Flight School might sound like, well, a flight school – but it’s actually the name of a Dallas-based studio that, to quote them, are “fearlessly exploring the unknown in films, games, VR, AR and whatever lies in the wide and boundless sky”. With the release of Manifest 99 on Viveport, we strapped in to chat with Adam Volker (Creative Director) and Bohdon Sayre (Game Director) about their influences for Manifest 99 and more.
Hello to you both! Tell us what you’re involved in at Flight School.
ADAM VOLKER: I am a creative director at Flight School. That means my job is coming up with new projects for the studio to work on and managing the ones we have in production. You can check out Flight School on Twitter @flightschoolHQ, and I’m at @avolkertron.
BOHDON SAYRE: As for me, I’m the game director at Flight School. I work both on creative and technical sides, generating new creative ideas, programming and finding technical solves for our games. I’m on Twitter @bohdon.
Tell us about Manifest 99. Why should Vive owners check it out?
ADAM VOLKER: Manifest 99 is a beautifully animated VR experience that lies smack dab in the middle between game and story. It’s built for the medium and it looks like nothing else you’ve seen in the headset before.
Where did the initial inspiration for Manifest 99 come from?
BOHDON SAYRE: We knew that we wanted to try something with an eerie tone for our first VR project, since the medium itself does a great job at presenting mood and emotion. After kicking around a few ideas, the concept of a train moving through surreal landscapes came to the forefront. As we developed the idea we found that this was the perfect context to tell our story, and the pieces started to fall into place.
Without spoiling – what’s the connection with animals in Manifest 99? Reincarnation? Symbolism? A bit of both, or something else?
ADAM VOLKER: The animals represent the spirits of the passengers on the train. Without spoiling it, I will say that they are ethereal. I’ll let you decide whether you think they are reincarnations or ghosts or something new altogether.
Do you see Manifest 99 as more of a narrative experience, or a game?
ADAM VOLKER: It’s definitely more narrative. As you move through the experience, there are some puzzle aspects; but, it’s more about the journey you go through than the mechanics at your disposal.
You have a pretty unique ‘control technique’ in Manifest 99 – in that you don’t need a controller. Tell us how that works.
BOHDON SAYRE: Yeah, our goal with the mechanics was to keep the interaction to a minimum. We wanted players to not have to learn or overcome any technical hurdles to get into the experience as well as finish it. We also knew that we wanted the player to be able to freely move about the train, so that they could gain different perspectives of the events that occurred. The way it works is that there are many crows that come and go within the train you are riding. If you align your gaze such that you are looking directly into the eyes of any crow, you will teleport to that crow and can then view the world from their perspective.
Were there any specific inspirations for the art style in Manifest 99?
ADAM VOLKER: Definitely – we were looking at a lot of Edward Hopper paintings. He uses such unpredictable color palettes that are scary and isolated. Also, Bernie Fuchs was a big inspiration. With his paintings he abstracts our world into big shapes of color and texture. We wanted to make big bold visual statements for the different worlds you travel through in Manifest 99. Each with a simple color palette and a lot of texture. Also heck, I was watching a ton of Miyazaki. The feeling of Chihiro and No Face (from Spirited Away) riding the train together is all over Manifest 99 (hopefully).
Setting a VR game on a moving train seems like it might be dangerous – just because of the possibility of motion sickness. What did you do to overcome that?
BOHDON SAYRE: Yeah, literally the first thing we tested was a camera inside of a moving box with holes cut out of it. We quickly found that as long as the train was moving really fast, and didn’t noticeably change its speed while you were aboard, that people felt nice and ‘grounded’ by the train itself. We avoided as much as possible putting the player in wide open areas of the train, so that they could always see a good amount of the train interior despite where they were looking. There were a few other special cases that came up, such as when the player first boards the train. It was the one place where the train would accelerate from being fully stopped, and several people noted that it started to make them queasy. So we found a way to have the player board the train, and then while they weren’t looking outside, accelerate quickly, so the player only hears the train starting, but doesn’t experience the simulator sickness we had run into.
Let’s talk about Flight School. What sort of VR (and related) projects are you working on? Where can people see some examples of what you do?
ADAM VOLKER: You can check out what Flight School is up to on our website https://www.flightschool.studio. We like to tackle new media and bring our love for art and animation to each new set of challenges. Flight School is going to be making games, and narrative content in a multitude of mediums. Our next few VR projects are well underway…but I don’t think I can talk about them yet. They range from live action 360 films to VR game projects.
One project that got some attention was your collaboration with GMC at the Calgary Stampede. Can you tell us about that?
BOHDON SAYRE: Yeah the GMC project was a lot of fun. The goal was to recreate the event, where riders are competing in a horse-driven-chuck-wagon race, except replace all the horses with trucks! We knew we would have full control over the space, so we decided to fully recreate the virtual setup of the experience in real-life. Player’s walk up to an actual truck that has an actual chuck-wagon behind it, and then once seated in the chuck wagon they put on the VR headset. We even attached horse-reins to Oculus Touch controllers to give the extra feel and weight of the real race! That seamless transition from the real-life scenario to the virtual one made it work really well.
Where are you based? How big is the studio?
ADAM VOLKER: Flight School’s landing pad is in Dallas, TX. It’s great here, but very hot. The studio right now is around 30 people.
What else are you working on right now, that we can look forward to seeing on Vive?
ADAM VOLKER: To complement the narrative quality of Manifest 99, Flight School is working on a couple of VR game projects next. One is definitely in a territory that will be familiar to core gamers, and the other is a wacky, humor-driven experience. Both are coming out in 2018!
You mention ‘exploring the unknown’ a lot on your blog. What, right now, do you see as a great, unknown frontier in VR/AR?
ADAM VOLKER: Adoption. Most of the people we show our work to have never put on a VR headset before. Once people are more familiar with using the hardware, the conversation can shift to the details of what makes great VR content. Until we get there, we really just want to design things that are accessible and bring people to the medium. There is a long list of unknowns in VR/AR left to explore that Flight School is eager to tackle. Things like movement mechanics, and session length are exciting to mess with. There are tons of different types of controllers out there, and custom ones being made. Also, the mediums are still finding their foundation, and being able to be part of the conversation that defines that is super exciting.
Thanks for talking to us, Adam and Bohdon!
Manifest 99 is available on Viveport.