Oculus Rift Gives You Magical Powers in a New Video Game Set in 2020 L.A.

Scott Stephan and Alexa Kim created Anamnesis for a graduate course at USC.
Scott Stephan and Alexa Kim created Anamnesis for a graduate course at USC.
Shannon Cottrell

In Anamnesis, you are a FEMA agent in Los Angeles. The year is 2020 and a pandemic has swept the city, forcing survivors to move into quarantine zones. You are the person who helped them relocate. Now, you are searching one of these buildings to find out why two of these people have disappeared.

The game, which is part of IndieCade's exhibition at E3, utilizes the emerging gaming platform Oculus Rift. With the Rift, players can immerse themselves into the world, virtual reality style. In the case of Anamnesis, wearing the Rift headset will allow you to see the memories of the former inhabitants of the apartments you will explore. Without the Rift, you will look at the game strictly from the perspective of the FEMA agent. You'll need to explore the building from those different points of view in order to uncover, and maybe solve, a mystery. 

The game was developed by Scott Stephan and Alexa Kim, two graduate students in USC's Interactive Media and Games program. They created Anamnesis as a class project in the Fall, 2013 semester. It was the first time they collaborated together. Stephan happened to be grabbing a drink of water when he ran into Kim, who suggested that they partner up for the assignment.

"The project turned to e a really beautiful combination of our skills," says Stephan.

Both worked on the game's narrative elements and split up other duties based on their talents. Stephan's strength is programming. Kim is a fantastic artist. Together, they were able to build the game in about two-and-a-half months. 

The inspiration came from those ads for x-ray specs that would appear inside comic books. Stephan and Kim wanted to use Oculus Rift in a way that would help players see what others cannot. "We wanted to do something like that - use the Rift as a way to give somebody a magical power," says Stephan. "We wanted to try to make a game that utilized the Rift not just as a display port but as a storytelling tool."

It's also inspired by apartment life in Los Angeles, and the setting is based on Kim's apartment. "You have these neighbors that you never really know unless something bad happens," says Stephan.

Oculus Rift is a virtual reality gaming device that funded on Kickstarter back in 2012, and Facebook bought the company for $2 billion earlier this year. It's a large, flat piece of headgear that fits tightly around the eyes, obscuring peripheral vision to keep players inside the 3D world of the game. The technology is still very young. The company, which is based in Irvine, is currently taking pre-orders for the Development Kit 2. Priced at $350, these pieces are, for the time being, intended for people who plan on designing games with the product in mind.

At E3, the annual video game conference that brings thousands of industry professionals to the Los Angeles Convention Center this week, there are several games that utilized the technology. Even amongst the tech-savvy, though, Stephan and Kim are doing something a little different.

"What's interesting about Anamnesis is that it flips you back and forth between different viewpoints, which is something that interactive media is uniquely suited to do, but you really don't see it done that often," says Celia Pearce, festival chair for IndieCade and a professor of video game design who is heading to Northeastern University this fall. She selected Anamnesis to be part of the independent game festival's E3 exhibition because of the way the duo incorporated the technology into their project's narrative.

Playing Anamnesis at E3.
Playing Anamnesis at E3.
Shannon Cottrell

For Stephan and Kim, Anamnesis came with some unique challenges. Because players would be using Oculus Rift to get two perspectives of the same room, they had to create two versions of the story that were equally intriguing. The other challenge is technical. With Oculus Rift, they can only fit about 130 text characters on the screen at one time. That's ten fewer characters than Twitter's limit. They worked with a spread sheet to mess around with sentence structures until they could say what needed to be said within that very limited space.

Stephan and Kim went through a few story options before settling on this. They thought about telling the story from the perspectives of a virus and the human the virus attacks. Ultimately, they felt that the story of the FEMA agent would lend itself to smooth transitions between points-of-view.

This isn't a typical game filled with unusual character designs and non-stop action. "Nothing is really moving in the game," says Kim. "Everything is static because it's the way that people left it."

As the artist, Kim had to figure out a way to tell the story with images. A lot of thought went into the individual items that turn up in the rooms, which help shed light on the characters. If she planned on incorporating a laptop in a scene, Kim says, she would have to think about questions like "What kind of laptop?" and "Why would she use this kind of laptop?"

Anamnesis bears some similarities to Gone Home, a narrative-centric game about a girl who comes home to an empty house, which won rave reviews last year. Stephan and Kim didn't get to play Gone Home until they were halfway through Anamnesis. It has since become a favorite for Stephan. "There might be a demand for slower, more experiential games," says Stephan.

Stephan and Kim are heading into their final year of grad school, which they will spend working on theses. They're also both employed in the industry. Stephan works for a virtual reality company in Venice. Kim is designer at the video game studio Robotoki.

Half a year after the completion of their class project, they now look at it with a fresh perspective. They mention things that they would like to add to the game. Kim would like to add "more Easter eggs," items that are hidden inside the game. Stephan talks about "video ghosts," seeing people move around the apartment when you're catching a glimpse of their memories. "I would definitely love to go back and make the story a little richer," he says.

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