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The Brookhaven Experiment screenshot

VR Moments: Constructing Spaces, Existing In Spaces

The Brookhaven Experiment’s Jarod Pranno recalls a life of creating and the experience of existing in his creation.

For some, the road to where they are now in virtual reality (VR) is long but those that have developed games and experiences along the way often find that to actually be within something they created can be a powerful feeling. Today’s VR Moments is kindly brought to us by Jarod Pranno, co-founder of Phosphor Studios and project lead on The Brookhaven Experiment.

It has been a very exciting couple of years seeing virtual reality finally come to fruition, watching countless doors open to new and previously inconceivable computer-generated experiences. Even after playing so many VR demos and games, though, I was not prepared for the overwhelming rush of entering a virtual space that I myself had created.

I have worn many hats in my two decades and change of being a game developer. I started out pushing pixels on levels and sprites, moving on to do just about every aspect of 3D game development, but I always seem to return to my first love: environments. As a content creator, there is no greater thrill than navigating a world I’ve built. I slave over realistic details: the width and crown height of roads, the spacing of fire hydrants and manholes, the placement of heating vents and cold air returns, the scatter of personal effects and tchotchkes. The way these elements add up to become so much greater than the sum of their parts, to create a space that tells a story and allows the player to chart the path of their own story, is by far my favourite part of game development.

I’ve been fascinated with constructed spaces since I was young, preferring Lego to whiffle balls and erector sets to frisbees. My dad’s family has always been in construction, and I think this spilled over into me a little, although my preferred construction project would have been a Star Wars playset made of cardboard and styrofoam, glue and tape, markers and paint.

As I got older, I briefly got into model railroading, although I found it to require more space and money than I generally had access to. I did not respond to the idyllic, clean, pristine “small town America” aesthetic that traditionally defined model railroading; I preferred my layout to have “gritty realism” long before that was a phrase popularized by Christopher Nolan’s Batman films. I liked things to have a healthy serving of wear and tear suggesting a genuine history: sun-bleached and rotting wood, faded commercial signs for long-vanished business, beat-up couches in fields, layers of graffiti on stock cars. I mastered the techniques of weathering, streaking, rust leaks and broken glass. This wasn’t intended as some sort of Banksy-esque commentary on the whitewashing of America’s past and wilful ignorance of the modern that was typical of model railroading. I just think used, run-down and abandoned spaces have a peculiar beauty of their own. A new building has little story, while an abandoned building is a vast story of which you can only catch fleeting glimpses.

The Brookhaven Experiment screenshot

Sometimes, an abandoned building can be a medium for telling a different kind of story. I recall exploring with friends an abandoned hair salon with a second-floor residence. Some prior interloper, apparently having cut themselves on jagged metal or broken glass, used the injury as an opportunity to write “YOU’RE NEXT!” in blood on one of the walls. The clotting and cracking, at least, made it seem very much like blood instead of paint. I hope that intrepid urban explorer got a tetanus shot and haunts the world yet with spooky pranks. (This may have been my first real-world experience with the concept of “passive environmental storytelling.”)

Moving on, as I grew older yet and became both gamer and game maker, I became fascinated with the power of spaces and architecture, and their effect on players in video games. I took every architectural tour I could and amassed a library on architectural techniques and tricks. (Wouldn’t Fallingwater make a great Unreal Tournament level? Not stylistically, of course.)

But in all that time, as VR inched towards becoming a popular and readily available medium, for some reason I never thought about what it would be like to exist inside one of my own levels. I never knew it would be special.

The first level of mine I saw in VR was fairly recently, for Phosphor’s currently-in-development first VR experience: The Brookhaven Experiment. It’s a horror shooter, widely touted (and not even by us) as the scariest VR experience out there. If you have a Vive, check out our free demo and decide for yourself! While I’m proud of the level, it’s fairly mundane as video game levels go: a storm drain, slick on the bottom with muck, stretching off into several dark directions. Large, faintly glowing cobwebs and human shapes cocooned in silk suggest that here you may encounter something large, arachnid and predatory.

I hadn’t thought much about booting it up and strapping on that headset; the first time exploring a space I’d built is always fun, but after all these years, nothing really special.

This time, though, I was seeing it from the inside. I was existing in a place, and it was a place I had made. I was seeing it as the game’s character was seeing it. I was looking around, getting the full sense of space, of being somewhere I wasn’t supposed to be, somewhere dangerous and deep under the ground. I could crouch and study details. I felt like my feet were partially submerged in muddy sediment. I felt like I could brush the sinister cobwebs and get my hand tangled up in them.

It was especially interesting to discover all the little tricks in our game developer arsenal that actually don’t work very well in VR. Bright bloom from lights and fire, which gives such a sense of warmth in a flat game, makes it feel like the HMD’s lenses are smudged. Lens flare, that most artificial of natural camera artefacts, is just plain wrong. We might place an oversized moon in the sky for more interest and to silhouette horizon details, but that huge moon in VR looks completely off; we have to shrink it until it’s about the size of a thumbnail at arm’s length, the angular diameter of the real moon.

The Brookhaven Experiment screenshot

I have a lot of fun using filmic post-processing tricks and techniques to emulate the look of a camera; I think this can really pull the final image together and give a feeling of quality and professional polish. Having said that, it’s something of a relief to be pushed past these techniques by a medium with a higher bar for immersion. More realistic details to slave over and research!

I am of course eager to see how games develop in this new medium, but now I am just as eager to see other kinds of creations. I want to see what non-professional VR users create. I want to explore what they use TiltBrush to conceive. I want to see what they build in whatever the next MineCraft is, or the amazing tools that will be created to bring architects and arch vis into the holodeck.  I think virtual reality is the closest we’ll ever get to experiencing the dreams of others, and to me that is immeasurably more interesting than anything that can be expressed through podcasts or streaming.

Our thanks to Jarod. You can find out more about The Brookhaven Experiment here. If you have had an experience in VR that you would like to share please send an email to community@vrfocus.com. VRFocus will be back soon with another VR Moments.

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