May 11, 2020
With top-notch visuals and design, Lies Beneath pushes the boundaries of the Oculus Quest
The game was developed by VR veteran studio Drifter, the studio behind 2018’s Gunheart and, more recently, 2019’s Robo Recall: Unplugged for the Oculus Quest. To learn how the team developed Lies Beneath, we interviewed Creative Director Brian Murphy, Art Director Kenneth Scott, VFX Artist Aaron Mortensen, Concept Artist John Wallin, Audio Director Ken Kato, and Tech Director Matt Tonks. They share their inspirations and talk about how they executed on the game’s stylized comic-book aesthetic. They also share how they designed Lies Beneath’s environments, weapons, enemies, and more. Lies Beneath has been compared to Resident Evil 4, Evil Dead, The Thing, and more. Were there any particular games or works of fiction that influenced the title?
Creative Director Brian Murphy: Yeah, the gameplay is heavily influenced by Resident Evil and Silent Hill for sure. We loved the idea of taking their weird and distinctive brand of action horror and translating it into an immersive VR experience. And then obviously when it came to the world and aesthetic of the game, we drew heavily from classic mid-century horror comics like Tales from the Crypt, and more modern Japanese horror comics like the works of Junji Ito.
Why was Lies Beneath’s comic-book art style a good fit for the game?
Art Director Kenneth Scott: Every narrative-driven experience, games, films or otherwise, owes its core to the written word. Comics, as a medium, strikes a great chord between the artist’s playground of invention and the reader’s agency and personal interpretation. We’ve all experienced the emotional clash of seeing our favorite childhood illustrated characters brought to film. It’s rough. There is rarely an upside. A lot of the character nuances, timing, and voices took place in our heads, and no Hollywood budget or smart casting could ever compete.
To bolster Lies Beneath's comic-book motif, the game features page-turning comic-book illustrations that feature an awesome 3D parallax effect that's especially cool when you view them from different angles. How did you create this effect?
Scott: This was quality Drifter-team shenanigans. There is some under the hood wizardry that Brian Murphy and Matt Tonks did to make the interactive experience invisible and intuitive, and to quote our Tech Art Czar Drew Hunt, "Through Unreal Engine, we leveraged dark magic that split pixels into an illusion of depth."
VFX Artist Aaron Mortensen: On the materials side, most of the grunt work was done using the bump offset node, which let us create an illusion of depth on a single mesh plane and kept animation complexity and overdraw down. By splitting up John and Kenneth’s awesome comic art into separate layers, we could push and pull those layers however we wanted using the bump offset and then merge them into a final image that appears to have depth.
Concept Artist John Wallin: We started with rough sketches of each page, thinking about where things would be placed in depth. We had three layers to play with, and the frame/foreground would go first, then middle ground and then background. Sometimes things like snow or a character holding something, or even a car interior, would benefit from being separated and placed across multiple layers.
After the testing phase gets approved, it’s time to make fully detailed paintings out of the rough sketches. I stuck to the layer order as best as I could so I wouldn’t run into nasty surprises afterward. Having no experience with comic-book art, I tried to mimic a classic comic book while taking advantage of the liberating third dimension. It was hard to figure out the layer orders, but with help from the team and thorough testing, it was pretty straight forward during the polishing phase, and I could focus on just making it look as good as I could.
From creatures that fly to ghouls that stalk you on foot, the monsters in Lies Beneath are menacing. How did you approach designing the game's enemies?
Audio Director Ken Kato: Creature sound design was the hardest part about this game. I tried to help enhance their unique creature qualities and game mechanic roles. For example, the chase sounds of the Hunter sounds like he’s breathing down your neck because that’s what excites people when faced with the Hunter. The head-crab sounds were punched up with exaggerated footstep sounds to communicate to the player these creepy creatures are crawling everywhere. For bipeds, I initially was going to try to push the creepiness factor with their vocal emotes, but I soon realized that when you’re engaged with these characters, the situation is no longer creepy, and you’re in combat. So I approached it more like designing NPC emotes for shooters.
Drifter has stated that the game's massive boss battles were created almost entirely using Blueprints. Can you walk us through how you created these larger-than-life encounters?
Tech Director Matt Tonks: Blueprints are very well suited to something like a boss battle. Being able to rapidly iterate and make use of deep ties into the level scripting so easily was a huge asset when we were building these fights. For our boss battles, we typically built a prototype (in Blueprint) in a small test environment to work out how the core mechanics of the fight would play out, and then moved it to the real environment where we worked everything together with VFX, audio, and more. Each fight was very different, so the process of building them varied, but the process was always:
- Prototype what the player actually does in the fight
- Move functionality into the level and polish all the rough edges to make things cohesive for the player
The ominous environments in the game's mid-twentieth century depiction of Alaska have been praised for delivering a palpable and consistent level of tension. How did you approach world and level design?
Murphy: The first iteration of the level design was actually more like a classic Resident Evil game, where a given chapter might have been broken into three or four smaller “rooms” that, at the time, even had loading screens between them. It wasn’t until months into the game that we decided to stitch the entire game world together into one giant seamless map. That process actually ended up being a really great framework for us, because it meant that the entire game was broken into like 20 or 30-meter chunks, and for each section, we got to ask ourselves the same questions:
- What is the player’s mode of play in this section? (spooky haunted house, sneaky, action, puzzling)
- What will be scary or memorable in this section? (set-piece, new monster, cinematic moment, boss, new weapon, etc.)
