Eye of the Temple by Rune Skovbo Johansen is an in-development VR game in which the player traverses a massive temple and solves puzzles, all while neither teleporting nor exceeding boundaries in the real world. Following is a transcript of a video interview, initially recorded to accompany a demo session.
REBIND: Thank you for coming out and doing this interview.
Rune: Thank you for reaching out to me.
REBIND: Of course. First off, would you like to introduce yourself, in your own words?
Rune: So, I’m Rune Skovbo Johansen. I’m an indie developer working on my first commercial game. I have a job at Unity; I’ve been doing very small stuff on the side for a while, and now I’m doing this, so we’ll see how it goes.
REBIND: It’s very exciting stuff. Well, could you go over some of your inspirations, both for Eye of the Temple, and secondly your career path in general?
Rune: I guess I always felt the need to be creative, so, as a kid, I would be drawing a lot, building something with lego; when I got a computer I would paint things, then got into 2D animation; then, I got into building 3D graphics and animation, even a bit of stereograms when what was a thing, even some MIDI music…
I got into programming with a piece of software called POV-Ray. It’s a ray tracer for doing 3D graphics, and you build up scenes with a scene description language, so you’re using text, similarly to how you build web pages, and initially you can describe things in a very manual way, this ball should be at this coordinate, the camera should be at this coordinate, and so on. But then you have some optional programming features; if you need to place 10 balls at once in a circle, maybe you can use a loop to place things, you don’t have to place them all manually.
And that’s kind of how I got into programming, very gradually just automating more and more things instead of having to place everything in the 3D scenes manually. That was quite exciting for me because it’s very visual in the feedback for the things you’re programming. And, I got more and more into automation and making things do things by themselves.
I also was drawn to animation, simulation, interactivity… and eventually I got into making games. All this was as a hobby on the side of school, on the side of college, university… So I started first using GameMaker and some multimedia authoring tools like Macromedia Director, and later Delphi, and eventually moving to Unity when that became a thing.
REBIND: What were you going to school for, later on, when you had to pick a major?
Rune: At university, I started out studying computer science for one year, and that was super helpful, but after one year, I found I wanted to switch to something where there was a bit more of a human angle, the user who is using the software, where they fit in the picture, because computer science doesn’t have much to say about that.
So I switched to information studies with a master’s in multimedia, and that had some programming as well, but also things like human-computer interaction and project management, a bit more all-over-the-place, and that’s a multidisciplinary approach to things that fit me very well.
So, I’ve kind of been all over the place, but really drawn to interactive things, and also had a big interest in procedural generation and animation, making characters move partially on their own, making worlds that partially generate themselves. It’s very fascinating to me to have virtual creatures, virtual worlds with an existence of their own, so I’ve also been toying with a lot of that kind of stuff.
Going forward to the game, Eye of the Temple, I guess the four main inspirations:
So, the first one is just platformer games in general; I played a lot of platformers both as a kid and still now, and I thought it could be interesting to see how this could be used to address the issue of getting around in a large world in VR, and so, for a game jam, I came up with this idea that maybe it’s possible to step from one platform to another and get around the world that way, so you don’t have to use teleportation or virtual movement, and together with some other people, we made a prototype, a very small game based on this idea, and it kind of worked out.
Then, the second inspiration: I’d actually thought that this small game jam would just be the end of it; we’d made a small game, released it for free on itch.io… but then we saw threads on Reddit with people like “oh, look at this game” and being excited about it, and after this happened a few times, I thought this was too good an opportunity to not follow up on. So, I decided to make a larger, more ambitious game based on this core mechanic, and I had people try out this game once in a while from early on. and people would say things like “oh it feels like being in Indiana Jones”. I was going for feeling like an adventurer, but people very specifically mentioned Indiana Jones. This happened several times; I thought, why not just lean into this and make the comparison even stronger. So that’s the second inspiration, just the Indiana Jones franchise and all it has to offer.
