After years in architecture to retail visualization, Toronto outfit NVYVE now unleashes its vision of the future with the first-person P.A.M.E.L.A.
NVYVE (pronounced N-Vive) was originally founded as an architecture and product visualization studio. Rather than building games, the studio was using Unity to build interactive applications for architects and retailers, enabling their customers to get a better idea of their products in 3D space. While NVYVE is still doing this work today, it spun off NVYVE Studios into a smaller division within the company, focused purely on building its first game, P.A.M.E.L.A. “Making games had always been one of our long-term goals and passions, so it was a natural transition for us to get into this space,” says founder Adam Simonar.
P.A.M.E.L.A. is nothing if not ambitious. It’s a first-person survival horror game set on a futuristic island colony called Eden. Citizens have been infected with a disease, and are experiencing rapid bone growth; as they transform, it’s the player’s goal to stay alive as long as possible. As such, you’re outfitted with a bionic right arm featuring randomly generated attachments, which can be tweaked as you progress. The arm is also your connection to Pamela, an AI that appears as a hologram (think: Cortana), linked to all the others inhabiting the game world.
Thus far, the game has been funded by the studio’s commercial work with architecture and product visualization clients, as well as quite a bit of savings. “It’s worked well because we were able to build up a skill-set while also building a source of income that doesn’t tie us to a publisher or investor, letting us call our own shots in development and marketing,” says Simonar.
Creative inspiration, however, came from sources much farther and wider. “P.A.M.E.L.A. was inspired by a multitude of games and universes, as well as our love of the open-world survival genre,” says Simonar. At its core, he says, the game is about inhabiting a beautiful and strange sci-fi world, trying to survive and explore while discovering what it has to offer; from a thematic standpoint, the story behind P.A.M.E.L.A. is very much about the consequences of biological engineering and enhancement, as the player comes into the timeline to witness the aftermath of a man-made disaster. In that way, he says, it echoes a modern classic: “It’s similar to Bioshock, in a sense, where you first step into Rapture and have no idea what’s going on.”
From an artistic standpoint, the team has definitely found appeal in the classic DICE title Mirror’s Edge. “That game did an amazing job of balancing clean white surfaces with striking color accents; not only does this look gorgeous, it also helps the player to make a mental map of areas when they’re able to tie colors to different spaces,” says Simonar. Bioware’s Mass Effect also looms large for NVYVE, “particularly in the way they designed such highly believable sci-fi environments that really made you feel like you were traveling through real places.” And then there’s the aforementioned BioShock, along with Deus Ex, in the way they take hard, honest looks at the morality of human engineering and augmentation. “It’s easy to assume that progress is automatically a good thing, but of course that’s not always the case—especially when we're changing our bodies on a fundamental level.”
The core development team at NVYVE Studios is currently six strong, and the plan is to keep it that way—small and agile. There are some outside specialists involved, including musician Jeff van Dyck (audio director on Alien: Isolation), as well as Rust Ltd., which is doing some specialty shader work for the game. “Working with a tight-knit core team lets us move very quickly and be closely synchronized in day-to-day development, while outside specialists—and the Unity Asset Store—can help to fill in some gaps in our skill-set,” says Simonar. The core development team always works together in the studio’s Toronto office. “We find that physically being together is the best way to keep everyone motivated and moving in the same direction, so to this end we tend not to do much remote work.”
Lighting is clearly a huge part of the game’s ambiance, much of which has been achieved with Geomerics’ Enlighten software. “We were able to get a look at the feature set, and despite it being rough around the edges at the point [we started using it], we saw the tremendous potential it had to help us achieve the look we were envisioning,” says Simonar. “Enlighten allows us to achieve a very soft, natural look in all of our areas, interior or exterior. Normally this quality would need to be baked and static, so if you change the time of day to night, you’d essentially have to reload the level, or employ some kind of visual tricks to fake it. With Enlighten, we just import our geometry and are free to run day night cycles, turn lights on and off within the environment, and everything updates in real time in response to the changes. This lets us build a very believable and accurate world, and hit that glossy sci-fi look you see in games like Mass Effect—in real time.”
It’s smart, considered maneuvers such as these that have helped the team accomplish something on the scale of P.A.M.E.L.A. with such a small group of developers. “It’s very important to play to your strengths and passions,” says Simonar. “Making a game or interactive project on any scale is always a challenging endeavor, so it’s key to do something that you’re passionate about. There’s this kind of physiological need to make the game that drives us; it sounds strange, but when you’re driven to complete something, you often come up with more creative solutions than you would have otherwise.”
On the other side of this, knowing their limits has also been necessary. “Being able to say, ‘We don't have the ability or time to do this’ at times is important, because at the end of the day we have to be realistic. This is why it’s great to work with some super talented specialists on certain areas like audio and shaders—we know they’re going to do an amazing job, and we don’t need to stress someone by pushing them to do something they don’t have the skill-set for.”
Some of the main challenges the team is currently wrestling with include sorting out its full-body awareness system for the game’s character controller, its personality-driven AI system, and learning the ins and outs of Enlighten. “Our UI was also an interesting challenge, as it exists almost entirely in the game world, on the player's arm, etc. Finding a balance between immersion and usability was the key here, and it’s taken a few iterations to get right.”
P.A.M.E.L.A. was the team’s idea for the game’s title right from its very first brainstorm that spawned the core concept. “We had this idea where we wanted the name—both of the game, and of Pamela the AI character—to be unassuming, but intriguing,” says Simonar. “Like, you see the name along with a screenshot, and it’s not immediately evident how it all works together, which is kind of the point—to get people looking deeper. Of course, we’ve gotten the Pamela Anderson comments here and there, but in general I think the name has become something fairly concrete and recognizable.”
Across all of its projects, Simonar says NVYVE’s goal has always to build experiences that people can connect with and lose themselves in. “We started with interactive applications for sales, and now we’re making P.A.M.E.L.A., but that same philosophy is integral of both. Pardon the cliché, but it really is a labor of love; creating something meaningful and beautiful is always the most powerful motivator for us, and is what keeps us going through the occasional not-so-fun parts of development.”