- What hidden secrets and narrative beats do we need to unfold here?
Murphy: Building a combat system in a horror game is always an interesting challenge because it’s kind of the inverse of your standard video game power fantasy. Instead of building your skill to a level where you can effortlessly wipe out everything that gets in your way, we wanted to create a combat system that often made you feel vulnerable and helpless. One big way we did that was by building little flaws into every weapon that required some kind of VR motion control interaction to overcome. Melee weapons occasionally get stuck in the things you hit, and can even get yanked from your hand from time to time. Bear traps dangle from your hands heavily and are made more difficult to throw, and each gun requires its own physical interaction to reload.
Of course, we didn’t want the game to be pure desperation, so we also added quite a few systems that rewarded players for improvising, or demonstrating skill or effort. For melee weapons, we reward bigger, harder swings with more damage, and we did a ton of work on the throwing system so that weapons always go where you feel like they should when you release them (If we left throwing completely up to physics, the thrown item would tumble off into a hilariously random direction.) We also paired the gun with the lighter, so that if you held the lighter up while aiming down the sight of the gun, we’d show you a little reticle and vulnerable spots on an enemy, but all of those bonuses come at a cost. Holding the lighter instead of a melee weapon makes you more vulnerable up close, and throwing a melee weapon will leave you empty-handed. In addition to providing an aiming reticle for guns and brightening dark environments, the lighter also lights the correct path forward. How did you come up with this mechanic?
Murphy: From the very beginning, we knew that giving the player an item that revealed hidden information and spooky details would be cool, especially in VR. We actually prototyped lots of different objects. My favorite, before the lighter, being a hoop that the player could hold up and look through to reveal an alternate reality. That felt cool in VR, as it had a nice physical and understandable element to it, but it also felt like it didn’t fit into the world we were creating. When the idea for the lighter came along, it felt perfect because it was a little more vague and unreliable than the magic disk, and we felt like that it was a scarier tool to use. It also introduced all kinds of fun physical interaction like flicking it on and the embers that made it a really interesting VR experience as well.
Lies Beneath features a very minimal UI. The blood on your hands indicates your health and holsters across your virtual body grant quick access to weapons. Was there a lot of iteration involved here?
Murphy: We knew from the beginning that we didn’t want to have any health bars or anything. We tried as much as we could to always place pertinent gameplay information in physical context with game objects in the world. That’s why the number of bullets in a gun can only be seen when reloading when you’re looking at the gun, and your health can only be seen via the red splatters on your hands. By providing incomplete information on your game state, or forcing the player to split their attention between checking their combat readiness and the encounter happening in front of them, we hoped to make every encounter more frantic, and more immersive.
With this being Drifter Entertainment's third VR game, what have you learned from those experiences that you've built upon for Lies Beneath?
Tonks: Gunheart and Robo turned out to be a great combo for us. We cut our teeth on VR interactions and gameplay mechanics in Gunheart and got deep experience with the Quest on Robo Recall: Unplugged. Gunheart helped us build a more interesting VR experience, and Robo helped us build it at framerate on the more modest resources of the Quest.
Lies Beneath is one of the most visually stunning games on the Oculus Quest and runs well, too. Can you provide some insight into how the team was able to strike this graphical balance?
Tonks: At this point, Drifter collectively has a huge amount of experience with the Quest and what it’s capable of. Based on our prior knowledge, we knew from day one regarding how many enemies on screen we could handle, how complex our shaders could be, and how many things can be drawn at once before frame rate dips. That said, I think there are three main points that summarize the bulk of our efforts in this regard:
- Wisely selecting an art style that we would be confident we could make look awesome within the constraints of the platform
- Leveraging (and modifying) the HLOD system to merge draw calls down in order to get the environments looking the way we wanted without blowing the budget
- Switching to Vulkan in order to bring down rendering overhead and enable visual effects like tone mapping (via subpasses) while still staying within budget
From scary monster moans to eerie musical compositions, Lies Beneath features awesome audio design. Can you elaborate on how this was achieved?
Kato: I touched a little bit on sound design earlier, so I’ll talk about music. We had three composers: Kazuma Jinnouchi (Metal Gear Solid 4, Halo 4, Halo 5, Pokemon Detective Pikachu), Richard Williams, and myself. I basically assigned different areas and usages of music to different composers. Kazuma worked on large combat music. Richard did minor battles. And I handled the rest, which included the menu music, incidental stingers, and cut scenes. In terms of the production, I personally found horror music to be really hard to execute. Dissonance is hard, especially when you don’t have access to live musicians being that we're an indie company with limited resources. So, we relied on commercially available samples. At the beginning of the project, I immediately found out playing random notes on a keyboard doesn’t necessarily produce “dissonant” music. So we had to make up some rules in order to make the pieces dissonant but cohesive. It was really fun to work on horror-themed music. I treated it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but I hope to do it again in the future.
Thanks for your time. Where can people learn more about the game?
Right on the Oculus store pages: Quest and Rift.