The third is Lara Croft. I never actually played the mainline Tomb Raider games, but I played the top-down game Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light; it’s actually my all-time favorite co-op game. I also played the mobile game Lara Croft Go, and that actually served as a really good inspiration for some of the puzzle mechanics, because that’s a turn-based game. Eye of the Temple is not turn-based, but it still almost is in a way, because you are locked into these platforms that are moving in a fixed pattern.
REBIND: it’s sort of evocative of tile-based puzzle games like Chip’s Challenge back in the day; things like that that were sort of quasi-turn-based, getting around on tiles and planning out your movements.
Rune: Right, yes, that’s been a big inspiration as well.
The last one is a bit less direct: it’s an old game for playstation 2 called Ico. Not that many people have played it, but I think more people have heard about it because it became kind of cult classic; I know I’m not the only game designer to cite it as an inspiration. It made a huge impression on me with the atmosphere, and being able to move around this large castle, one continuous world where you have to find your own way around and gradually unlock access to more of it. That’s kind of what I’m going for with Eye of the Temple as well, both some of the aesthetics, like playing with scale, and also gradually unlocking more of the space and revisiting some areas where you can do new things when you get back.
REBIND: So, you already touched on this a bit, but is this more of a solo project for you, or do your colleagues also participate in some of the development?
Rune: Right, so, this is a solo project; I’m doing it mostly myself. The music is done by Claudi Martinez, and I got a few pieces of concept art by Robert Ryminiecki, but art, design, programming… I’m mostly doing everything myself. This is also not related to my job at Unity; it’s something that I’m doing completely on the side, so I don’t have any colleagues as such, but I did work with some freelancers. I think working solo can be a bit tough when you have to do art and design and programming and everything yourself, but on the plus side, you don’t have to spend time making sure everyone is on the same page, so it has strengths and weaknesses. I personally find it very rewarding so far; it’s a lot of fun.
REBIND: Are there any VR projects out there that you’ve played and felt did the platform a lot of justice?
Rune: Right, so, [laughs] actually, it’s a little bit embarrassing… I’ve played very few VR games. Between my job at Unity, and developing my own game, and social time, it’s kind of hard for me to find time. When I play games, it’s usually together with my girlfriend, but that’s couch games, not VR. But, some games I really like are Audioshield and Beat Saber; then again, everybody loves those.
REBIND: Looking at your game, there are certain elements, such as dodging certain pillars; moving underneath them felt like very similar to certain aspects of Beat Saber.
How challenging was it to keep things constrained within the play space? There seems to be a lot of attention put into the paths you take, keeping you well within the bounds of the play space.
Rune: Yeah. Just for context, you move around by standing on different platforms, and the game requires 2×2 meters of play space. If you have more than that, it doesn’t really dynamically take advantage of that, other than that you will be seeing the chaperone boundary less the further it is away. The fact that you get around without going outside of the play space is a major element in the game, one of the unique selling points, and also one of the major challenges in designing it.
Basically, there’s a system that for every platform in the game, I know where that platform is not just in the virtual world, but also where it is in the physical play space. In the editor, I have a visualization that lets me see that at a glance for every platform. For example, I can see if one platform is at the right side of the play space, then I immediately know I can’t line another one up to it further to the right. I have some slides I made for a different event that I could share.
REBIND: That would be great.
Rune: First, I’ll take a bad example. Say you need to go from one pillar to another, and you start by stepping onto a moving platform. In the physical space, you take a step forward, and the platform moves you to the other pillar.
Rune: Then, you take a step forward again, but that doesn’t work out great, because now you’re outside of the play area.
Rune: So, if we start over and do it with a different design, with the platform to the side instead, then you take a step sideways onto the platform like this, and also sideways in the physical space, and the platform carries you to the next pillar.
Rune: You take a step sideways onto that pillar, and now you are back in the center of your play space.
The way that the different platforms line up to each other makes a huge difference in keeping the player inside the physical space. You don’t necessarily notice this very much when you’re in the game; it’s just something that happens to have a huge impact for actually making it viable to get the player around and still not exceed the play space.
