or, How we went from Knightmare to Unseen Diplomacy.
One of the great things about showing off any kind of VR to people is watching people’s imaginations sparking when they start to think of the possibilities. People come up with all sorts of interesting ideas, but for those of a certain age one suggestion is almost inevitable to appear:
What the heck was Knightmare anyway?
If you’re not familiar with it, Knightmare was a kid’s tv show that ran for 8 series between 1987 and 1994 on uk tv. A ‘dungeoneer’ would don an oversized helmet and traverse a fantasy world while being guided by their team. Blinded by their oversized helmet and using a mix of blue screens, actors, cgi and giant puppets their team would see them immersed in the dungeon they had to escape from.
It was amazingly innovative at the time, and while there have been attempts to do similar shows, none have really pulled it off. So it’s not surprising that it resonates so strongly despite it’s age.
But what makes Knightmare good?
It’s not hard to see why VR inspires people to think of Knightmare – here’s a person wearing an oversized helmet, wandering around apparently blindfolded while you watch their actions within the world they’ve been immersed into.
But in many ways this is to forget how much Knightmare was brought to life by the actors playing the NPCs, and the team running the game behind the scenes. While it seems like a computer RPG brought to life, in many ways it’s much closer to LARPing or pen-and-paper roleplaying. Rather than relying on systems and numbers, it’s gameplay is based on conversations, improv and riddles.
Larping is hard
Which is where things get difficult for our theoretical Knightmare VR game. Improv and conversations are hard for computers to handle. Natural Language Processing has been a research topic for decades and has come a long way, but the text it generates tend to be dry and targeted towards tightly defined areas with well known databases of facts. The kind of back-and-forth verbal sparring that shines so brightly with real people is not easily done.
In terms of games, Facade is probably the closest we’ve got to this kind of gameplay, and only really possible because they focused the entire game around a tightly constrained scenario. To be believable, conversations in games have to remove some amount of control, such as the choose-your-stance dialog systems in mainstream RPGs, or the more abstract choices in Twine games. And we haven’t even touched on the difficulty of text entry in VR.
Information Asymmetry – deliberately breaking your UI
There’s another element to Knightmare though, one that’s got a much more successful history in games – information asymmetry. The deliberate hiding of information from some players in order to encourage communication and teamwork.
The Gamecube’s Pac-Man Vs. (and it’s more refined sibling, Luigi’s Ghost Mansion on Wii U) are stand-out examples in this genre. The use of two screens allows the flow of information to each player to be tightly controlled. Efficient communication of the opponent’s position within a team is vital to success, and lets all players both act as the hunter and the prey simultaneously.
Oddly introducing Information Asymmetry often involves breaking good UI rules and making your game either intentionally obtuse or omitting information that should be present in order to facilitate communication. Poor UI design of the kind that lead to the Iran Air Flight 655 disaster is actually the kind of thing you need to do to make interesting communication challenges.
Knightmare in 2d?
A couple of years ago I was actually working on a 2d version of Knightmare, imaginatively called Knightmare 2d. It was a mobile game where the dungeoneer and guides would each use their own mobile phone so that everyone could have their own unique window into the world.
It looks something like this:
Again, having multiple displays is crucial for good information asymmetry, and mobile phones provided a good way to get this.
The ‘dungeoneer’ (top screen) has limited spatial awareness, mostly just seeing a grid to show their movement, and is always facing upwards. Guides get a room-by-room view (similar to 2d zelda games) but always viewed from the same angle – so if the dungeoneer rotates right the guide can see them facing right, but to the dungeoneer everything is still ‘forwards’. This is crucial to replicate the “step left” / “no my left” / “Oh drat” moments of Knightmare.
Unfortunately navigating a world like this quickly becomes tedious. The dungeoneer rapidly becomes what we call a ‘rubbish controller’ where all they’re doing is responding to shouts of button presses from the guide player, and they might as well be replaced with a voice-controlled gamepad, which is about as fun for both players as it sounds. There’s potential here, but pending a big design rethink we shelved the project.
Knightmare in VR?
Later we came back to the question – what would Knightmare VR look like? As tempting as it is we can’t really blindfold the VR player, as that kind of destroys the point of VR. But we can do two different displays – one for the VR player and one for observers – so information asymmetry is back on the cards. We don’t want to repeat the navigation mistakes of Knightmare 2d, so we give the VR player all the information they need to move around freely on their own. And NPCs and LARPing are hard, so we have to take those out and replace them with puzzles and physical challenges.
Suddenly, we’re not making Knightmare any more, but The Crystal Maze!
We have no idea what our gaming influences are
We like to joke that our influences for our games come from children’s tv, rather than other games but there’s actually a lot of truth behind that.
- * Smash Hit Plunder is a fusion of Finder’s Keepers and Supermarket Sweep
- * Knightmare 2d was obviously Knightmare based
- * Unseen Diplomacy was The Crystal Maze
Lets not talk about Ed Tudor Pole
When we were doing research on The Crystal Maze, we were surprised to find out that Games Workshop were actually responsible for the puzzle designs for the show. While largely known for their tabletop miniatures these days, they have a long history with pen-and-paper roleplaying, DnD and the Fighting Fantasy game books.
Huge, immersive sets were a key component, along with the stand-alone challenges of the various crystal rooms. Rooms which allowed their fellow teammates to lean in and shout helpful (or confusing) advice. Their puzzles still promote information asymmetry, either by different vantage points or by the observers having a more relaxed and wider view of the action.
Unseen Diplomacy is born
The Crystal Maze is a much more suitable for a VR adaption, so it became our primary influence. We could still use VR to create a sense of immersion and scale, while guiding players through a series of rooms and challenges using the redirected walking technique we’d already prototyped earlier.
Lots of puzzles don’t adapt well, so we had to come up with those from scratch to better suit the kind of pacing and flow we wanted players to experience, and by being designed for an installation/event we could bring light roleplay elements by theming the space and helpers running the game.
Much like The Crystal Maze, we found that having a person placed in the ‘performer’ role with multiple people observing and shouting advice (of dubious quality) puts pressure on the person in VR, and actually makes them less competent, but more fun (and funnier). And as a result the whole experience becomes more like a performance rather than a traditional game.
Will we see Knightmare VR?
So after all that, will we be likely to see a Knightmare game in VR? Sadly, probably not from us. A ‘proper’ version would involve solving some hard AI-like problems around Natural Language Processing and emergent narratives, which games have made very slow progress on over the last decade or so.
But at the same time lots of established gameplay conventions that work for traditional flat games need re-evaluating for VR. In revisiting old conventions through the eyes of VR there may yet be a way to make the Knightmare experience some of us are still hoping for.
Unseen Diplomacy will be launching on Steam on April 5th for £1.99.