A Piece of the Universe, which will henceforth referred to as APOTU for brevity, is a VR diorama developed by naam, wherein the player explores, as the title suggests, a little piece of the universe, learning about its absent resident and discovering the strange reality contained within. It spoke to a number of us, affirming that VR can produce something truly special and heretofore impossible. We had the good fortune to sit down with naam on video call and conduct an interview, and it’s our pleasure to share a transcript, full of insights about APOTU and beyond.
REBIND: Hello, and thanks for coming in to do this Q&A session with us and presenting your experiences as a developer. Why don’t you go ahead and introduce yourself before we get too into the questions?
naam: I’m naam, well… people may call me naam, just try pronouncing my real name [laughs], and I run a small animation studio in Groningen in the Netherlands. What you probably know me for are my private projects I’ve been posting on Twitter. I’ve been doing animation and 3D graphics for 20 years now; obviously, VR is a big tool for us at the studio, but personally even more so.
REBIND: So, talk about what’s in inspired you, and your career, and then, sort of after that, what inspired your side projects.
naam: I was always drawing pictures and stuff, and I thought animation was too much work. Then, desktop publishing, a little, youth work organisation, I got a little job writing on the computers… I hated the first pixar movie, without seeing it, by the way, but then I discovered the animation techniques for myself, and one thing led to another; I slowly started to love it.
So, there’s always been a drive for me to be on the creative side of things, so to say. There wasn’t a singular moment where I decided, okay, I’m going to be an artist. I was always going to be either an artist or a physicist. It’s mostly a career where one thing led to another. I was animating, I met people who needed animations, did animation for them for some money, met some other friends who could help me with it… Then, you know, you have to make it official and be a studio. That was like 20 years ago. We got into visual effects for movies and TV, and that kind of dried up about 5 years ago here in the Netherlands. Because every production in the Netherlands is a European production, stuff like visual effects are easier to attract from the outside, since it’s just the actors that need to be Dutch. So, that dried up just at the moment that VR made its entrance, and we were already playing with the DK1, and we kind of found some footing there, so we started making VR productions, and that was also when I started making my own hobby VR productions. APOTU is kind of the exemplary hobby production, because it’s just me figuring stuff out, beginning with the caravan that started it all, and just building and building on things, and trying to let the story build itself, more or less. Or, well, the thing, because there’s not really a clear narrative in there, quite obviously. That’s why it feels so good, I think, at least making it.
REBIND: It comes across very organic, sort of like a stream of consciousness.
naam: Yeah, absolutely. That’s all down to the VR tools, They’re so interesting; you can just start, “okay, I have a caravan, let’s just build a caravan”. You’re in VR space, you measure the caravan, okay, now it feels like a good size. Then you’re just standing next to that caravan and think, “there should be a cupboard over there”. You know, you’re just feeling it before you think about it, almost. That’s what’s so beautiful about VR tools. You can just stand in your work. Trust your intuition. You know how a kitchen should look, “oh, there should be a dirty place over there”; poof, dirty place over there half a minute later. It’s kind of built on that basis, so to say. So I went outside, thinking, “okay, I should have a little sitting area here, ooh, typewriter there, then typewriters come with stories…”. So it just builds on itself, and that’s the beauty of working on something like this.
It all started when Google introduced Blocks, and before I went into VR, when I knew I would get my DK1 within three months or something, I had an idea of what I was going to do with it. It started in my head, completely different from where APOTU is now, but there was a garden involved at least, and there was someone living in the caravan, and you’re someone from the government seeing how they’re doing; you’re visiting the caravan to see how this kind of weird individual lives off welfare…
REBIND: Sort of like a social worker.
naam: Yeah, exactly, a social worker. Just an investigation, and the person isn’t at home, and you enter the plot of land, and discover something about who lives there. That was the original idea. it was a caravan on a fairground plot, I think, so you would discover this person prefers to go through life like a clown, or something. [laughs]
REBIND: Outside of APOTU, what else are you working on? Obviously you have your main job, but are there other side projects you mess around with?
naam: I’m messing around a little with VR puppetry, so, using VR not exactly as an animation tool, but for capturing live motion of playing with characters. I think that’s a very interesting side project in the sense that it’s not for the company. It’s purely for myself; I just want to discover what could be done with that. And it’s very promising, what you can do with that. That evolves very slowly as a side project. Besides that, it’s APOTU, APOTU, APOTU, mainly.
REBIND: That focus on APOTU comes through in the quality and polish. So, do you talk to other independent developers?
naam: No; I’m not really from a game developer’s background. I’m from an animation background, from an art installation background (we made quite a few art installations), very few gamedev people.