REBIND: Seems very intuitive.
Rune: Thanks, glad to hear that.
REBIND: Where do you hope to see the game closer to the release? What’s on your bigger-picture roadmap, so to speak?
Rune: Right, so, I try to keep the game fully playable at all times, so it’s mostly more content that’s missing as far as I’m concerned, although if some people playing the game feel something is missing, that’s something I’d love to hear about.
REBIND: Who are you hoping to get feedback from, and, obviously, beyond crashes or technical issues, are there certain areas of the game you’d like to get feedback on?
Rune: There’s no tutorial in the traditional sense, so people kind of have to figure out on their own what to do and how to progress. So, from playtesting, I hope to become aware of things that are not clear enough or cause confusion, and I think saying something will come quite naturally to people if there’s something they cant figure out. That’s the main thing. Apart from that is anything that comes to people’s minds, like things they think are great, things they think are not so good, things they think could be improved… I do have a small Discord server for the game, and some people there are playtesting once in a while, but they have sort of self-selected, because those are people who joined the community because they’re super interested in the game. What you’re organizing could be a different crowd of people; maybe they have a different outlook. I’m curious to see how that might go.
REBIND: Having used and contributed to POV-Ray for such a long time, what do you see as exciting opportunities for the real-time ray tracing tech that’s been coming out, such as Nvidia RTX?
Rune: [laughs] Kind of a blast from the past, POV-Ray… I used to talk about it many years ago, but haven’t for the past decade. To be honest, ray tracing for me was always a means to an end. I’m not super invested in ray tracing as a technology. That said, it’s interesting to see it make a comeback, this time for real-time graphics. I’m not an expert in this at all, but as far as I can see the obvious things we’ll see are more accurate reflections, refractions, and maybe shadows? Honestly, I think once the novelty is over, the impact from this will be a bit limited. It’s another way to push realism even further, but it’s kind of, from my perspective, incremental.
There’s another technology I find interesting, called ray marching. I don’t know exactly how much overlap it has with ray tracing, but it lets you define surfaces and shapes using distance functions, and this lets you render things like fractals and repeating kaleidoscopic geometry, and also combine different shapes in interesting ways… We’ve seen this a bit from demoscene demos, but I don’t think it’s made it much into actual mainstream game development yet. I don’t know if this can take advantage of the same hardware and drivers and stuff, but it’s one thing I think could be exciting as well, as another tool in the artist’s toolkit.
REBIND: what’s on the horizon for you after this? If this goes well, do you think you might do another game down the line, or focus on your position at unity, or…?
Rune: I’ve always done things on the side; I can’t really keep myself from it. There’ll always be something. Whether it’ll be another commercial project or another VR project, I don’t quite know. There’s a procedural forest project I have on hold, maybe I’ll go back to that. Or, maybe, if Eye of the Temple, against the odds, becomes a big hit, I might do another VR game. It’ll be something. I don’t know yet, i’m taking it one step at a time.
REBIND: To close out, do you have any advice to those pursuing indie game development from a technical perspective? Are there certain topics of research throughout your experience that you thought were handy, or things you wish you’d learned earlier?
Rune: I started programming on my own before i was formally taught, but what I learned about algorithms and data structures at university really strengthened my abilities and understanding as a programmer. For people who feel like they could be into the programming side of game development, I would recommend doing courses like that. Also, getting a good basic understanding of trigonometry, vectors, and linear algebra is really helpful in game development.
I would also really recommend doing projects on the side while studying. I know it’s not an option for everyone, but for people who are lucky enough to have time to do it, it can really help to supplement the sometimes more theoretical things you learn at university with the more practical problem-solving skills that are super helpful in game development.
REBIND: Thank you so much! I really appreciate you taking the time to do this interview with us.
Rune: Thank you too!
Emily Rose is an indie developer who writes for rebind.io and resides in the pacific northwest. She’s often seen in the local VR arcade and developer community participating in pushing the medium’s horizons. You can find her on twitter @caravanmalice