Boneworks from Stress Level Zero feels like the first game of PC VR’s second generation.
The small team based in Los Angeles previously developed Duck Season and Hover Junkers. In Boneworks, they are applying years of refinement to physics, locomotion and object handling systems. You can feel the effort every second inside their virtual world.
A recent demo of Boneworks from Stress Level Zero co-founder Brandon Laastch shows interactions tuned to a degree I’ve never seen before. First I held, loaded and fired a one-handed pistol. I dropped the gun, grabbed a bigger one, racked it with my other hand and started firing. I decided to steady it with my second hand for better control and it just worked. I also grabbed an axe with one hand and steadied it with the other.
During my demo, Laatsch told me to release my index finger from the right hand of the axe. My virtual hand loosened its grip, letting me find a better spot to grip for maximum hacking power. I also took a few swings of the crowbar before resorting to just good old-fashioned robot punching. Boneworks even enables throwing objects and then “force” grabbing them back to your hand just by making a fist with your index and middle fingers. Magazines are attached to my body. I look down and see them there for easy reloading. Larger guns store on my back for later so my hands are free to grab more things in the world.
I turned my body to the right, pushed the thumbstick forward on my controller and started exploring the demo level.
“Thus far, VR content has asked gamers to lose some core features of gaming in exchange for some new exciting ones,” Laastch explained in an email. “With Boneworks, we want to show gamers and developers that a VR player controller can exist that maintains all action/adventure genre staples while adding incredible agency due to precise tracked controllers. By removing as many ‘two steps forward, one step back’ examples and only presenting the expected experience plus a ton of new exciting gameplay, we can massively interest gamers and developers in VR gaming.”
What I’ve described about Boneworks might sound simple — other developers do some of these things with their software — but not to the degree and the level of execution on display here. There are still plenty of interactions in many VR games which are huge barriers. In Boneworks, it seemed like those barriers are practically gone. What that leaves a player with in their virtual world is a sense of empowerment.
“It is the job of the software to blend user input into an expected, responsive, and visually pleasing result,” Laatsch wrote. “For twenty-plus years, gamers have been shown increasingly high fidelity first-person animations in AAA games. In order for VR to go massively mainstream, the end visual result of the hands – both inside and outside of the headset – need to match the fidelity of hand-keyed first-person animations. By doing this, we remove a significant step-back that has been perceived by gamers and developers regarding VR. This is incredibly challenging, considering that traditional games operate in a controlled limited input environment while VR games need to give the user full control over their hands, head and grab states in order to feel responsive and as expected. In its current state, we present authored hand poses that blend roll, pitch, and yaw of the object relative to the hand in order to make the connection to the object non-rigid and maintain the users’ ability to rotate their hands while two-handing an object or if an external force caused the finger strength to be insufficient to hold an object rigidly in the hand. Additionally, grips are able to update dynamically, allowing the player to rotate or slide their hand on a grip without releasing using a realistic friction model.”
The intuitive hand interaction is only a small part of Boneworks’ inviting atmosphere. Any Half-Life or Portal vibe you get from visuals you’ve seen from the game only gets stronger with first-hand experience. Yeah, I’m holding a crowbar and looking at stick figure drawings on the wall to figure out where I’m going next inside some faceless corporation’s long hallways. More deeply, though, the developers physically simulated “everything” to bring “predictability and interactivity to the world.”
“Once a player is able to move and interact at a high level, static and unpredictable physics are jarring and wreck immersion,” Laatsch wrote. “If something looks like they could pick it up, they can. If something looks heavy, it is. Everything that moves in Boneworks is moved with physical forces and is simulated. This includes the player, the NPCs, the enemies, and the objects. Every object is potentially a weapon or a viable solution to a puzzle. By making a predictable world, we invite players to problem solve and be creative rather than just consume the content. In addition to the feel of the objects, realistic mass for the objects is necessary to give the end result the expected look. Traditional games animate interactions with heavy objects to look properly heavy; in VR, we need to actually make the object heavy and simulate the interaction to achieve this look and feel while maintaining agency.”
