Arcas Path: The VR game with the DNA of SingStar and Wipeout – and why that works (Pic: DRI)
Arca's Path, from development studio Dream Reality Interactive, comes from a studio with a good pedigree.
The developer may have only existed since 2016, but there's over 17 years of gaming expertise fuelling the studio behind the scenes. CEO Dave Ranyard – formerly Director of Sony PlayStation's London studio – worked on titles from Wipeout to SingStar, and strange as it may seem, Arca's Path leverages the design philosophies of those games to bring something truly special to the VR space.
"I worked on Wipeout back in the day," Ranyard tells us when we catch up with him in Dream Reality Interactive's modern studio space in Shepherd's Bush.
"Its been in and out of vogue over the years, but its something I still love. That game had this great art style, this great soundtrack and this relatively simple-to-understand gameplay. Thats something Ive always thought is an attractive proposition for a game."
Think back to Wipeout – how it perfectly it merged a thumping techno soundtrack, intuitive gameplay and that very 90s interpretation of a 'futuristic' aesthetic.
Those three aspects of the game made Wipeout imprint itself on the consciousness of a generation… and Arca's Path was built with those design principles in mind.
"There are three points to Arcas Path: the art style, the music, and the simplicity of the interaction. And that makes this triangle which the story kind-of runs through," Ranyard explains.
"When we first set up Dream Reality Interactive, those were the pillars we looked at (sort-of), in terms of mapping them to a game. Arcas Path is a very different style of game to Wipeout, sure, but you can still see those three things have some connection."
Ranyard is right. The most notable aspect of that trifecta, for us, is the soundtrack and sound design. With music from experimental UK musician Raffertie inspiring the overall glitchy direction of the game's audio, Arca's Path delivers so much of its personality straight to your ears. And as Sound Designer Chris Murray notes, that's fully intentional.
"When I became a sound designer at Dream Reality Interactive, Rafferty was sending us the first bits of music, and that inspired me to base the sound design around the entire game around that theme. He uses a lot of glitches in his music and I really drew from that in the sound design overall."
"When we first met with Raffertie and listened to his music, we were surprised by how much of a match it was," adds Ranyard. "His music isnt a straight 4/4 beat – its a bit different. The glitching in his music inspired the glitching in our art direction, and vice versa, I think. Hes been great to work with, professionally and creatively, and its helped us build the overall sound design to be in harmony with the music."
The fact that the entire game is played with simply your eyes – you look to move the ball in the game, and everything is therefore controlled with your head – also makes the game more accessible, no matter what version of VR headset you're using.
"Accessibility was a conscious benefit we thought about when we were working on the game," notes Ranyard. "When I worked on Singstar, that was a very accessible game, too – players perhaps had a voice they could interact with menus and mechanics with, but didnt have the dexterity to be able to use a pad or buttons. Similarly to Arca, it was a positive aspect of the games usability, and Im really glad we managed to support that here, too.
"It took us a long time to get the movement in the game right. There were lots of different things we tried – the brief was always what can we do without controllers.
"The original idea was well, we could control a ball… [laughter] The environment moving, rather than the ball, was an idea we used, too, but we didnt settle on that. It took a lot of time to get there – with how the game handles, how the mechanics worked. We got 90% there in three months, then… it took another 90% to finish it.
As the game progresses, the music shifts from this quite relaxed, almost chillwave vibe into something a little more glitch hop inspired – a little more unsettling. This slow morph mimics the game's gradual difficulty change – moving Arca's Path from a relaxing experience into something altogether more challenging.
"Yeah, the game gets quite hard," laughs Chris Murray. "I still struggle with the game and Ive been playing it for QA for months! [laughter] Theres a conscious design choice to introduce more mechanics and interaction with the environment as you progress, and we ramp up the complexity in the level design, too."
"Because we didnt want to alter the core mechanic – the gaze-tracking aspect of the game – we made the levels change around the player to vary the gameplay instead.
"We experimented quite a lot with the level design in the game, and realised you can do quite a lot with this simple movement without overloading the levels. Even early on in the game, we knew that was a strong point of the design wed chosen."
“Its a meditative experience that gives you something to do, something to focus on”
The game can veer from trippy and meditative to a much more intense, challenging experience in a few heartbeats, and its that dichotomy that keeps you hooked.
“The fact the player has those two experiences makes Arcas Path such a good experience – at least to me,” notes Ranyard. “You can put somebody in an amazing fantasy, but once theyve wafted some particles around, theyre like Im done now. In this, you have the challenge – and that really works. Its a meditative experience that gives you something to do, something to focus on, and I actually find that really useful from a mindfulness perspective.”
Arcas Path, then, sits nicely between the hardcore action game end of the virtual reality spectrum (populated by titles like Battlezone, Superhot and Beat Sabre) and the more experience-based offerings.
“It was a conscious decision to land at that part of the market,” Ranyard nods. “We did experiment with some wave-based shooters – and we were really happy with where we ended up with those, too – but by the time we got there, so had everyone else! [laughter] So we thought, what can we do thats different…”
The result is Arcas Path: a VR game different to what weve ever seen before in virtual reality, a game that is engrossing as it is relaxing.
Everything about Arcas Path seems designed to relax and stimulate, a tidal flow of a virtual reality experience that nestles comfortably beside 2018s other cerebral VR offerings.
Between Arcas Path and Tetris Effect and Beat Sabre, its been a phenomenal year for VR – and one that sets up the oft-maligned gimmick for a stellar year in 2019.