Building the Foundations of The Assembly

The Assembly is a game that has ambiguity at its core – the moral dubiousness of the organisation itself, the dilemmas and uncertain outcomes facing protagonists Madeleine and Cal, not to mention the mysterious research being conducted at the facility.

With so many enigmas at the heart of our first-person adventure in VR, it’s not surprising that a lot of the questions we receive about The Assembly are about its themes and the source of our inspiration. Now, Senior Designer Jackie Tetley and Art Manager Martin Field reveal our intentions behind the game.

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In order to construct a compelling narrative, one that really captures the player’s imagination and encourages them to consider the implications of their decisions, we set The Assembly against a backdrop of current events and real-life concerns. It’s well known that those-in-the-know believe we’re statistically overdue for a global viral outbreak and diseases like the H1N1 swine flu and H5N1 avian flu viruses have sparked genuine real-world anxieties.

Moreover, not all of the worries about a global pandemic caused by animal diseases crossing over to humans are purely medical. Some believe conspiracy theories around the origins of such diseases, theorising that a hidden agenda could be the root cause of any such outbreak.

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“There are people who think that the spread of contagious diseases could be man-made or even government-sponsored – which we thought would be a good foundation for our story”, says Jackie. “It’s easy to understand why. Life changing technology is being developed at a rate where laws and institutions can’t keep up. In medical science, ‘cures’ for diseases appear in the press years before they’re widely adopted by the public while they go through vigorous testing. This can lead to all kinds of difficult decisions being made on a regular basis by people on all ends of the spectrum.”

“The Assembly is not connected to the government though,” Jackie continues. “We never reveal to the player exactly what the government knows about the organisation, so conspiracy is not a primary theme within the narrative. That said, I’m sure my love of The X-Files had some unconscious influence!”

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The desire to ground the Assembly in the real-world goes beyond lifting social issues and popular anxieties. We also wanted to deconstruct some familiar videogame tropes – to take them apart and see what makes them tick. While The Assembly isn’t the only game to explore morally ambiguous underground laboratories or secret organisations, we were curious about the inner-workings of such places.

“We wanted to probe aspects like how they are set up, how they find and interview people they consider appropriate for a position there, or what it’s like to live and work there for months on end,” Jackie explains. “How do bonds form between people in such an environment? Would odd behaviours or frictions start to develop in such isolated and pressured surroundings? Above all, how would their upper management hold staff accountable if they were to use the power and responsibility they’ve been given in troublesome ways?”

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The real world isn’t as black and white in its morality as is portrayed in a lot of science fiction, something we wanted to bring to the fore in The Assembly. “We see the Assembly more like an entrepreneurial tech start-up company than something you might see from a James Bond villain or anything like that,” says Martin. “What they are working on isn’t necessarily evil or insidious, but there is a strict air of secrecy about what they are doing - much like the entrepreneurs or tech companies being in an R&D phase before they are ready to ‘go public’ with their product. We looked at examples of companies that fit with this ethos such as Wikileaks, Google and companies found in the Fortune 500.”

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To give the game a sense that it could take place in the real world, the team conducted research into making the bunker look and feel as believable as possible. “We actually approached the environment for the Assembly more like a subterranean airport or train station than an enclosed confined bunker,” Martin continues. “As such, the art team spent a lot of time looking at those kinds of environments and how they could strike a balance between high volumes of footfall from scientists coming and going, as well as longer term residents of the complex.”

Jackie has first-hand experience of exploring real-world environments similar to the bunker. “A few years ago I visited the Manapouri Power Station in New Zealand which is underground, and the sheer scale of it was amazing,“ she recalls. “I’ve also been into the D67 bunker in the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long in Vietnam, which was much more claustrophobic and intense.”

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A strong sense of place is made that much more convincing in VR thanks to the palpable sense of presence inherent to the experience. We wanted to extend that level of immersion to the taking on of a role by the player. In The Assembly, you’re not a nameless, voiceless entity – instead you’ll inhabit the skin of two very different protagonists, each with their own perspectives, motivations and objectives. Feeling like you’re ‘really there’ has allowed us to play with the idea that that no individual can ever know true reality, but only their perspective.

“We want players to ask themselves under what circumstances the end justifies the means, as well as grapple with whether it's possible for one person to make a real difference,” Jackie explains. “We’re fascinated by the idea of exploring all these questions from contrasting perspectives, so as to delve into the thought processes behind how those decisions are made.”

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Do you still have any lingering questions on our intentions behind The Assembly? Which our ideas surprised you the most? To ask these questions (or any others), go ahead and send us a message via The Assembly's Facebook page or tweet us with the hashtag #TheAssemblyVR.

You can also find nDreams on Facebook, pipe up on our forum on Reddit and check out our board on Pinterest for more screenshots.

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