FoxNext VR Studio’s Brendan Handler talks Crisis on the Planet of the Apes

Crisis on the Planet of the Apes

Crisis on the Planet of the Apes is the first VR game from 20th Century Fox’s new FoxNext VR Studio. With the game releasing earlier this week, we got a chance to talk with Brendan Handler about Crisis and the studio’s philosophy about virtual reality. Here’s what he had to say:

Why did you choose to set Crisis on the Planet of the Apes in between Rise and Dawn?

When we first started the project early on and we were looking at story treatment. We had originally looked at a story that was more of a prequel to War. But Mark Bomback, who’s the writer on the trilogy [and] a consultant on the project, we were talking with him and came to the conclusion that actually setting it between Rise and Dawn would really be a great unexplored area within the franchise.

That 10 year period which is really only covered in a minute/minute-and-a-half montage at the beginning of Dawn where you [find that] 90% of the human population dies off. We felt that putting it in year 5 would actually not only give us an expansive story world to work with but [it would] stay true to the storytelling elements within the franchise. It allowed us to take a time where society’s already breaking down.

Also, we liked this idea of having the CDC, the military, and you as an ape in this crossroads with the fate of humanity hanging in the balance. You’d be thrust into that world over there you know the CDC is desperately trying to find a cure for the simian flu. They’re still holding onto science [even though] that obviously got us into that predicament in the first place.

You start to see the calculus of the military which in some ways foreshadows War. They’re much more callous and calculating [here]. They think that the whole thing with the camp is a waste of time. They should be out preserving order as opposed to wasting their time at the CDC facility.

So what I loved about Crisis is how it made you feel like an ape. What went into the decision making process for the ape VR controls?

For the studio over all of our projects, character embodiment is natural. We feel that VR is a new medium which allows you to inhabit a character. We talk about the medium wherein film you’ll view the story, in games you play the story, but in VR you live the story.

So what that means to us, whether it’s Apes or the other projects, is… First, how do we design mechanics that will really make you feel like the character? We spent a lot of time in pre-production trying to perfect the mechanics, the movements, and the feel. Ultimately, that extended into how you played the combat with the cover system. Then, ultimately, how you move through the world. We wanted that suspension of disbelief that you are truly an embodiment of an ape.

Second is the storytelling element. If you’re going to live the story, how do we put you in the “shoes” of that character? Especially in the first part with the cages, you feel the hatred of the military and you feel the stakes. VR is such a unique medium. We put you in a position where we’re setting up the story and the action and you embody the ape emotionally as well as physically.

Were there any particular games out there that inspired you guys for these controls?

Well, we are VR enthusiasts and we play a lot of different things. So our two references for the combat were two things: One was a film and the other was a game. We’ve always been fans of the original London Heist demos which was a superb [game]. It was really tuned and [had] visceral combat. For the film reference, we looked at the shootout in Heat in downtown LA for that intensity. Again, visceral being the keyword. We wanted the player to have the feeling of bullets whizzing by their head and ducking into cover. Basically, we tried to alternate parts where you fear for your life or you’re dominating. I think those were some of our inspiration.

We’ve seen what the potential of VR can be with Ready Player One, but what do you guys hope VR will be like in the future?

Yeah, as I talked about earlier, the idea of embodiment and character. That’s not to say, that some our favorite VR experiences that are in the market [aren’t] like arcade sim shooters. Whereas you’re not contextualized as a character or fantastic. I think in our view, we’re in love with the idea of living in different worlds.

If we look down the curb, what excites us is that you’ll start to see AI characters that you can interact with. Obviously, that’d be very compelling. Hopefully, if the market expands you’ll see bigger production budgets and more scope. You’ll start to get a little bit more into stuff that feels open world, but you’re [still] having realistic interactions with other digital characters. And what’s the path forward to get there where you’re truly living the story.

Of course, in Apes we don’t have AI yet. But we try to tell the story in two ways. There are, what we call, fleeting digital character interactions. We don’t want them to hang too long or it’s going to break the illusion. Then there’s also the atmospherics like the radio or the camp PA. Using the combination of that, we can really put you on a pretty interesting narrative arc. I think we’re eager about the potential of having more naturalistic interactions with digital characters.

Crisis on the Planet of the Apes Gameplay

For VR to flourish, do you feel like it’s more important for a consumer experience to be more cinematic or more gamelike?

Actually, it’s interesting because we’re a little reticent to use the word “cinematic.” If you asked us “what does cinematic mean” two years ago, we’d completely give you a different answer than today. As we started to explore the medium and produce these games, the FoxNext definition is not commonly used outside our group. We look at it as an approach and rigor to the story. The scripting, the casting of VO, and the audio design. Not to mention, the story design and the design of the player’s journey. So if you’d ask us two years ago, we might’ve just said: “Oh, the visuals and the audio has to be high quality.”

For Apes, we wanted to combine solid gameplay with a strong story. Unlike 2D gaming where IP games are sometimes second-rate, we always felt early on (when this initiative first started) that VR completely changes the playing field. Because of your presence, you’re living in the world. It puts it on an even playing where between story and game. Hopefully, Apes is our first piece to put that on the market. That is to say that both can coexist together and create a new and different experience.

What’s the one thing that you want players to take away from the experience as they’re going through Crisis on the Planet of the Apes?

I hope… Maybe I’ll take a look at this from an overall Fox perspective, but I hope we’ve done justice to the Planet of the Apes franchise. In particular, the [reboot] trilogy. Hopefully, as they’re putting themselves in the story, that they came away with a great game experience and they’ve been emotionally touched by the story.

So what’s next for FoxNext VR Studio?

We have two titles that we can’t talk about yet but they are coming out in Summer and Winter of this year.

Crisis on the Planet of the Apes is now available on Oculus, PlayStation VR, and Steam.

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