Behind the scenes with a $70,000 virtual reality rock opera starring self-aware robots

Jake Kaufman and Jessie Seeley both have extensive production credits on games ranging from Shovel Knight to Silent Hill: Book of Memories, from Duck Tales Remastered to Saints Row 3. They’ve both shipped dozens of titles in a variety of genres, and now they’re working together on what is likely to be the first full-length virtual reality rock opera.

The project, called NUREN: The New Renaissance, is asking for $70,000 on Kickstarter. It’s a big ask, and the team admits it will be challenging to meet the goal. “We are essentially doing something no one has ever done before to this degree,” Kaufman told Polygon. “It’s the kind of thing that’s incredibly hard to describe.”

The first of its kind

I was able to play an early demo of the experience, but they warned me it’s much more of a proof of concept than a slice of the finished product. The models will look better in the full experience, and the motion capture will be custom.

That being said, it’s an oddly overwhelming experience in virtual reality. Imagine being inside a dystopian version of a dance club, where everything reacts to the music. The music plays at a much louder volume than you’re used to in most games, because you don’t have to worry about voice acting or interaction through most of the experience; you just get to sit back, look around, and enjoy the ride. You’ll also be able to “play” the game on a standard screen, but it’s in virtual reality that the experience really comes to life.

The entire world pulses and strains to the music, with everything reactive to the beat of the music. A few minutes of enjoying the demo gave me a slight rush, as if I had taken a mild hallucinogen. Everything about the demo felt right, and the feeling of every aspect of your reality operating under the will of the music was interesting.

“Once someone looks at the trailer, they get a better feel for it, I don’t think I ever called it a rock opera, but as people get exposed to it, that’s what they call it,” Seeley says. It has a very Pink Floyd feeling to it, and the idea of a high-concept rock opera in virtual reality is admittedly a bit on the nose if you’re looking for fans who may smoke certain substances from time to time. Members of the team may have admitted they do, in fact, imbibe a specific substance or two.

The full experience will take around 90 minutes to watch in its entirety when finished, and will incorporate seven main sections, each with its own music and aesthetic, that operate almost like music videos. These scenes will be held together by interstitial moments with voice acting and exposition that explain what’s going on.

The story involves robots who become self-aware, and I think the best way to explain the story is allow it to speak for itself. This is text from the Kickstarter itsef:

QGK and RIX … suddenly malfunction and begin to show signs of an unintended human trait: self-awareness. In a world where provocations such as music have been banned for a century, this glitch has enabled them to sing. When this is discovered, they are forced to become fugitives.

Their on-the-run adventure of self-discovery draws them deeper into a futuristic dystopia, and the industrial wastelands cast in shadows below. Together with escaped human rebels and long-forgotten robot models, these twin renegade androids unwittingly find themselves leading a movement to restore music and art to a peaceful but joyless world!

This setup allows the player to learn about the world as the robots do, giving you a clear window into a dystopian future that may be saved through the art of kick-ass music. “It’s almost like you’re finding out about this world at the same time as they are, they don’t know anything, and you don’t know anything when you put on your VR headset or turning on the computer. You know as much as they do,” Seeley explained.

Another interesting wrinkle is the number of 2D artists that will be working on each session, giving each part of the game it’s own look and feel. But how do you show 2D art in virtual reality?

nuren

“We are going to invent and borrow techniques for projecting 2D art in a 3D world,” Kaufman explained. “We’re trying to get as imaginative as possible showing 2D animation in a 3D space.” Imagine swaths of 2D animation played as if it were projected on a planet as you were flying through space, or Doctor Who-style portraits zooming around the scene.

It all sounds a bit ridiculous, but the amount of talent and experience being brought to the project is hard to deny. It’s the first stab at a virtual reality rock opera, but someone has to do it, and it might as well be a team who knows exactly what they want, and how to create it.

The campaign has raised $13,700 of the $70,000 goal as of this writing, with 18 days to go.