elaborates on how creating humor for a video game is different than writing for a TV show. Thanks for your time. Be it games, movies, or TV shows, what were some of the biggest influences for Trover Saves the Universe?
Squanch Games Lead Designer Erich Meyr: Rick and Morty was obviously a big touchstone for the theme and setting of the game. The sensibilities of the show tap into a lot of Justin’s tastes and aligned a lot of with the team's love of Sci-Fi. There’s definitely nods to some classic comedy shows that we grew up with like Monty Python and Seinfeld, to name a couple.
As far as games, we are inspired by our favorite adventure and narrative-heavy games: Wind Waker, Portal 2, and Psychonauts to name a few. At the start of the project, we also played a ton of VR games and demos to see how folks had solved many of VR’s biggest issues. We were inspired by the Astro Bot demo in The Playroom, Floor Plan, Feral Rites, and Herobound.
How did Squanch come up with the quirky characters, universe, and premise of the game?
Meyr: Justin has stacks and stacks of notebooks containing ideas for games. He had this crazy one about a villain who kidnapped your dogs and stuffed them into his eye holes for a while now and wanted to pitch it at GDC and E3 to see if there would be any interest. After meeting with Sony, they were super excited about partnering with us on it and helping us build a studio to do so. So, from there, we got an incredibly talented group of AAA game developers who love Justin’s work and wanted to bring Trover to life.
As a new studio focusing on pushing comedic interactions, how did you balance implementing storytelling and gameplay?
Meyr: Early on, we tried to find good pacing between giving players funny and more passive narrative moments mixed between platforming and combat sections. As we refined that balance, we found that the most magical and hilarious moments to playtesters came when the jokes and narrative were weaved into the gameplay in surprising ways. We then went back and modified a lot of segments, creating scenarios where Trover or other NPCs comment on your gameplay. We aspired to create moments that break away from what you would normally expect out of a video game and (hopefully) make you laugh at the absurdity of it all. We pushed that philosophy to your player character (Trover), NPCs, and even enemies. An example of this is an early moment in the game, where after killing an enemy, another enemy puts down his sword and cries in sorrow that you just killed his friend. What you thought were generic fodder enemies actually have real relationships and feelings?
In your opinion, how is creating a funny video game different than creating a funny TV show?
Meyr: Creating a funny TV show is difficult enough on its own, but to embrace humor in games requires getting the player themselves in on the joke and getting them to willingly participate. To create interactive humor, Trover plays a lot with moment-to-moment narrative decisions and less with large consequential decisions (like Telltale or BioWare games). Often an interactive joke can feel cheap or out of context if the player isn’t participating in the right way for the joke to land. For some of the more complex punchlines in the game, we really had to playtest them a lot and refine guiding players interactions so that an interactive joke landed correctly. This also meant scripting in a number of edge cases, transitions out of and back into the narrative, and ways to make a joke still land in different ways based on how the player performed.
Was it ever a concern that players might miss certain lines of dialogue or funny jokes if they progressed through the narrative too fast?
Meyr: No. Players will love it whether they play straight through or linger in every scene. It’s a story-based game that feels more like a super long playable season of a funny comedy show – our playtests are averaging between seven to eight hours for a golden path playthrough, not counting collectibles and additional interactions tucked away for curious players to discover – even the development team is hearing new lines as they play. Overall, there are approximately 30 hours of dialogue that will keep you laughing the whole way through.
How much of the story and dialogue were ad-libbed?
Meyr: The overarching plotline and major story moments were planned out shortly after we solidified our gameplay mechanics. We intentionally left many level narratives open so that we could find what was funny as we developed the levels’ gameplay and let that shape the plot (but not interfere with the overall story arc). After a blocked out level pass, we took the expected beats of the levels and did a "scratch" improved record of the whole game, working from just a list of level beats and having a good time keeping things loose and funny. This was expected to be temporary, but so much of it was so funny that we ended up keeping a lot of it. As we did further iterations on each level, we made beat sheets and actual scripts, especially when outside actors were being brought in. Our writer wrote scripts for areas where we knew we needed to say something specific, but we never got too precious. We took the beat sheets and rough scripts into records and let the actors play with them as much as they liked. A lot of our best comedy comes from the loose feel that only improvisation creates.