I used Oculus Touch controllers in my demo with an original Oculus Rift and it worked fine. Still, during my demo I couldn’t shake the feeling Boneworks was giving me a preview of what VR’s second generation of PC VR could feel like with added levels of body tracking. Broadly speaking, future VR headsets will need to understand more about the person wearing the headset to improve the overall experience. More accurate tracking and representation of the position of the arms, legs, fingers and eyes in future hardware would simply improve the already inviting atmosphere of the software.
I’ve tried HTC Vive headsets with eye-tracking added and we know Valve Corporation is shipping its Index VR headset in June with hand-strapped controllers which can increase immersion through more realistic grasping and release interactions. Increased body tracking might also be possible one day with Facebook’s Insight tracking system featured on the upcoming Rift S and Oculus Quest.
“Boneworks has full feature parity across current hardware and currently known future hardware,” Laatsch wrote. “We feel that the base kits that both Rift and Vive offer are our baseline for years to come. Future enhancements like the finger tracking of the Index controllers are already supported. Everything is built to easily implement eye tracking as well, and it won’t sever the connection with the current base line. For example, anything that factors gaze currently uses the forward vector of the headset and a wide cone to determine gaze direction. If eye tracking was available, we would simply use eye forward and a narrower more precise frustum for determining gaze. Currently we are developing with Touch, Vive, Index and WMR controllers in parallel to ensure a good experience regardless of customer choice.”
Developers new to VR generally don’t have the experience to build specialized interactions. Likewise, players don’t have the time either to learn new interactions in each virtual world. There are powerful engines and toolsets like Unity and Unreal developers use to construct these worlds. There are some open-source templates and sample code developers can use to kickstart their work in VR, too. There’s still a gap, though, between getting a virtual world up and running in a VR headset and the level of nuanced interaction that makes Boneworks such an inviting piece of software. If EA or Activision decides to make a VR game — their research teams would likely have to start from scratch. Whether an indie developer or a giant studio — that research costs either time or money.
Boneworks might be able to help.
“A full-body avatar is necessary for adoption,” Laastch wrote. “First and foremost, it allows the player to play as a character rather than themselves. This is essential for storytelling, escapism, and as a transitional conduit to bridge the real world to the virtual game world. Almost every traditional action/adventure game has the player play as a character with different abilities, personality and problems from their own; this shouldn’t be lost in VR games. Secondly, having connective art from the head to the hands is essential for the player to accept the virtual hands as their own. With floating hands alone, if they stick to a heavy object in space, it feels jarring. If the hands are connected to the body, it lessens the mental load to accept that this virtual object is simply heavier than their real world controllers. Finally, seeing your body enhances presence in the headset and is essential for the 2D viewer. The body is the final piece to showing gameplay footage that has no visual drawbacks from traditional games. Also, viewing content that looks like a GoPro mounted to the player’s head rather than floating hands is much more approachable and viral. It is the VR that we all fantasized about realized.”
So what’s next for Boneworks? There’s a narrative built on top of all of this that I didn’t get to see in my brief demo time. “You play as a systems engineer working inside an advanced AI driven virtual operating system,” according to Stress Level Zero. While focusing on tasks involving “the system clock of the virtual OS the differences between perceived time and real time become concerning. Investigative exploration through the gamified inner workings reveal something is critically amiss, leading into unknown dangers.”
“Rather than presenting Boneworks as a tech demo, we, instead, want to first let it be playable as a narrative game,” Laatsch wrote. “Humans respond to stories and experiences that have consequences. This tech has been made to ultimately get out of the way of the art, so we must do that from the first launch. We hope that, after launch, the narrative and world are equally as memorable as the tech. Regarding narrative scope, our benchmarks for this first title are Firewatch, Portal, and Inside. It has been very hard to limit the scope of the project. For the first time, we feel unleashed as creators now that the core has come together.”