Interview: Blair Renaud of TECHNOLUST

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“I know kung fu.”

There is a wooden martial arts training doll in my new apartment, and that tells me that I know kung fu. On TV behind me, next to another screen playing the infamous Max Headroom broadcast takeover, a news anchor is informing me of a virus outbreak on Mars.

I have a lot of TVs. I must be a hacker. This is my life, but none of it is real.

A voice tells me where to look, what to pick up, what to put down, what cool things I have.

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This disembodied voice is Blair Renaud, lead developer of TECHNOLUST and the architect of everything I can see or hear. Picking up aluminium cans, toasting bread until it burns to usable carbon black for my 3D printer, his instructions are literally all that tether me to the corporeal world.

If it sounds dramatic, this is because TECHNOLUST is an indie game being developed exclusively for the Oculus Rift and — as a virtual reality noob — I’m in the midst of a revelation. As Blair’s instructions are forced into competition with my general curiosity, I find myself responding in the affirmative without really knowing what he’s telling me to do. I don’t have to do what he tells me. I don’t have to do anything.

What we’ve been taught to think about VR is that jacking-in is a type of imprisonment. It’s a sinister hell that will eventually be used to distract us while robots use us as bio-batteries. When it comes to gaming, however, it is the exact opposite. In TECHNOLUST all you have is freedom. You are Neo in the Matrix, or Ellen Page in Cillian Murphy’s brain.

This is all to say: TECHNOLUST is a very strong case for virtual reality in not just games, but all media, and its Kickstarter campaign still has a few days to go.

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The Revolution Will Be Virtually Televised

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When you boil it down to basics, TECHNOLUST is a classic point-and-click adventure game – inspired by genre classics Myst, Kings Quest, and Space Quest – set in the world of 1980s cyberpunk fiction. Corporations control everything, limiting the use of Utopian technologies like 3D printing and virtual reality. But as a revolutionary hacker, you are among the few self-actualized individuals that can get around the gaze of this specific dystopia’s chief executive Big Brother.

The clincher is that all of this is virtual reality. There are no current plans to release this game for other platforms, and that is a perfect choice. In TECHNOLUST VR goes beyond the simple immersion gimmick skeptics usually talk about and acts as an integral storytelling device.

Designing a game for virtual reality presents developers with a number of limitations that encourage storytelling through player action and the environment.

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“You never want to take control away from the players,” explains Blair. “If you want to do any sort of cut scene or anything to explain the story, that’s a bad idea. As soon as we start pushing the player around without their control then they’re not gonna like it.”

That means no heads-up displays, none of the parkour that has become so commonplace in triple-A fare. If Blair wasn’t telling me where to go and what to do, I wouldn’t just need to figure it out for myself: I would need to want to figure it out for myself.

Blair has realized this in TECHNOLUST. The lack of imposable framing has lead to an interesting use case in previous iterations of the demo.

The first level requires collecting and synthesis of the materials around your apartment. There used to be an Easter egg hidden in some barrels: a copy of Night of the Living Dead, and to some players, the game ended there.

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“I’ve had people say in comments: ‘I just sat there and watched the movie for an hour and a half,’ and that made them happy. You know: looking around their cool cyberpunk apartment and just watching a movie.”

There is also a game-within-a-game aspect, but not how you might expect.

A section of TECHNOLUS takes place in an arcade. Tasked with hacking into the back-end of a game-within-the-game, you put on VR goggles and go further in. Ostensibly, if a copy of TECHNOLUST was placed within this level, it could go on forever in a disturbingly infinite meta tunnel of games, each one feeling the exact same while mattering a little less in terms of the primary quest.

Virtual reality within virtual reality is a clever trick, but it is mostly a neat way to present a puzzle, having a wearable device function as if it were a door into the next hallway in a maze. As Blair is quick to note,  it’s not like you’re picking up a virtual controller and playing virtual Super Mario. Yet.

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If You Build It, etc.

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On the surface level, the story revolves around circumventing the creative limitations placed on you from faceless corporations. One level deeper, the creativity of how you want to experience the game also provides freedom (watching a movie instead of completing a quest). At its base, creativity is partially responsible for funding the game, since Blair bought his first Oculus Rift with $300 from selling items in Second Life.

“This is where money is coming from now,” he says showing me his Second Life marketplace. “I make these objects once — it takes me two or three hours to make something cool — I put it up, and for the rest of my life, money comes in.”

Much of what he’s selling actually ended up in TECHNOLUST: a Speak n Spell from the bookshelf, the barrels that once contained a full-length zombie flick, and a stack of modified TVs.

Once he bought the Rift, he had to sell his partner, Chris Abell, on the idea. Abell works in film production and Blair lends his skills when it comes to visual effects and motion graphics.

It took him about three weeks to build the current demo.

“When I say three weeks, I mean I didn’t sleep,” clarifies Blair. “I was just putting stuff together.”

The Kickstarter came along quickly, too, making its goal shortly after my visit to Blair’s home, and Blair is blown away by the love from the game community.

Insert Revolutionary Quote From The Matrix

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There are two ideas that Blair thinks should be brought to VR: cyberpunk and zombies. The first one of these is almost complete, with TECHNOLUST’s launch slated for September after a beta in July.

There are a list of stretch goals for the game’s Kickstarter campaign: an original score, Sixsense Stem controls, extra areas. If the account hits $100,000 by the end of this week, the world gets a sequel chapter.

“I think doing a sequel would make a lot of sense,” says Blair, confirming that he does have story ideas for chapter two. But there is that second VR avenue that needs to be explored.

“I’m a big zombie-guy. I think the zombie genre needs to hit VR.”

Quickly brainstorming what this VR zombie game would be like, Blair describes a game where you are put into a house with other characters and need to survive an attack of the living dead.

Regardless of whether his next trip to the VR drawing board will bring undead hordes to unholy life or continuing to flesh out the lives of TECHNOLUST players, Blair is sure that VR will be involved.

“I think this is not just the future of gaming,” he says. “I think this is the future of media in general.”

Movies presented in virtual theatres, the inevitable Oculus Rift social apps following Facebook’s acquisition, all of this is leading to the realization of a world prophesied in TECHNOLUST.

Once the VR headset goes mobile, Blair says that’s it for us. “Once the fidelity gets good enough, why would you take it off?”

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