REBIND: Well, that’s a perfect opportunity for a segue; what is the interactive art scene like where you are?
naam: I’m a bit of a loner, honestly. [laughs] There is an art scene that I know of but am not involved with, so I don’t get a lot of information of what’s going on there, because, yeah, I like to work on my own mostly, and when I’m not on my own, I’m at the studio.
If there’s a scene I’m a part of, it’s the animated movie scene in the Netherlands. What’s that like? Well, it’s all subsidized. I don’t know how it is over there in the States, but nothing here gets made without a government grant, because the language area is just too small. You can make a Dutch movie, but you can’t really make money from it. You can get a fund, then at least you get your hours paid, so to say. What’s it like? I have nothing to compare it to, really. I think it’s kind of like the alternative animation short movie scene anywhere. The fact that it’s mostly government-funded does mean that it’s very experimental and artistic, although it still has to be somewhat acceptable to a larger audience.
REBIND: That’s interesting to compare to the way things are in America, where these things are typically driven solely by capital.
naam: I think they both have their pros and cons, because I’m really huge on bad movies… Well, they all get made in the States, you know! You have a little money, you hustle, you get to make a movie! And it goes into the regular channels! That’s fairly interesting, and it’s something that doesn’t happen here, because you don’t make a movie when you don’t have a grant. You can do it, but then there’s no market to set it to.
REBIND: With regards to APOTU again, are you happy with how it’s turned out so far? It’s changed a lot from the original inspiration…
naam: That’s what I’m happy about. Not that the original inspiration was bad or anything, but because it’s my side project, one of the pillars of it is that I personally get to decide everything, and that means I can just have it grow the way it wants to grow, so to say. I’m in the service of the project myself, but not for other people, but for a project that I can’t define in my head, and that’s kind of amazing to see develop, you know? I never thought about half of the things that are in there right now, but I saw them appear when I wore the goggles. I put them on and I think, “oh, I should open into a field in here!”.
REBIND: On the topic, if you could do it all over again, would there be anything you’d approach differently?
naam: Well, obviously, it would turn out much differently, because I’ve learned so much in the process. It’s kind of a Moloch, big thing, lots of code, hanging together by thin threads. If I could start again, I would do it much smarter.
REBIND: How has the experience of doing APOTU affected your process on the other projects you’re contributing to?
naam: Two things. With APOTU, and with using Blocks especially, I kind of found a style. My way of working really clicks with the low poly aesthetic, as long as I’m modeling in Blocks, so there have been a few projects, like what we did for Amazon Sumerian; the project was just “do something in that style”. So, I learned a style that just feels good, I guess, and that works in various fields, bizarre fantasy fields, but also mundane fields. That’s one thing I really learned from it.
The other is just the necessity of good, thought-out interaction. We did a few commercial jobs at the studio, for example, an orchestra simulation for kids. There’s a violin that you can play, and it’s actually playing tunes, as if you are playing a real violin, and it matters where your place your hands and such, and whay I learned in APOTU just directly applies; I knew what would feel good before I made it, particularly how important it is to leave out details about the interaction. If you pick up a violin, it’s not important how your hand is positioned, it’s important that it snaps to your neck. And if you have your hand like so, the violin is over there, your bow is there… It’s nice to discover that if you make tiny things important, like that the hairs should go over the strings, then it becomes fun to play with. So, just pick out the important details about the object you want to interact with, and the rest is forgiven, so to say.
REBIND: Moving on, both as an artist and a professional, what is a skill set or field of study that you feel has been important to your process
naam: I’m a very bad person to ask that, because I’m a complete autodidact. I learned everything myself; I was in a lucky position, with a lot of developments in the last 20 years, to be at the forefront of it, because there, you have to discover it for yourself. I went to art academy, I think they had Photoshop, but they didn’t know what to do with it, you know? You have to figure it out yourself. There was no Internet at the time, so it was just a matter of playing around. Same with 3D animation. The programs were there, but it was well before all the Mayas of the world; it was all programs that are nowhere to be found now. Programming, also; I always liked writing little scripts and stuff, but I never really needed it in my job. Sometimes I’d write a little plugin for the 3D software, but never really… Then, when VR came, you suddenly needed it. I had hobby experience with just writing thigns in Unity… That’s not advice, “learn everything yourself”. I can’t tell students to stop studying and to figure everything out by themselves; it’d take too long.
