There are days when the stars align correctly, and out of fairly random factors something beautiful is born. Escape Studios is a London-based academy offering courses including VFX and game design; in late 2019 the course tutors assigned its final-year students a project to conceive and develop a short game, from start to finish. Tutors divided students into teams and, somewhere, stars aligned just so. And the creative project that followed culminated with the creation of the eerie, excellent Aspen Lane: VR Paranormal Investigation.
Aspen Lane: VR Paranormal Investigation is a VR game for PC in which you take the role of a paranormal investigator looking into a series of disturbances, of suspected supernatural origin, in a north London house. You start from the principle of asking the question, ‘Is this house haunted, yes or no?’ And a key part of finding the answer to this involves exploring the ‘most haunted’ parts of the house – its kitchen, notably – in order to detect key areas of extranormal activity, and unlock a sequence of events that will allow you to definitively answer that initial question. The game is a tight, lean experience – a playthrough might take ten minutes or so, depending on how much time you spend scrutinizing your environs – and is packed with atmosphere, and with precise visual detail.
The team entered Aspen Lane in the Game of the Year – Immersive Media category of The Rookie Awards 2020, hosted by The Rookies, the most prominent online platform dedicated to showcasing the work of non-professional artists. The remarkable quality of the game scored it the runner up position in its category, and brought it to our attention. Several members of the Aspen Lane team were kind enough to take the time to tell us about the development of the game, and to outline some of the techniques used in its creation.
Oh, and awesome news: Aspen Lane: VR Paranormal Investigation is completely free to download, and play. You can go right ahead and try out a little VR creepiness right now.
The Genesis of Aspen Lane: VR Paranormal Investigation
Michael Neocleous: Escape Studios is an independent academy that offers undergraduate and post-graduate courses based around visual effects, animation and game art. Our team was assembled by our tutors; it consisted of 12 final-year Escape Studios students. Being game artists, we were all on the undergraduate course The Art of Video Games and so, though not all of us had worked directly with one another before, we all knew each other after. It was a great learning experience and everyone got on incredibly well. The team and their roles were as follows:
Michael Neocleous, Art Director/Lighting Artist; Theo Rust, Environment Artist/Producer; Palagamsan Sivapathasundaram, Technical Artist; Zuquiel Abrahams, Environment Artist; Alex Crisan, Prop Artist; Dawid Batóg, Prop Artist/Audio; Bridget Wright, Prop Artist/Set Dressing; Tyrone Harper, Prop Artist; Florin Iasinovschi, Prop Artist; Maxim Isakov, Environment/Prop Artist; Kei Garner, VFX/Audio/Prop Artist; and Jeffry Siguencia, Environment Artist. In addition, Tim Golton, an animation student and friend at Escape, helped to produce the theme you can hear at the main menu and end of the game.
In creating the concept for the game, we took a heavy amount of inspiration from Hideo Kojima’s P.T.; the idea of setting a horror experience in a familiar and claustrophobic space appealed massively to us. And where else could be better than a north London small family home? In terms of tone we researched a lot of films, particularly media set around the Enfield haunting, specifically the recent TV short series based on the events and The Conjuring 2. We researched photographs from the event, old burned up houses, and paranormal investigators and how they go about their job. We wanted it to be as immersive as possible and make sure the time and place was recognizable instantly.
It was very much an intentional choice that the player should never learn too much about the background to the events in the game. We knew from the beginning that we wanted to focus on the art since this is the primary focus of our course. None of us are writers, so we set ourselves a rule: we kept the plot of the game to one sentence when we pitched the idea. Everything else fleshed itself out from there. And as the art and environment developed, so did the story. We kept adding small elements of storytelling – for example, for the shoe rack we needed to know who lived there, as it determined what sort of shoes could be found on the rack, and elsewhere in the house. So we decided that a mother and her two children lived in this home. Nearly all of the story was written this way. Every asset has an element of storytelling – all the kitchen appliances are from the 90s, the walls have faint children’s drawings scratched into them, the corkboard is full of letters and overdue rent warnings, and so on. This is something we’re very proud of.
Bridget Wright: We never intended to have as precise a narrative as we eventually ended up with. We found that as more of the house was developed and refined, the more accurate we had to be about the inhabitants in order to create the appropriate environment to tell their story. I had to create kids’ drawings to decorate the fridge and kitchen, and I found that I personally had to keep in mind that the developmental age of a 4-year-old child is vastly different to that of an 8-year-old, and I found it amusing to project myself back to that age and pull out ideas for assets – I was making my own personal mark on things with stickers, crayons and who knows what else when I was that age.
Michael Neocleous: The house itself is actually based on a friend’s family home in north London, down to the smallest detail. I went there with a camera and took as many pictures as I possible could, even of the wires running along the door frames and the trims along the floors. We knew we were making an environment a lot of people would be familiar with, and that if one detail was off then it wouldn’t be convincing. Once we had the environment nailed, we started adding the atmospheric and the paranormal events to the game, once again all heavily inspired by Hideo Kojima games (the leading handprints from Death Stranding, for example). We wanted the player to know and understand the environment they were playing as much as possible; the more comfortable they were, the more they would be thrown off by the events that unfold in our game. We wanted to achieve that same feeling you get when you’re home alone as a child: it’s your home and it’s familiar, but there’s a sense of fear nonetheless (the game Gone Home does this excellently).
