playing the game: indie vr developer robin hunicke is changing a generation

Radical, experimental and attempting to destroy the idea of gender forever, Robin Hunicke, co-founder of indie videogame studio Funomena, talks us through the transformative power of virtual reality.  

At surface level, it’s easy to think of video games as quick fix pieces of entertainment, where machine guns and super powers create instant gratification. However, if you were lucky enough to play through Journey, a 2012 sleeper indie hit on the Playstation 3, you’ll know they can be truly transformative experiences too. Playing as a “whisp of moving cloth” (yes, really), you embrace strangers while manipulating the wind to gracefully float through a mystical world, where a cyclopean mountain is the only thing on the horizon. Spiritual and puzzling by equal measure, Journey’s success enabled its creator Robin Hunicke, also a professor of game design at the University of Santa Cruz, to set up the quaint Funomena, a small indie games studio based in downtown San Francisco. Its next two games, Luna, a VR puzzler taking place within the brain of a lost bird in need of enlightenment, and Wattam, a collaboration with designer Keita Takahashi on a world where players build a whimsical social construct via collaborating cartoon cups, flowers, turntables and, yes, even pieces of shit - are once again pushing the envelope.

So Luna. How’s it different from your average game?

A lot of games are about going back in time to fix problems or to get revenge on someone, but in the real world, you can’t just press rewind every time something traumatic happens. With Luna, we wanted to build something that acknowledges even when unexpected, damaging changes interrupt your life, you will still be presented with opportunities to grow and reintegrate who you are. In our story, a little bird is born and raised in Golden Gate Park until it goes off to create its own nest. That first evening, as it builds the nest, it is called away by a mysterious owl, who convinces the bird to swallow the last piece of the waning moon, which in turn causes an eclipse and the moon to disappear from the sky. From the resulting storm, everything is blown apart and when our bird awakens, it is present in a crystalline terrain that is completely scrambled. Your job as a player is to unscramble the bird’s memories by looking at the stars and reforming the constellations into shapes, which in turn creates life, a community and mental solidarity. You essentially want to create a path that will allow our bird to go back home.

What has VR added to this experience?

You’re watching people Zen out and be creative and meditative all at once – feelings and senses they never knew VR could create. I spoke to Bjork about this recently, but the beauty of VR is it allows everyone to embody another creature. And that’s very healing.

We had this seven-year-old kid playing the demo and at the end of it you go into the terrain and see the world you have built from the perspective of its organic life. At this stage, the kid just drops to his knees and starts hugging this turtle. It moved me to tears.

Journey – you play as a conscious cloth, Luna, a bird and Wattam, a bunch of everyday items… do you actively avoid gender when making characters?  

When we started on Journey, we had an explicit conversation that if the game was to be about interacting with strangers then we wanted no external identifiers that would bias the player. We didn’t want race, gender, sexual preference, class or culture to come into play. And these are the principles Funoema runs on: an engineer isn’t told he’s too technical to think of story ideas and a musician isn’t told she’s unable to understand programming.

With the mass accessibility of iOS and Steam, we now have the ability to start at the very beginning of the next generation and show them games without any biased ideologies. To bring them through an entire life cycle of video games where there’s no princess that needs to be rescued or masculine heroes hell-bent on revenge.

You are part of the White House’s Computer Science for All Initiative, so what can VR evolve to socially?

I am currently working on raising a fund to help women and people of colour get into developing creative concepts through VR, as I believe just like the public TV workshop in the 1970s, we have to sponsor and support creative concepts that can heal our social divisions as humans. In the 1970s we had Sesame Street, where concepts of race were explored for the first time in media. I want the grant to allow VR and video games to push the same sort of forward-thinking agenda to children. Video games should heal and make us relate to one another, that’s the next step with VR.

Could VR ever replicate the euphoric nature of a drug trip?

If you take psychedelic drugs in a good mindset, such as the Harvard experiments, which dosed people in churches so their experience was transformative, it changes your entire perception of reality. Literature, however, has always taught us that with drugs also comes this hellish gate you’ll be forced to enter, which I guess is true for some people. Therefore, I’d love to make a game that allows people to transport themselves into a beautiful drug trip but without any of the fear  that it could go wrong. I just want to remove the terrible and make it awesome. You put on the VR headset, plug in the headphones and let your ground go. You can cut yourself off from the stimulus of everything around you and re-engage emotionally in a universe that someone else has created for you. I guess, something that can replicate the same euphoric experience and transcendence [of a drug trip], but in a safe setting.

What will your next game look like?

With Lunar, I’ve now reached a stage where I can finally think of the next concept. I want to explore the concept of why people fall in love and unrequited loved as well. To somehow build an AI system that explores these deep questions but through a meditative perspective.

I’ve also been reading a lot of James Ladyman, who explores the philosophy of science, and it’s made me really interested in magic. As video game developers we are sometimes too scientifically minded and forget that, say, augmented reality or VR are actually seen as forms of magic to a lot of gamers. I love magic in video games, but so often it is wizards that can fire missiles out of their hands. I want to look at alchemy and explore the romanticism of it instead. It could be looking at a witch or wizard, and exploring where their power actually comes from.

These are all big concepts. Do you feel pressure to deliver them?

Funomena is a studio of 18 people, which has no hot running water. It is an intense situation. We are broke ass indies. It doesn’t look that way because we are paying the living wage as we want people to stay healthy and do not care if that means the game takes years and years to complete. But that’s a very costly process in itself.

I’m fully aware that at some point in Luna’s development, we will run out of money and, in order to make it perfect, I will have to go out and get investors, just as we had to do mid-way through Journey. That even tomorrow, there could be no Funomena.

Ultimately, if you’re honest about your capability and vision, players know you have done the very best with the resources at hand. They see that there’s a beauty in that.

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