Area of Darkness: Sentinel Creator Talks Challenges and the Power of Haunting VR

Area of Darkness: Sentinel is an upcoming psychological thriller that hopes to make a name for itself in a market already flooded with thousands of virtual reality applications. What makes it different is that unlike most first-time projects from small indie studios, this ambitious take actually looks pretty impressive.

Rematch Studios from Pakistan has clearly put in a lot of effort for its first jump. With a branching narrative, full voice acting, amazing locations, and thrilling set pieces built from the ground up for virtual reality, Area of Darkness: Sentinel promises to offer an immersive (and refine) virtual reality narrative-adventure.

The setting takes place in 1978 and follows Dr. Anne Evans as she uncovers the secrets of the mysterious Sentinel Islands that are home to creatures from legends. I sat down with co-founder and game director Hisham Adamjee this weekend to talk about his new venture. We were also joined by his brother, narrative director Mishal Adamjee.

Take us through the development cycle. How long has it been since your studio started work on the game? What challenges did you overcome for being based in a country that has mostly prioritized endless mobile runners in recent years?

HA: VR had just started taking off with the DK2 causing a lot of stir in the US. Given the timing of trying to establish ourselves as a new studio, it made sense to try and make a name for ourselves in a new space. We also wanted to focus on story-based and narrative-strong games, and VR was perfect to tell stories in new avenues.

Our biggest challenge was finding experienced people to help bring this dream into reality – most people in Pakistan haven’t worked on UE4 before, and almost no one had even touched or thought about VR before. We spent a lot of time getting to grips with the tech before even beginning ‘true’ development on the game.

MA: We started work on the game about 2 years ago – we spent a good amount of time on R+D before we started on the game in earnest. From the moment we first put on a VR headset, we knew we wanted to make a fun, adventure game that takes advantage of the immersive opportunities afforded by the technology.

Building a game, any game, anywhere is a huge and complex undertaking – it takes a lot of money, dedication, focus and creative energy. The gaming industry in Pakistan is still young and growing, but the amount of talent and drive in the young men and women is extremely encouraging. We want all game developers in Pakistan to be successful and forward looking, and it seems the industry is headed that way. Internally, our focus is to be ambitious in our vision – to create great games that we would want to play ourselves. We’re keeping things in perspective and taking one step at a time.

What locomotion options are you offering and how efficiently do they counter motion sickness?

HA: We went to great lengths to ensure that both hardcore and casual VR players can enjoy the game – and that means giving the player options – whether that be smooth locomotion or teleportation, or smooth/snap turning. Our experience through play-testing suggested that the average player is most comfortable with a combination of smooth locomotion + snap turning.

We wanted to give the player the option to choose whatever they’re most comfortable with. We defaulted to smooth locomotion and smooth turning because we feel that is most immersive and cinematic. It is also, however, the combination with the highest incidence of motion sickness among casual players – but changing the locomotion options are easy, and we encourage people to experiment to find what works best for them. We also offer customization within snap turning (with settings to allow for 20, 30, 45 and 60 degree snaps).

Your Steam listing mentions full controller support. Does that mean we should expect basic motion controls? To what degree are the Touch/Vive controllers supported?

HA: All our interactions (large and small) were designed and programmed with motion controllers first and foremost.

Full body presence within the game was something we decided from day 1 that we wanted to have. It took a lot of time, iterations and testings to get that to a level where we feel it works (though with player movements being unpredictable at times, you do end up with the rare funny moment!). When we first started development, Oculus Touch wasn’t a thing at the time, so we used the Vive wands as the base control option. The game is entirely built upon motion controllers, however, we did not want to exclude those who don’t have touches or wands. So regular controller implementation was definitely a necessity (and also included creating a lot of custom animations for item pick up/actions/combat) – anyone with a game pad will feel right at home. These will carry over to the non-VR version as well.

Have you geared towards the Oculus Rift by providing Oculus SDK support and native Touch controller optimizations?

HA: Absolutely, touch controller optimizations are there – though these things are constantly evolving. Once we created our hands and the poses, the touch came out with the 3-1-1 finger sensing (3 in the grip, index finger, thumb) so we took the time out to make sure that we incorporated that into the build (though work is continuing on that as of this interview). As someone who plays a lot of games, the Oculus Touch is one of the most ergonomic controllers I have ever used. This may take time as we have a full body presence system that we built from the ground up (no floating hands here!). In terms of Oculus SDK support, it is in the works – Oculus Rift users can play it through the Steam Store until we get onto the Oculus Store.

