Chapter 1: Origins

Dev Diary

Greetings fellow travellers,

We invite you to embark with us on our adventure through Journey For Elysium’s creation. Starting from today, we’ll be sharing articles and Dev Diary videos as we continue developing the game.

Here’s our first article below. The chapter one, written by our Game Designer Gilles Vandenoostende, will tell you everything about the genesis of Journey For Elysium. Watch the first episode of our Dev Diary series here.

The Start of the Journey

Our story begins in 2015. Two people with a passion for storytelling wanted to create an immersive game set in the Roman Etruscan mythological underworld. Dave, now co-founder of Mantis Games, and Alexander, had been working on their idea for some time. They successfully pitched it to the VAF, a Flemish fund for audiovisual projects and secured a pre-production budget.

This is when I joined the team. Having some amateur experience with both VR and the Unity3D game engine, I teamed up with Xavier, a student intern from Kortrijk's Digital Arts & Entertainment school. In about 3 months we managed to design and build a working prototype. We focused primarily on the mechanics of navigating a small rowing boat in Virtual Reality.

Having secured more funding, we wanted to dedicate more time to the project. So we quit our jobs as UX guys and Dave pulled some strings with the company mothership. Before we knew it, Mantis Games was born, along with Belgium's first games publisher: Cronos Interactive. We set up Headquarters in Ghent, a city known for its historical architecture and rich cultural history. We were officially in business!

The Story and Theme of Journey For Elysium

Dave, having a degree in history, had the initial idea of setting the game in the Etruscan underworld. He used the Aeneid, a Latin epic poem written by Virgil, as the primary source of inspiration. It tells the adventures of demi-god Aeneas, ancestor of the Ancient Romans. During his peregrinations he descends into the Underworld, where he meets a ferryman. The latter is charged with transporting the souls of the deceased across the river Acheron (more famously known as the river Styx). This is the only way to reach the green fields of Elysium to live out the rest of eternity in cosmic bliss.

We didn’t want to make a straight-up retelling of the poem however. So we opted for making our own spin on the classic tale, where we could explore themes of inner change, guilt and redemption. We also looked at modern psychology and some of the more obscure Etruscan deities we could find, all to guide the storytelling and world-building in the game.

The ferryman and the river separating the underworld from paradise have become something of a trope or archetype. This story and variations upon its imagery have been artistically interpreted countless different ways through the ages. Depictions of the character can be found in such works as Dante's Inferno, more recently in films such as Disney's Hercules, or in games like God Of War.

During our research, we came across one particularly striking rendition of the Inferno: a stark black and white etching by famous french illustrator Gustave Doré. His work would become the primary source of inspiration for the high contrast black and white look of our game.

According to legend, the ferryman required payment in the form of an Obol for his services. This ancient type of coin was traditionally placed on the corpse, for the dead to bring along with them into the afterlife. We liked the possibilities we could do with golden elements and coins in the game. We introduced golden accents into our design language, to help guide the player's eye through the levels.

We can't go into too much detail about the story now without spoiling the ending of course. We’ll expand on the game’s setting and mythology in future articles.

The Creation of Journey For Elysium

Our shared background in User Experience Design helped guide our first brave steps into the world of game development. We also learned a lot from creating the prototype.

During development, we user-tested the game extensively. We took it to several events and showcases, big and small. We were eager to gather as many reactions as possible, especially from players new to VR. Along the way we discovered that player experience with Virtual Reality factored heavily in cases of motion sickness.

Players tend to develop a tolerance for simulator nausea as they become more familiar with VR - which is a good thing. But as a VR developer, it makes testing your own work objectively quite difficult. Scenarios that could make new players physically ill would barely even register to you anymore.

To give an example, the prototype originally ended with a violent storm breaking out. It was designed so that the player's boat would eventually tip over, at which point we would fade to black and end the demo. I had tested it myself many times without feeling sick. Naively, I thought it was probably going to be fine. The first time other people tried it, however, the effect was intense enough to make some players fall down!

We remedied this by toning down the intensity. We manually animated most of the sequence instead of letting the physics engine simulate it entirely. This let us keep the surprise of the boat flipping over, without having the player ending the game feeling (too) sick.

In addition, our fresh VR testers' feedback has been positive enough to suspect we've hit upon a good locomotion system with our rowing mechanic. While they are mimicking the rowing gestures, players are slightly swaying their entire body. This motion keeps the little bones inside their inner ears moving just enough to fool their brains into not "freaking out" (a technical term in neuroscience).

Other VR devs also discovered this, with several games implementing a "running in place" locomotion system, which takes advantage of the same effect. VR climbing games also trick the brain into assuming movement by arm motion alone.

If you want to discover more about the development of our rowing mechanics, stay tuned. We’ll discuss it more in a future article.

The Road Ahead

In the last year, we've rapidly grown our company: new talent, both local and international, joined the studio. Our team now counts around ten people, all driven to make Journey For Elysium the best possible VR game it can be.

Taking advantage of these fresh new minds coming into the company, we started a ground-up rewrite. We retired the prototype and we upgraded to the latest version of the Unity 3D engine (2018.1 for those interested).

Internally we decided to open up the game design and let everyone on the team have an equal say in the process. We ended up rethinking the structure of the game and throwing away some of the planned gameplay mechanics. We’re convinced all this is contributing to make the game better.

Gathering user feedback is still very important to us, which is why we’ve been showing the game at various events and conventions. We had a first playable build at Gamescom 2018 rather well received by the public and press.

Later on we had an improved build to show at GameForce, 1UP and Brotaru in Belgium, steadily growing a local community who started to care about the game’s development. Most recently, we attended the Games Developer Conference in San Francisco, showcasing the game and growing our network.

Stick around if you want to know more about the events we will be attending this year!

We're now working to live up to the high expectations we've set for ourselves and we’re aiming to deliver a game that will be fun, memorable and meaningful.

As said at the beginning, this is just the first of many articles and videos we’ll be sharing with you. We hope you’ll be just as excited about Journey For Elysium as we are!

You can follow our latest news and publications on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. Visit Journeyforelysium.be and Mantis.games for more information. Thank you for accompanying us on the journey, fellow travellers!