Feeling-Centered Design: Lessons Learned from Making a VR Prototype in 3 Months

In July, I started the Oculus Launch Pad program. Oculus puts this on to facilitate community and help launch the careers of diverse creators. The bulk of the program is spent making a prototype in three months. In this article, I share how I worked from a place of old diary entries and personal emails to create a “feelings-centered” design for VR and how accessible volumetric filmmaking tools made it possible.


Discovering Your Door

Entering into the program, I had only a vague notion of what I wanted to make. How vague? Literally “an experience centered around a bedroom in the style of nostalgic 90s teen movies.” The constraint of a bedroom felt useful. All kinds of stories happen there.

At the kickoff event for the program, Robin Hunicke, a well-respected game designer, encouraged us all to design from a feeling instead of a mechanic. Thinking about how that would work practically in my case, I thought of Tina Satter, an experimental playwright.

“But what if a play could be a bunch of scenes that were sort of the same only not, and didn’t really add up to a story or anything but just drifted along, and the scenes were all short and small and borderline random, so sometimes it seemed like nothing much was really happening — except it was?”
—Tina Satter

Her approach to playwriting reminded me of games like Tacoma or Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, games where you walk around and trigger disjointed and heavily-stylized performed vignettes. The “game” is making the story out of those pieces in your head.

I started with research, in this case — my own experiences, feelings that were tender and personal. I excavated old emails, letters and writings, taking out paragraphs and juxtaposing them together.

This lead to a strange back-and-forth between a character (the player) and their former love. It felt more like a weird tone-poem than a story. I envisioned the player’s backstory being conveyed through voiceover, with monologues like this one:

“In the fourth grade my parents bought me shorts with elastic waistbands. They were practical. I was large. And every day I waited, hedging my hopes on a new kid who might understand what that was like.
I sat with the noon-aids, seniors who had escaped from their soaps and the lines at the buffet to catch some time with us kids at recess. They looked down at my stature and sensed a peer, shrunken and paunched. And I knew what to say, the language of adults — prescription drugs, disappointing husbands. I had a knack for pretending, and they played along. It was a dangerous skill.
One day the new kid came along, and he had it too.”

I shared this iteration with an expert on performing feelings, Khaela Maricich. She was very nice about it, telling me:

“You have the opposite problem that 90% of people have, you have the tender heart with too little scaffolding around it. You need to give it a door for people to enter through.”

It was good advice. What I had written was ultimately impenetrable, so I started searching for a framework it could exist in — my “door.” What if the player was participating in a futuristic wellness program designed to facilitate processing un-felt feelings? The bedroom could be the space the program determined was most needed.

The original, loose script easily fit into this idea. The result was somewhere in-between a traditional narrative and the weird, abstract thing I started with. It felt different and exciting.

Don’t Show, Don’t Tell — Facilitate

In high school creative writing class they always say “Show, don’t tell.” In VR I feel like there should be a similar adage — “Don’t show, don’t tell, facilitate.” In other words: if there’s an opportunity to convey narrative in an action for the user to perform, take it. While refining my design, I took out player character voice-over, opting instead for a series of activities designed to both give players something to do and provide insight into the character they are embodying.

As an example, the monologue about being a lonely fourth grader became an activity where the player is asked to perform a series of strange affirmations (validated with speech recognition), such as “As a child, I wore shorts with elastic waist bands but now my stylish pants all button.”

One-Person Performance Capture on a Budget

To bring what I’d designed to life, I decided to use volumetric video — a technology that enables capturing an actor’s performance as a kind of 3D hologram. Specifically, I used DepthKit — a popular filmmaking tool credited with making volumetric video technology accessible.

DepthKit leverages the depth sensor to create a “cutout” of the actor, separating them from their background and surroundings. That “cutout” is further enhanced by shooting the performance on a green screen and running the footage through an enhancement tool.

I shot with an actor at an inexpensive green screen studio I found on PeerSpace. It involved just a single camera, a laptop, and a Kinect. Each take required a walking circle around the space (start video, start depth capture, start audio, clap, action), which became dizzying after a while. But we pushed through and got everything shot in a day.

The Depthkit setup

I wanted the footage in-game to be stylized and abstract. After some experimentation, I landed on a glowing light being concept inspired by the super-campy illustrations accompanying new-age author Barbara Brannen’s 80s new-age classics Hands of Light and Light Emerging.

In-Game Footage

I feel that the abstract look both helps in creating the sense of a digital world and allowing space for the player to project their own sensibilities onto the Love Object character.

DepthKit ended up becoming an invaluable tool for inexpensively adding a high-quality character to my game. I believe we are just hitting the tip of the iceberg in regards to what this technology can do to enable indie creators.

Fire Mammoth Wellness

The end result of all this is Fire Mammoth Wellness, a game I’m describing as “an escape room of feelings.” After three months of work designing, filming, and prototyping I’m proud of the world that’s emerged. You can check out the concept trailer below and hopefully look forward to playing it soon.