MA: Beyond our plans for just the Steam Store and Oculus Store – we have been lucky enough to be trusted by Sony with a PlayStation 4 Dev Kit in Pakistan, so we hope to bring it to PlayStation 4 and PSVR as well.

Are there any plans to implement ASW 2.0 for the Oculus Rift after release?

HA: This is something we are keeping a close eye on, but work on it will begin post-launch – I wouldn’t expect to see it on day 1.

Does the physical inventory system work by having fixed slots over your body or does it allow you to place anything anywhere?

HA: With immersion being a key feature of Area of Darkness: Sentinel, we wanted to do away with menus and HUDs as much as possible. Anne’s inventory system is her backpack that can be accessed by reaching over either shoulder and pressing the grip – we found it to be very intuitive and natural in terms of movement and action. Putting things into the bag is as simple as grabbing an item and just placing it over your shoulder. We wanted this line of thinking for immersion to be consistent, so we also has a journal on her hip so you can just reach down and press grip to bring that up, and retouch it to your hip to put it away. In fact, we were planning a whole collectible system for certain items, but removed it just because we couldn’t realign how to see and inspect them without going to menus.

When you say that we will be fighting supernatural creatures using motion-based combat, what does that really mean? Are there shooting mechanics involved or will we be duking it out with our bare fists?

HA: So, given that our game is a linear adventure title, the combat is hand-crafted and directed. Anne is inexperienced in the field and we wanted the game to reflect that – immersion would be totally broken if a veteran Dark Souls player came and started rolling around and killing everything with ease! During certain events, you will have to react by mirroring certain poses and pressing certain buttons in order to succeed, be it sticking your hand into a creatures mouth to save your throat from being ripped out or a stabbing motion to plunge a sword into someone’s stomach. Most of these poses and actions emulate the on screen action – breaking a jaw, for example, feels tactile and possesses a weight – and we think players will appreciate that. The game will enter bullet-time during these segments so you will have time (but not too much time) to react.

One of our favorite features of VR is how amazing things feel when they’re in your face, up close and personal. Some of the people around you have guns, but given that you’re just an archaeologist along for the ride, you don’t get one. You do however find a few different melee weapons that can be used at certain points in the game. Lots of fists will be thrown too – how effective that really is given Anne’s small stature is something the player will have to discover!

The trailers do not really tell much about gameplay. What is it like — more puzzle-oriented or combat-focused?

HA: The game is based on 3 legs – Story, Exploration and Combat – we blend all 3 of them to create the pacing of the game to keep players on their toes at all times. . There are areas to explore, items to interact with, puzzles to solve and lore that fleshes out the game world. We wanted to try and ground the puzzles in reality as much as possible (no floating platforms here!), so we had to carefully choose how to craft them. Most of them can be figured out with some common sense, but feel rewarding all the same due to the process you go through to complete them. There are also dialogue/story sections that explore various themes including colonialism, racism, civilization and sexism. You will interact with the story elements in a variety of ways – some as the focal point, some as a spectator – and usually with the option to shape the dialogue and story. From a combat standpoint, you fight when it makes sense, and it is always intense and visceral, and with a purpose.

What is the estimated total play-time?

MA: We expect a play-through to be between 2 and 2 1/2 hours – the set pieces are re-playable, and you can pick up from any checkpoint, which will be a really fun way to share the experience with friends who might not have a VR headset, or played a VR game before.

Do you plan to stick with the virtual reality genre or will your studio be branching out in the future should Area of Darkness: Sentinel gain traction?

MA: We love games – this is our first project, and an ambitious one at that. We have our goals and targets for the long term, but our priority right now is AoD:S, and making it as good as it can be. It’s looking great, and has been a lot of fun to work on – we hope we can keep growing and improving, and continue to make games people enjoy playing on various platforms. Our mission is to make fun games that punch above their weight and are good value for money.

HA: We’re also working on a non-VR version of AoD:S, which will be released as a fun, short story game for those without VR headsets to enjoy, at a lower cost. Going forward, if the game continues to receive positive attention as it has been, we’d love to explore more VR based narrative games. There is definitely room for more narrative VR products, and we definitely look up to games such as Lone Echo, The Gallery and Wilson’s Heart. We do also love normal gaming, so that is also something we’re keen to explore when the time is right.

Area of Darkness: Sentinel is currently slated for a release on Steam sometime in February 2019. The non-VR version should arrive by the end of March 2019.