Yu was a four-week collaboration between myself, Benjamin Phillips (@Benjamin_MBP) and Ethan Tilley (@EthanTilley_). It managed to become a project of firsts and gave me the opportunity to tackle a variety of new obstacles, including:
Developing a game in VR (on both the Oculus Rift and Oculus Go).
Taking the role of the sole artist on a project
Exploring the concept of "Mindfulness"
Collaborating with experts from a different field (Psychology)
Designing for Mindfulness
"Yu" was a 5-minute experience that was intended to help guide players into a state of "Mindfulness". We knew going into the project that the entire concept of Mindfulness is an intensely personal thing. Each of us as individuals understand it in different but equally important ways.
So how do we go about creating an experience that can speak to all these individual needs and preferences?
Without an outside perspective, Yu could have started out on a swift, downward trajectory. Thankfully, we had the opportunity to engage in an enlightening conversation with Ally and Sarah, two Counsellors that work on our campus. Their take on Mindfulness became crucial to the foundation of Yu.
"Mindfulness isn't about ignoring the world around, it's about bringing awareness to your role in that space and accepting everything that may come with that."
Hearing this from someone with years of knowledge in the field really helped to shape our approach to Yu's design. We were able to move forward with a clear design goal:
Each individual finds their "mindful state" in a different place, so let's provide players with a space in which they can simply be calm and thoughtful. Let's take this chance to be a small part of their larger journey.
Our Own Experiences
Building on this design goal, the team and I all felt it was important to first examine how we perceive mindfulness. We did some research on mindful practices, looking at existing tools like Headspace and OneGiantMind for inspiration while also drawing on our own personal experiences.
Many of the practices we found involved "Bodyscans", actively directing your focus to individual parts of your body, or verbally guided meditation/thought exercises. None of us connected with these practices and though we know they work for others, trying to create an experience based on something we didn’t understand didn’t make sense.
We wanted to do better, so Ben and I decided to talk through some things we’d both found useful in the past, and we managed to find a common thread. We’ve both (sporadically) practised yoga, and guided meditations were a huge part of why we connected to it. We thought there was huge potential in this base, and so we asked Ally and Sarah if they’d engaged in anything like this in a professional sense.
Ally then guided us through a simple breathing exercise designed to help refocus the individual on themselves and their breathing rather than the outside world.
We immediately realised that was the direction we wanted to go. We were going to take our players through a guided meditation via a simple breathing exercise. We weren’t going to be able to force the player to be mindful, especially with a television attached to their face, but we could help to change their perspective, even if it’s only brief.
VR brings with it so many unique gameplay opportunities. The flip-side of that, however, is having a whole bag full of constraints.
With the resolution and layout of VR screens, text is either completely illegible or incredibly difficult to read. It can also cause some users to feel ill. We were trying to create a full experience for the players, one that didn't have any tattered edges that draw the player out of this crucial state of mind.
We had to figure out ways to guide the player without written prompts or verbal guides.
Movement can be a huge issue within VR. Players can become disoriented and sometimes violently ill. This was obviously a huge concern for us, so we decided to remove it as an element altogether.
Standalone VR units like the Oculus Go have strict performance limitations. Units like the Oculus Rift that run from a PC, although better, are also plagued by similar issues. We had to make sure to scope all of our assets, especially costly elements like post-processing, accordingly.
Limiting Factors Become Creative Tools
Taking on board the constraints of the project helped us design something with a much more refined focus. We knew exactly the experience we were trying to craft and had a clear set of parameters to work within.
These clear guidelines led to the formulation of two key elements that allowed Yu to become what it is today.
A distinct art style that didn't rely on post-processing or adding effects to achieve it's intended effect.
Diagetic UI: gameplay prompts that were built into the environment in order to avoid drawing the player out of the experience.
Being so aware of our constraints was hugely beneficial to the project, but it might have made us too comfortable in terms of the design space we decided to occupy. We didn’t take risks or really try to push the limits of what we could do with the hardware.
In hindsight, this really was an enormous missed opportunity. We could have challenged ourselves in a new way. I’m disappointed we didn’t try and push ourselves like I know we can.
The Core Loop
We broke the game down into a very basic loop that was based on the breathing exercise we ran through with Ally.
00:00 - 01:30
Players are introduced to the area and given control over some of the elements on the screen.
01:30 - 03:30
Players are guided through a breathing exercise, breathing in for 3 seconds, hold for 3 seconds, breathing out for 3 seconds.
Control over the environment is removed at this point.
03:30 - 05:00
Players are eased back into their location and once again given agency over the environment.
The idea was simple, allow the player to become comfortable environment, direct them through the meditation, then allow them to “snap out” of the guided section and relax once more.
The loop itself was executed well, but despite many adjustments, we struggled to make the loop feel anything but “long”. Changing the duration of each section didn’t make the game flow any better, so I feel there may have been something missing. Perhaps a new interactable could have been added towards the end of the loop to create something new for the player to explore.
Creating the Art
Yu was the first time in my short game dev career where I was the sole artist on the project. I’m usually working in collaboration with someone else, so t gave me the opportunity to try my hand at really refining my own aesthetic. The freedom this gave me was really refreshing. I was still consulting my team, but the bulk of the decisions fell back on me, and I think it gave me the chance to really craft something visually cohesive.
We established Okami as an aesthetic reference early on, an idea born from our desire to use carp as the main interactable feature within the game.
I was able to draw, animate, and design the colour palette. The solid design inspiration and clear visual direction base helped me take what I could see in my head and tangibly transfer it into Yu’s world.
I chose to combine the distinct calligraphy style with a pastel colour palette in an attempt to create a softer feel throughout the environment. One of the largest issues I came across was ensuring that elements in the environment felt cohesive but remained distinct enough from one another for the player. This was crucial due to the resolution limitations of our platform.
I felt like I almost achieved this goal, but some elements felt a bit jarring. The hills didn't quite match the pine trees and the yellow of the sun felt harsh at times. I need to do some more research in the field of colour theory, it's such a crucial part of a game and devastating when not given the attention it requires.
Yu was an interesting project for me to be a part of. Although I wasn’t initially inspired to work on VR, I think it gave me the chance to learn some really important things.
Being aware of your constraints is incredibly important, but letting yourself be entirely bound by them can stunt your project and limit your creative capabilities. You have to be able to embrace them as tools to use rather than see them as the outer limit on what you could or should be doing.