Baking Potatoes with Substance
Theo Rust: We used the Substance tools for a vast majority of the texturing in the scene. Most of the props were textured with Substance Painter. The only exceptions to this were the potato and rubbish assets that were made using Substance Alchemist. The tiling materials for the environment assets were also made using Substance Painter, except for the floor in the hallway which was made using Substance Designer. We also used Photoshop in conjunction with Substance Painter for assets like the carpet in the hall and the pictures on the wall.
Michael Neocleous: The PBR Checker in Substance Painter proved very useful throughout this project. There are lot of plastics and metals found within the scene and achieving the correct roughness and albedo values for these assets is crucial when producing such a familiar environment.
Maxim Isakov: As a general prop artist I often had to come up with ways to save time whilst maintaining quality. For example, when texturing the washing machine, I found a high-res image of the control panel. Using the brush tool, I easily placed the cropped image onto the model in Substance Painter. I’d also do this for other props like the labels on the cans of food. Overall, the experience of being a prop artist for Aspen Lane was smooth, and Substance Painter was definitely a major factor in that.
Zuquiel Abrahams: Michael put me in charge of the hallway, the first environment you see when you start the game. He gave me several references and I was then able to break down the materials of all the assets. The first texture I created was the wallpaper; creating it required a mix of all the Substance tools.
For the wallpaper, I used Substance Painter, as I wanted to see how I was able to create a material using Anchor Points. This feature became my favorite tool to use; it made the texture creation simple, and it was easy to make the results tile. Being able to reference layers and then having it affect the layer stack just adds so much more flexibility. I did the same with the burning material allowing me to change the alpha easily to create more shapes.
Michael Neocleous: There were more than a few photo-scanned objects in Aspen Lane. The process was quick and highly efficient compared to producing these assets in the traditional way. We bought a bunch of food items for photo scanning – the loaf of bread, for example. We had our own lightbox and photogrammetry turntable in the studio, which proved incredibly useful. We’d take photos from every angle, bring those photos into Reality Capture for processing, then export the high-poly model for cleanup in ZBrush. Once that was done, we’d then re-topologize in Maya, then finish by baking the details in Substance Painter and cleaning up any texture artifacts to produce the final game-ready model. This workflow worked tremendously well and was highly efficient; most of the time we were able to produce a high-quality model in just a day’s work.
Bridget Wright: Yes, we had a small 360° photograph booth in the corner of the classroom that was very popular throughout the time we had to make this project. It was almost constantly in use and we borrowed cameras from the university to take high-quality photographs to extract data from. As Michael mentioned, I used Reality Capture to export and re-topologize some scans of toys from home, which was an immense timesaver for objects with more complex details, like action figures and shoes.
Game Dev Headaches
Michael Neocleous: One of the big problems we ran into was proportions: the proportion of everything had to be precise; being in VR this was crucial. Measurements were taken of everything, of each room the player would enter. Of course, when making a game you can’t always use exact measurements; the real hallway for example was way too narrow to be a playable environment, so we made it just a tad larger so as to not make the player sick when they’re navigating it. There was a tremendous amount of trial and error to make sure everything fit and felt real when you put on the headset. Immersion was key for us.
Lighting was another complicated point. This was one of the trickier creative decisions we had to make during this project; we went through quite a few iterations of lighting scenarios before we found one we could settle on. Initially we were aiming for as close to the reference as possible before we realized this wouldn’t fit the tone of our game (much too bright and cozy). This led me to wander about London with a camera, as well as looking at the lighting in my own home, and taking a bunch of photos to use as references of different lighting scenarios; long spooky hallways, wet London streets, porch lights, everything and anything that could aid the direction of the lighting. Since we had no physical threat in the game, we had to use the lights to scare the player, flickering, loud bangs and the like. This also proved incredibly useful in drawing the player’s attention to whatever we wanted them to look at – the fiery handprints, for example.
Burn, Baby, Burn!
Palagamsan Sivapathasundaram: The ‘burning hallway’ effect came about because Michael approached me and asked if it was possible to burn down the entire apartment. And I said, “Yeah, I can think of a way to do it”. I carried out some quick tests to see if my first ideas might be doable, and it turned out they worked really well. The effect itself was quite simple. It was just a height lerp with a sphere mask. We also added some sparks that came down with the fire effect to really ground that it is fire. The more difficult part of the effect was that everything in the scene had to use the same master material in order to transition correctly. Preparation and planning were key for this effect.
The Rookies, and Beyond
Michael Neocleous: We thought there were some really great entries in The Rookies. In particular, our friends at Escape also made VR projects and they were incredible! These projects are Liberation at Dawn, where you play as the unfortunate prisoner of a monster hunting cult; and Overgrown, where you play as a lab intern tasked with producing a chemical to shrink overgrown roots and escape. Nearly everyone entered two projects into The Rookies since we all worked on two large group projects in our final year. For example, my second team entered The Underground: 1965 into the same category, while the other teams entered the projects Sculptor’s Courtyard, An American Garage, and The Express; all three are excellent. Nearly every project got drafted and most got to the finals!
More recently, the team behind Aspen Lane has been working on our individual portfolios, applying for jobs and trying to make our way into the industry. I’ve recently been accepted into a role at Playground Games, working on the Forza team, which I’m incredibly excited about. Some are moving on to the Master’s Degree at Escape Studios, while others are taking a well-deserved break after three years of hard work.
Aspen Lane: VR Paranormal Investigation is available to download and play for free, right here.