August 17, 2016

Virtual Empathy - FATED: The Silent Oath Travels the Emotional Road of VR

By Brian Rowe

From analog sticks to motion control, it's natural for a new form of video game interaction to go through a period of novelty, and VR has been no exception, with many of the earliest projects leaning toward the extremes of shock and awe.

Frima Studio saw in VR the potential to go beyond spectacle, to explore a broader range of emotions and to create a deeper, more lasting bond with players. The result of that endeavor is FATED: The Silent Oath, available now for Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, and coming soon to PlayStation VR.

A narrative adventure set in the mythical age of Vikings, FATED: The Silent Oath is the passionate tale of a courageous man, both a husband and father, on a seemingly impossible quest to save his family from the destruction wrought by the giants of the old.

We spoke with Executive Producer Vincent Martel and Programmer Marc-André Girard about the inspirations behind their first foray into VR and the lessons learned along the way.

What was the inspiration behind FATED: The Silent Oath, and why did you choose to make it as a VR game?

Vincent Martel (VM): My first contact with virtual reality two years ago involved a roller coaster demo, an Oculus DK1, and a bunch of people laughing at me because I couldn’t stand up during the ride.

Even though I was mind-blown by the experience, I felt that VR would be the next gimmick that everybody forgets after a few months. The severe case of VR sickness that stuck with me for several hours after the demo surely didn’t do anything to change my mind.

Needless to say that it took me several weeks before I was ready to give VR a second try, but I’m definitely glad I did.

This second experience also involved a DK1 and a bunch of people laughing at me, but this time for a whole different reason.

I was in the middle of a not-so-great horror demo when suddenly I was literally paralyzed by fear. I couldn’t move forward, even though I knew I was in a game, and I had to remove my headset.

This experience totally changed my opinion of VR. From that moment on, I knew that VR would change the way we tell stories and touch our audience. I knew I had to work with virtual reality. I had to create a meaningful experience that put storytelling and emotions in the forefront.

FATED is said to focus on "emotion over gameplay." Can you elaborate on what that means?

VM: There are very few gameplay mechanics in FATED; the focus is on the story and the emotions you will go through during the experience. We’ve all seen videos of people absolutely terrified while playing horror games in VR, so I think it’s safe to say that VR is a very powerful tool when it comes to triggering emotional responses. However, scaring people in VR is easy; too easy, even. A simple jump scare will do the trick. What we wanted to explore in FATED were other, more complex emotions like happiness, compassion, and sadness. Our early objective was simple; let’s make people cry in their headset. We even had a name for it “The Reverse Scuba-Diving Effect,” where the water is inside the mask.

We rapidly found out that it was a lot easier said than done. When something feels awkward, off, or unnatural in VR, it makes everything less believable. In turn, this makes it very hard to get the emotional response you’re looking for. We also didn’t want to try too hard to evoke the reaction we were looking for. We held lots of playtests and made tons of iterations on the script and the game, but we weren’t sure we had succeeded until we started to see comments and reviews of “real players” confessing that they had cried.

FATED features compelling characters who seem to have embarked on an emotional journey. What can you tell us about the story and setting in FATED and how the medium of VR is able to bring them to life?

VM: FATED: The Silent Oath is a first-person adventure set in the mythical age of Vikings. It tells the story of a man and his family during Ragnarök – the end times. As he travels with them, he comes across a mix of touching and terrifying events, learning about himself and his loved ones, and taking the player on an emotional rollercoaster.

Storytelling in VR is not easy, but experiencing a story as if it were yours, as if you were really there, is very powerful. That, for me, is what defines VR as a new and unique medium.

Why did you choose Unreal Engine 4 for this project?

VM: We built many games with Unreal Engine in the past, and we always liked our experience. We’re a pretty big studio, always with multiple ongoing projects, and we don’t use Unreal Engine exclusively. However, for FATED, we felt that Epic was 100% behind VR and that they would put forward the necessary resources to support this new technology and the developers working on it. Having access to the source code is also a big plus when you’re working on a new platform.

Were there any features of Unreal Engine 4 that proved to be particularly useful and/or surprising, and how did they impact development?

Marc-André Girard (MAG): Blueprint really shaped the way FATED was built. At first, we did way too much in Blueprint and it got messy, but then we started to better understand how and when to use this tool. What worked best for us is letting Blueprint handle everything that involved Events and Flow Management. To make the best use of its strengths, we created dialog functions in C++ that handled voice-over, facial animation, etc. We exposed them to Blueprint and used them extensively in the entire game. With these nodes, chaining dialogs with custom animations became very easy to use for us and our designers, all without losing any of the control we had in C++.

We also made extensive use of the Spline component. We built a few features on top of the existing ones, and Spline made it really easy to create nice gameplay, like the chariot race section of the game. We also did a lot of NPC movements with Spline, to make them feel more natural.