Now, the advice I do always give is to always have a project in hand, and figure stuff out just because you want to know how it works. Don’t rely on something coming along when you need it. Another thing, a bit contrary to that, is that you should never say no to a job that comes along because you don’t know if you could do it, or you have the idea that you might be able to in a few years or something. Just take then job, and then you’ll learn. You know for sure that whoever’s asking you to do that thing can’t do it themselves. You know that you’re better at it than the person asking you, or else they wouldn’t be asking you.
REBIND: Let’s talk about audio! There’s a lot of audio in APOTU.
naam: There’s not that much… [laughs]
REBIND: Well, then, it feels like there’s a lot, because it’s so impactful. Talk about how that was for you. Working in animation, you’ve had some experience working with audio before, yeah?
naam: Well, not by myself, because I never do the audio. I art-direct the audio man, so to say.
With APOTU, I’m really holding back on audio, actually. One of the first things you think you need to do is that, if you have a cup and it falls to the ground, it should make a sound. Then, as soon as you add it to the cup, then the other cup should make another sound. Then the other thing that can fall to the ground should make its own sound, then you’re lost in a world of audio. It’s a very ilustrative, concrete way to produce audio, which I don’t like. I like audio to bring something else to the table than what I know would happen, so to say. Movies especially; you don’t use audio to exactly mimic what’s going on. One of the worst things you can do in a movie, and which always happens, is that if a cat walks by, you hear a meow. Every Hollywood movie, a cat is in the frame, you will hear a meow. That’s useless audio. You already see the cat. If the cat is out of frame, and you want to tell the audience that there’s a cat out-of-frame, then you use the meow. So, I don’t want to use audio in the sense that it just illustrates what you’re already aware of.
REBIND: This very much ties back to the violin. You don’t have to mimic things perfectly; players can infer the rest.
naam: Yeah. Yeah. VR is, contrary to what one might think, very good at suggestion. The thing that you offer people is already so convincing that you can leave gaps, because the thing that people are going to fill into those gaps is just as convincing. The fact that a table is photographically a table, that isn’t VR to me. A table should be a functional table, you know? If you put stuff on it, it becomes more of a table. That’s much more important than the wood structure or something.
Just to finish on the actual question about sound [laughs], that’s how I approach it. I use it to add another color to the experience, so to say. I made a little mistake once because I made a little tape deck. It’s not in the version you’re going to play, sadly, but it rattles as you bang it, and now I miss the sound everywhere in my worlds whenever I bang something and it doesn’t make a sound.
REBIND: Right, you set a sort of precedent.
naam: Yeah. I like the dreamlike quality of things lacking sound. You know, there’s a thickness to the air because of the ambient sound. Very few incidental sounds. There are only incidental sounds where you need extra cues, like with the gas stove, you need to hear that gas is flowing. I’m not going to let my doors creak. You can imagine that yourself.
REBIND: As someone not necessarily from a game development background, you might offer a unique perspective on this: How do you like itch.io as a self-publishing platform?
naam: As a publisher, I absolutely like it, because it’s a completely low-level way to just put something out there and have people pick it up. They also have a social thing platform behind it, but I don’t know if that’s very strong. I don’t get a lot of feedback from players; I don’t think they read my devlogs or anything.
REBIND: Yes, the social element almost seems like window dressing at times, very Bandcamp-esque.
naam: I’m not complaining. I have Twitter for that. [laughs] It’s a super nice site especially for just putting out builds, and making a quick page around it. It’s discoverable, and people will play it. I’d never go to Steam with something like APOTU, you know? Then, you’re offering a game. I don’t want to offer a game; I want to offer something that I’m making, and I don’t know what it is. Just try it out and let me know how you feel about it, you know? If there’s a marketing goal, then you should go to Steam, obviously, because that’s a marketplace, but then you have the whole aspect of community management that comes with it… I’m not missing the social aspect on itch.io, personally.
REBIND: Yes, having seen things like APOTU on Steam, they feel out-of-place. Itch seems more attuned to the boutique.
naam: It’s more craft-based, so to say. That’s why I like it. It’s just bandcamp for software.
REBIND: That about wraps it up for the interview. This is fantastic; I’m really excited to show this to people. Thank you so much for taking the time.
naam: My pleasure. Everyone who’s going to play it, enjoy, and please let me know what you think of it.
APOTU is completely free, although it does require a VR headset. Feel free to check it out here.
Yestin Harrison is a dilettante fascinated by anything from games to graphic design to planetary-scale distributed systems. When not performing his duties as webmaster at Rebind or kicking the site an occasional article, he's found anywhere there's a lark to chase. Reach him on the Web at ylh.io, and on twitter @yestinharrison.