From a gameplay perspective, how did Squanch approach designing levels that would work both in VR and on traditional screens?
Meyr: The content and experience are the same across all platforms, including the storyline, situations faced, levels, actions, and outcomes. PlayStation 4 players can swap between TV and PlayStation VR at any time, while PC users will be able to play the game on a monitor or [with a PC VR headset].
Whereas many VR games are predominantly first-person or third-person, Trover Saves the Universe has been described as a “first-person third-person game” that allows you to play co-op with yourself. Can you discuss why this design was a good fit for Trover Saves the Universe?
Meyr: The design actually came very naturally when we began thinking about a third-person game in VR. We wanted the player to feel immersed in the world and along for the adventure with Trover; so instead of a floating camera, it made sense for them to play in first-person. The only third-person game I can think of offhand that put a character behind the game camera is Mario 64, where at the very start, you watch as you "possess" the camera of a flying Lakitu. This decision immediately brought up further questions: if I’m in the world, too, what am I doing along with Trover? Since our game needed to have a fixed camera for VR comfort, we put the player in a fixed chair and created a locomotion system and a narrative backstory for this conceit. As we decided on mechanics we wanted in the game, we would decide if they were something Trover should do in third-person or something you could do in first-person. Many mechanics became more interesting in first-person as you could still control Trover while performing them and let you sort of play co-op with yourself.
In Trover Saves the Universe, in-game characters are very aware of the player and constantly break the fourth wall. Was it an active goal of the studio’s to really push this aspect of the game’s design?
Meyr: Absolutely. It’s part of Justin’s style of humor already, and it makes sense in a game like ours that wants you to identify as yourself while playing. Characters speak directly to you, not your avatar and are openly aware of how crazy most game tropes can be and are in on the joke with you, like a friend playing couch co-op.
Humor aside, can you talk about building the core aspects of the game that make it fun - like combat and platforming?
Meyr: We tackled the core platforming and camera controls of the game before writing or recording a word of dialog. They didn’t fundamentally change for the rest of the project, but we gradually added in new abilities and combat. In that early phase, we looked at platformers we thought had great controls and the type of light melee combat we were looking for (Mario games, Wind Waker, Ratchet and Clank). We built a ton of test levels and refined our metrics, which were fairly unique because of the games fixed camera. After we had a solid foundation, we stood up multiple ability prototypes and chose the ones that offered the best back and forth between the player and Trover. For example, at one point we prototyped letting the player shoot projectiles from their chair, but it didn’t add any interesting back and forth gameplay with Trover, so we cut it. Much later, we brought back the idea of a ranged attack by letting the player pick up and throw enemy weapons. This throw mechanic pushed the feeling that you were working with Trover and that when he killed an enemy, he was teeing up an opportunity shot for you, like an alley-oop in basketball.
What made Unreal Engine 4 a good fit for the project?
Meyr: We’re a small studio and not about to make our own engine, so we looked at the best all-in-one engines out there and UE4 immediately rose to the top as the best fit. Members of our initial team already had years of experience with Unreal Engines and the robust editor, and visual scripting in UE4 let us prototype the game extremely fast.
What have you learned about developing for VR thus far?
Meyr: Beyond learning firsthand the standard trappings of player comfort and immersion, we discovered how transformative asking the player to perform some simple narrative interactions could be. Whether it was asking the player to look at things, nod their head when spoken to, or crane their head to look around an annoying NPC. We watched playtesters and realized that the moment we made them aware that they had to actually perform as themselves, they thought the game was aware of them (even when it wasn’t). This illusion in VR came from relying on using natural dialog feedback without gamey UI for each of these moments. Having more gamey feedback would have keyed players into when their performance mattered and when it didn’t, which is typically a good way to design and we kept that design in non-VR, but for VR, we wanted it to feel as close to life as possible. Building our narrative moments this way ended up really helping players feel present and part of each scene.
Can we expect more Trover content moving forward?
Meyr: We’re going to release new content for free by keeping Trover at full price for longer than usual, instead of lowering the game’s cost over time and charging for new content. That means, once you’ve purchased the game, you’ll see lots of new Trover adventures coming your way.
Thanks again for your time. Where can people learn more about Trover Saves the Universe?
Meyr: For all the latest Trover news, follow @TroverGame on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.