Design Goals

Our objective with this project, Presence, was to take the successes of 3rd-person branching narrative games and understand how we could translate them into virtual reality. This meant determining what those successes are, analyzing the challenges that virtual reality poses to those successes, and developing potential solutions to those challenges as a means of testing the validity of these successes in the virtual reality space. Project Presence set out to build an interactive 8–10 minute virtual reality narrative experience as a way to develop those potential solutions. We sought to use our deliverable as a canvas for exploration, rather than an isolated deliverable. Although we began the semester referring to our experience as a game—due to our inspiration material of 3rd-person flat-screen video games—we quickly realized this was an inaccurate description. Ultimately, we built something more akin to an interactive immersive film.

Defining 3rd-Person Narrative Games

We define third-person branching narrative games are games where the player acts as a narrator, making decisions on behalf of characters to impact the story. Usually the player controls anywhere from three to five characters, but there have been as many as eight (Until Dawn) or as few as one (Life is Strange) in any given game. The most important feature of these games is choice: players  make pivotal decisions that have both immediate and long term consequences on the plot of the game.

For instance, in Quantic Dream’s Heavy Rain, the player is asked to control the journey of four different characters–a private investigator, an FBI agent, a journalist, and a father–in pursuit of a serial killer. The father is being given “challenges” by the killer, which he must complete in order to save his son; each completed challenge offers clues to the whereabouts of the son. The player knows that each challenge is crucial toward completing the character’s objective. In some cases, the player must choose between finding a clue and inflicting great suffering on the father. In other instances, the player decides whether to take the life of a stranger for a chance at saving a child.

The experience is one where a player is expected to be engaged in the story, and treating interactions as a vehicle for narrative progress, rather than the core feature of the experience. As compared to other games with strong narrative, where the amount of time spent interacting is greater than the amount of time spent watching, the reverse is true of this genre. As a result one could argue that they are more interactive films than true video games.


This project was conducted over 15-weeks during the fall semester of 2017, with the summer prior dedicated to creating the initial story and concept art. We were given a limited team (a writer, a programmer, a 2-D artist, and a 3-D artist) in order to create the experience. We were also granted a $1000 budget in order to hire two students from Carnegie Mellon University’s Purnell School of Drama to act in the motion capture studio and record the voices of the central characters. We worked with a composer and his four-person band to record the jazz soundtrack at the Vlahakis Recording Studio, as well as a team of sound engineers to record and integrate positional audio.

Target Audience

Although we hoped to create an experience that is engaging for all who play, the group by whom the success of our design were measured was fans of screen-based 3rd-person narrative games. Because we attempted to transfer the experience, those who enjoy these games have the language and experience to articulate whether or not we achieved what we set out to do.

This Documentation

Throughout the remainder of the documentation, we primarily go through various insights into our design process. These may be relevant tips for future developers seeking gain experience in this field. Alternatively, some may be new discoveries we believe could be fruitful avenues for exploration as more developers seek to design third-person experiences for virtual reality.