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There You Are: Developing Process Behind a Narrative-Driven Game

Rong Deng, an experienced Game Designer, and Rui Huang, a professional in Animation and Digital Art, Concept Artist, have talked about the story that stands behind the project There You Are, discussed the developing process of the game, technical tools, and sources of inspiration. 


Hey, my name is Rong Deng. I'm a Game Designer, and I got my MFA degree in Interactive Media and Game Design from the University of Southern California. Before I came to the US, I'd worked at Gameloft for seven years, first as a Programmer and then as a Producer. In Gameloft, I've worked on over 16 titles, including the Despicable Me Minion Rush – Chinese Version and the Modern Combat series. I love participating in developing games that are engaging and thought-provoking. I’ve been honored to work on Walden, a game, and Neuro Rider( working name, scientists study whether Virtual Reality can prevent cognitive decline, dementia) with this passion. And now I’m a Game Designer at Naughty Dog. 

Hi, my name is Rui Huang. I got my master’s degree in Animation and Digital Arts from the University of Southern California. I have worked in the game industry as a Concept Artist for a couple of years. In recent years, I have worked for commercial companies such as MOCEAN and BUCK. I participated in various projects, including mobile games and video games for Gameloft, Imagine Dragons animated video Birds, J Paul Getty Museum projection mapping, and other announced commercial projects.  

The Story Behind The Title

There You Are is a thesis project for my MFA degree. At the end of 2019, Rui and I got the idea that we could create a story and make it a game for my thesis and animation for her thesis. We have always wanted to create engaging and thought-provoking stories. We decided to talk about unresolved grief. Because in life, the loss of loved ones is inevitable. Those who can remember our first encounter with death know that childhood experiences can be frightening and lonely. If handled with warmth, understanding, and caring, our early experience with death can be an opportunity to learn about living and dying. We wanted to create a gift for young people.  

We got inspiration from two of our friends' experiences. One lost her father when she was very young, and another lost her mother in her elementary school years. Rui witnessed how her childhood bereavement changed her mentally and behaviorally. So we wanted to do something for them.

Narrative-Driven Game Genre

Our topic is very specific and it requires game characters to have their own back story to support the following game experience. At first, we had an idea of making it an abstract world in VR, and the player role-plays the girl with a first-person view. However, most players focused on exploring the items and environment rather than care about the story. This brought us a question: if it's a first-person VR, who are you in the game? The answer is no matter how hard the player tries to role-play the main character, the main character is still the player. From failed VR prototypes, we found we need a distance between the player and the main character. After lots of playtests and discussions, we found narrative-driven with 3rd-person was the best way for us.

At the very beginning, we spent a lot of time exploring the art direction. Since the theme is a relatively severe topic, we thought the popular cartoon style and bright tone would not be suitable to convince the audience. So we took references from the cinematography of live-action films and some stop-motion movies. Finally, we came up with more realistic lighting and shading. In terms of animation, we wanted our characters to feel more real and natural. So we didn’t include many exaggerated facial expressions or performances. Apart from this, we also got inspiration from Jamie Caliri. Because I’m is a huge fan of his artwork. So we considered including a paper cut animation into the climax part. It turned out to work very well. It brought visual differences and engaging visual design to the whole project. 

Technical Tools to Create the Game

We are using Unreal Engine, Cinema 4D, Maya, Substance Painter, and Mixamo. As it's a narrative-driven game, we had lots of sequences and animations. And we made resources with different tools: models were from C4D, animations and rigs were from Maya, and textures were from Substance Painter. An engine that could make the pipeline easy to integrate and have a sophisticated sequence tool and a reliable PBR is what we needed. So we chose Unreal for this project. During the crafting process, we need lots of placeholder animations to test the sequences and gameplay to express our ideas. Mixamo saved us a lot of time and budget. For the storytelling side, we want the player to care about the family. We created There You Are based on the three-act structure and Dan Harmon's story circle to deal with this.

The Business Side

We didn't think of any business model initially because this is a thesis game, and we had very limited production time. We appreciate the help from our friends and mentors, especially during COVID. Without their generosity and kindness, this game couldn’t be there. At the end of the production, we were so lucky and thankful to get USC's finishing funds. It provided us an opportunity to start thinking about the promotion and the next step. Now we are working with some service providers for further cooperation.


There were two main questions we faced. Firstly, how can we tell a story about daily life within 15 minutes, which requires a deep emotional expression and an engaging experience? Secondly, how do we make distance collaboration more effective during COVID?

For the first question, our short answer is in-depth research, various references, lots of story iterations, and lots of playtests. As Rui and I haven't experienced the same situation with our main character, we needed to dig deep into grief research to capture the character's inner change, the lasting effects of the trauma, and possible resulting behaviors. We first read papers and books looking to answer three main questions: what is unresolved grief? What helps people move from the grieving process? And how does childhood bereavement change the child mentally and behaviorally?  Then we analyzed different characters who have the same experience from prior arts, including animations, TV series, films, and games. After we understood our main characters, we iterated the story, filled in suitable gameplay elements, and created the emotional arc as a guide. Finally, we did lots of polishing, playtesting, and iteration to reach the quality we wanted.

For the second question: during COVID, we had to move online. The computer blocked the chemistry between people talking in person and locked each one in a tiny rectangle. The worst issue was in most software. We can only hear one person’s voice clearly at one time. Based on this situation, we had to reduce the number of meetings and attendees and set up a precise topic to make a clear decision. It turned out this method was very effective during the full production!

You can download the game here

Rong Deng, Game Designer

Rui Huang, Concept Artist and Art Director

Interview conducted by Theodore Nikitin

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