Swarm is very nice too. We would probably still be baking lights if we had limited ourselves to a single computer to do the work.

The FATED development blog contains a number of tips and tutorials. Any sage advice for someone exploring Unreal Engine 4 for the first time?

MAG: I think it's never been easier to jump on the Unreal train. Open the Unreal Engine launcher and go to that nice section titled "Learn." It links to a lot of great tutorials to get the hang of Unreal Engine 4, whether you're a programmer, artist, level designer, or just someone interested in Unreal Engine. Don't try to go and fit the whole engine in your head. Unreal Engine 4 has plenty of cool features, but before trying to use them all, focus on getting small things done, just to get your bearings. After you're completed a few tutorials, messing inside a working project like the ones provided by Epic is a good starting point. Try to modify it to make it do something a little different. When you're comfortable making modifications, go start your own and let the adventure begin! Oh, and read our blog! Lots of cool tips and info about performance, localization, memory management, and so on!

FATED is Frima's first VR project. Are there any lessons learned that might be beneficial to other studios making their first forays into VR?

VM: Some challenges are specific to the platform, while others are specific to the genre. First, we had to understand this new medium; its limitations and possibilities. Performance is something we had to keep in mind throughout the entire production. There are way too many projects out there with great content, but poor performance. You don’t want to start cutting things out at the end of the project to make it run at 90 FPS.

However, most of our challenges came from the fact that we were trying to tell a story in 360 degrees. Having no control over the camera is a big challenge; you need to find ways to attract the players’ attention so that they can follow the narrative and see what you want them to see. There are several ways in which to achieve this, such as triggering events only when the player is looking, or using slow-motion to give the player enough time to look around and see what’s going on.

We also greatly underestimated the amount of time we would have to put in audio. Everything in VR needs to be spatialized and placed in the environment. You can’t have a bird singing in stereo; you have to place each sounds separately, or it will break the sense of presence.

When developing for VR, you need to approach it like the new medium it is rather than a new platform. A lot of textbook tricks don’t work anymore, and there’s a bunch of new stuff to learn. It’s challenging, but oh so exciting to be part of the birth of virtual reality.

Obviously, creating truly immersive worlds and believable interactions is especially important for VR. What sort of techniques helped you to achieve these goals in FATED?

VM: We explored many art directions during pre-production, but the cartoony art style proved to be the right choice for both performance and the ability to connect emotionally with our characters. Hyper-realistic characters in virtual reality are often creepy and a lot harder to connect with.

Having a stylized art style, we had the opportunity to create environments that were heavily inspired by Northern wilderness, but that also have their own unique flavor. Our minimalistic and colorful approach helped us performance-wise, so we were able to add dynamic lightings/shadows and more visual FX. We are very happy with the results. Screenshots don’t always do the game justice; once you’re in VR, I think it’s just gorgeous.

FATED is available now for Oculus and Vive, and is coming to PlayStation VR. Did you encounter any challenges developing for all three platforms? If so, how did you overcome those challenges?

VM: Not really. We built the game from the ground up knowing that we would release on all three platforms, so we made decisions that would facilitate that process. For instance, we decided to use a gamepad because we knew it would be a common denominator for all the platforms. Building the game with Unreal Engine 4 also helped a lot. Epic is doing a fabulous job supporting VR development and all the major platforms. It’s really good to feel that they are committed to VR and continuously improving the engine to help VR developers.

The only thing that took a bit more work was porting the audio from PC to PS4. We were using Two Big Ears’ plugin for PC and had to switch to PSVR’s plugin for PS4, so we had to redo the sound mix for PS4. I don’t think there are any good cross-platform audio solutions for VR right now.

You had a particularly memorable demo at PAX East that literally put players in the driver's seat of the carriage. Was it difficult to integrate all the physical components, and do you think there is untapped potential in those sort of live experiences?

VM: We have a small team working on Connected Toys here at FRIMA, so it was relatively easy to do this internally. The guys built custom Arduino boards and added various sensors, all connected to a small API that communicated with the game. All we had to do was create events in the demo to trigger vibrations, wind or mist.

Based on the reaction we got at PAX, I think there’s definitely a market there! You can check out our reaction video below.

What has been your experience with the Unreal Engine community?

MAG: To be honest, we didn't engage much with the community. When we started work on FATED, Unreal Engine 4 was pretty new, and so was virtual reality. Resources on the forum and on AnswerHub were pretty sparse. We still asked a few things here and there, and sometimes got answers, but in the end I think we answered more questions than we asked.

The community is much bigger now (congrats to Unreal Engine 4 for surpassing the 2 million developers mark!), so there’s a lot more happening on the forums and other platforms. I also just discovered the Slack channel (Unreal Slackers), which is a nice place for quick questions and to chat with other fellow Unreal Engine developers.

Where should people go to learn more about FATED?

MAG: You can go on or and follow us on Twitter at @Fatedgame.