The international team at Honor Code invites you to look at the world around you…right here on the ocean floor
At first glance, Narcosis might appear to be yet another extraterrestrial romp, but closer inspection reveals an alien landscape much closer to home: the game is set at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, with the player awakening to the aftermath of a catastrophic event that has left them stranded on the ocean floor. With nothing but your flashlight, flares, knife, and slowly diminishing wits, you’ll need to make your way across hostile waters, searching for a way back to the surface.
At its core, Narcosis is very much a narrative experience, plunging the player forward into the unknown. It is being developed as both a screen- and VR-based title, and is one of the more ambitious VR games that’s been shown to date.
“The initial idea was to merge the most mysterious, nerve-wracking environment on Earth with a genre that’s all about mystery and wracked nerves—survival horror—at the bottom of the sea,” says Narcosis game director and Honor Code co-founder Quentin De Beukelaer. “From there, we settled on two creative guidelines.”
The first was to make something natural, pointedly distinct from the fantastical tropes so common in modern games. “By blending a believable setting with the protagonist’s psychological challenges, we were able to get rid of demons, zombies and vengeful spirits,” says De Beukelaer.” The second guideline was to make something amoral—not immoral. “In a situation and setting like this, there’s no good or evil, just a bunch of life forms all trying to survive—our protagonist included.”
The Honor Code team first connected by virtue of being in the same class at ENJMIN, a well-known videogame school in France. It was here that Narcosis was conceived; after graduating, the small group continued working on the game in their free time. “After graduating in 2012, half of the team left to pursue other objectives, but a few of us wanted to continue working on Narcosis,” says De Beukelaer. “But first we needed real working experience, and to make a little money. We took jobs at various videogame companies, and four of us continued work on the game during nights and weekends.”
In the summer of 2013, they “added bourbon to [their] wine” in the form of some California-based developers, and from there the Honor Code was created, says De Beukelaer. “One engineer came back on the project, and we met David Chen, our writer, who helped convince us to show the game at GDC 2014,” he says. “At this point we had no team name or structure, no funding, and no appointments. We only a demo running on a laptop and a first-generation Oculus Rift—both borrowed. We got the game in front of a few people, earned a favorable preview on Polygon, and in the following weeks started to receive calls from media, agents and even publishers.”
Where Honor Code’s weekly conference calls used to be the core team of six people—most with French accents—they now have a dozen people dialing in from Los Angeles, the Bay Area, and all corners of France. “Even though we’re now an actual business, we all take many roles, and all of our effort is based on trust—it’s essential for a remote team,” says Chen. “That’s why we’re called Honor Code.”
Members of the Narcosis team worked on a number of AAA brands prior to joining Honor Code (including Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed and Konami’s Metal Gear Solid), which has informed much of the organizational aspects of developing the game. “At big companies like Ubisoft, teams are so big that you can practice efficient processes, both at a micro and a macro level,” says De Beukelaer. “Even with a smaller, organic team, having a solid methodology regarding design documentation, project versioning, task management and meeting reports is extremely valuable.”
There have been plenty of challenges running a remote team, collectively and on an individual level. “Most of us are hours (if not time zones) apart, so we try to keep a sense of camaraderie,” says Chen. Language is occasionally an issue—the Skype channels tend to shift from French to English, depending on the time of day—but the biggest challenge is not being able to point at a screen and say, “What about this?” “For me, personally, it was tough at the beginning working daily with a bunch of guys, most of whom I’d never met,” says Chen. “I knew the voices, and we developed relationships together—in-jokes, that kind of thing—so it was surreal finally meeting the team for the first time, after more than a year of working together.”
The team maintains several Skype threads running 24/7: one for general dev discussion, one for PR and biz dev stuff, and smaller, specialized ones, about art or specific feature discussion. “It took a while for everyone to get on board— using the right threads at the right times—but it all feels smooth and organic now,” says Chen. “Once a week we submit progress reports, and then hop on a mass voice chat to share success stories, point out problems, ask questions, and divvy up new tasks for the week ahead.”
Since early on, Frictional Games’ Amnesia has served as a key reference point for Narcosis. “The mise en scene of horror, and the smart balance of gameplay and emotion was really impacting for us, as players,” says De Beukelaer. Fullbright’s Gone Home is another: De Deukelaer says both the game’s audio and level/narrative design were fascinating, and inspirational. “If people who like those games like Narcosis, we’ll be very, very proud,” he says.
The decision to bring Narcosis to virtual reality came back in 2014, when VR first started to gain momentum. “When we had a chance to test the game on the Oculus DK1, it was love at first sight between Narcosis and VR,” says De Beukelaer. While the team is experimenting with Valve’s Vive and Sony’s Morpheus headsets, for launch they’re focused on Oculus.
Of course, developing the game for both VR and screen-based platforms simultaneously has brought its fair share of hurdles. “Designing a VR experience is full of challenges,” says De Beukelaer. “Remember how characters controlled in the first survival horror games, or playing FPS games pre-strafe? That's where we are with regards to videogames and virtual reality—everyone is a pioneer.” This includes playing with the user’s peripheral vision, which gives their imaginations plenty of chance to run wild—but is very different on a screen versus inside a headset.
“Adding VR is easy, but creating a smooth and consistent experience is a lot harder,” adds Picou. “We need to reconsider every game feature for both screen-based and VR play—several controllers, additional tests, the number of features we need to maintain and debug—without settling for an ‘inferior’ version.” Performance is the other big challenge: With the commercial versions of Oculus and Vive, games will need to be rendered at a solid 90 FPS, with a resolution higher than a standard screen. Add in dual in-game cameras—which can double some calculations during the rendering pipeline—and the team is constantly very vigilant, particularly when adding new effects that might break the framerate. (That said, in terms of art, while there have been some issues—VFX that can be too intense, for instance—sharing assets between the two versions has been relatively low-maintenance.)
Indeed, the first build of Narcosis was developed in 2011, before Oculus Rift was even on the horizon. “Even then we were already confident on how much action, and how much immersion we wanted,” says De Beukelaer. From the start, the team wanted to create a slower-paced, first person game; this paradox was meaningful to them, as a gameplay pillar. “Dear Esther came out a little later, and even though we enjoyed it, it confirmed our desire for something with some action and simple, uncluttered gameplay.” As such, Narcosis is mainly about exploration, immersion and narrative, but at any moment you might need to use your knife to save your life —something that helps keep players on guard, aware and focused.
“It's hard to step back and see the game as a whole,” says DeBeukelaer. “But what is encouraging is the response we’ve seen along the way. Before VR—before we were even a real team—people were excited about the premise, the setting, look and feel. So even though we’ve only given glimpses of the game, we feel like we’re onto something different—and that people will really enjoy."
The transition from AAA studios to indie development for the Honor Code team has brought with it both obstacles and a newfound freedom. “We’re happy with what we’ve achieved so far, but we’re still a long ways from finished,” says De Beukelaer. “As a small team, we can’t always move as quickly as we’d like; on the other hand, there’s a strong bond between all the members, and ideas and initiatives flow many different ways—not just from the top. That makes the voyage an exciting one.”
As for the future? “We’re definitely guilty of the classic ‘indie mistake’—trying to make our first game great,” says Chen. “We want for as many people as possible to lose themselves in Narcosis, but beyond that there's no greater plan. Our next game might not be narrative-driven, and probably won’t be first-person, but it’s pretty sure it won't be a horror game. The funny thing is that while we love the genre, few if any of us are serious horror aficionados—we’re hoping that turns to our advantage with Narcosis, as horror is just one of the flavors we’re working with.”