When you think about it, people are very fascinating. From where they have been, who they have met, and even their hopes and dreams. No matter what, we all have a story to tell. Sometimes it’s those stories that we may realize could be a form of guidance to our own chapters for our own stories just waiting to be told. So when I heard Developer ZenFri Inc. was making a game where you are the last human taxi driver and that the stories of the passengers would not only not be the same, but each one has their own struggles, problems, and with a sci-fi setting and with multiple endings. I wanted to know more, so I reached out and Corey King was happy to give us a closer look at The Last Taxi and to also talk about Virtual Reality.
Interview with ZenFri Inc. Co-Founder, Corey King
Welcome to THE VR DIMENSION. Could you please introduce yourself and what you do at ZenFri?
“My name is Corey King; I’m a co-founder of ZenFri Inc., along with my partner Dee King. Together, we are co-creators and producers of The Last Taxi and share design and narrative elements as well.
For some that may not be aware, Zenfri Inc. is an AR and VR creative arts company that is not afraid of pushing the boundaries in storytelling. What are some of the projects you are responsible for?
“In the past, we’ve made everything from gallery art and short films to written anthologies. For the last ten years, though, we’ve been focused on interactive digital media projects and, more specifically, AR and VR games and experiences.
A large body of our work has been in museums, training and events, so general audiences may not be familiar with those. Some fun examples would be an AR scavenger hunt inside the Canadian Fossil Discovery Centre or how we turned Downtown Winnipeg, Canada into a location-based AR game for a local French film festival.
When it comes to gaming, our biggest title was Clandestine: Anomaly, a location-based augmented reality tower defense game. We released that about a year before Pokemon Go. Unfortunately, some of the underlying technology we used to build that game no longer exists, so it became hard to support the title, but I still look back on it with pride – from a technical standpoint, we pushed AR pretty far on an iPhone 4.
Soon after Clandestine: Anomaly released, we started to work on The Last Taxi.”
Your newest title, The Last Taxi, looks very interesting as you are the last human driver. What can you tell us about it, and where did the inspiration come from?
“After Clandestine: Anomaly, Dee and I both wanted to make sure the next game had the potential to tell a lot of stories. Taking four years on Clandestine to tell one story took a toll on us creatively — so the starting point was “an idea that could facilitate many stories.” Making the player a taxi driver provided that each passenger had their own mini-story within a larger narrative canvas.
Dee locked in on it being centred around a taxi driver, and I built the surrounding dystopian sci-fi world. The game became a way to explore the “near” future with a comprehensive perspective. No two passengers are alike; they all have different struggles and views on the state of the world. You can talk with smugglers, regular hard-working people and technology-infused billionaires.
Each passenger is set up with multiple endings and a complicated web of branching narrative. So players can choose to forge their own path through each conversation, take sides, or not.
There are no morally right or wrong answers in The Last Taxi; each path has tradeoffs. This was important for us, as it’s is more about getting people to think about their own choices than to pretend we have the answers.”
One of the things that really caught my attention is the comedy. In the trailer, you hear “Welcome to Progress Point and how this used to be your home and now you live here”. It really made me laugh. But another aspect I thought was interesting was the conversations that you will have with the passengers and how that really becomes the focus point. What can you tell us about the conversations and how that will play out in The Last Taxi?
“You can thank Dee for the humor; they pushed for a look and feel that made the game fun and accessible. That said, not all characters are funny; you’ll face a wide variety from those that are pure fun or absurd to those living in quite bleak circumstances.
No matter who you meet, players have options. Every time the player is prompted to respond, they are presented with between 2-4 different options. Each conversation choice leads not only to different responses and customer ratings but different endings. Some of these are quite dramatic, like convincing a terrorist to turn themselves in or well… letting them go. Other passengers need a sounding board for their romantic entanglements, and others treat you like a relic of the past, baiting you for their curious amusement.
While some passengers are their own self-contained story or a slice in a mini-story, others are part of a larger narrative that becomes the central focus. For these characters, your conversation choices have far larger effects and impact the final endings.”
So there really are multiple endings and you can help criminals reconsider their actions by reporting them to authorities?
“The authorities in control of Progress Point are incredibly authoritarian, so when you report somebody for criminal activity, there is unlikely any chance for reform. But there are some surprising and humorous outcomes to reporting “criminals” — the Newsfeed, the player’s general news source keeps them updated on passenger outcomes, good or bad. Sometimes you just need that closure.
That said, you can talk passengers out of decisions, convince them to quit their job, stop their criminal activity, or even sway them to leave their partner. I want to clarify, though that not all passengers are inclined to respond in how you expect. Just like real people, your reasonable attempts to solve a situation may have unexpected outcomes based on the passenger’s character. Some criminals cannot be reformed; some hearts cannot be healed. You do what you can, get them to where they’re going with a smile, and move on.”
Any chance of helping the criminals based on your choices?
“Absolutely. It could be argued that helping a criminal is the “right” thing to do in some cases.”
What kind of passengers can we expect to meet and what can you do with the tips that you earn?
“You’ll meet a full roster from various backgrounds. Tech CEOs, test subjects, human minds trapped in machines, VR e-sport champions, and a variety of “regular” folks (at least seemingly regular on the surface).
And that’s just the humans! You’ll meet a wide variety of automatons as well. We really tried to provide a diverse array of characters and unique situations — every game day will be very different.
At a basic level, money is needed to keep your business running. Tips and fares pay for repairs and fines. Most importantly, though, they pay for your progression. In Progress Point your access to different regions is based on your wealth; you’re more trusted to drive a tech billionaire around with the resources to prove you’re an “upstanding citizen.”
Would you say that the player would really need to pay attention to their surroundings?
“The core of moment-to-moment gameplay is balancing the player’s attention between the passenger’s needs and conversation with all the perilous obstacles the outside world throws in your way.
From avoiding car accidents and falling satellite debris to dodging (or later in the game hacking) toll booths — a player always looks to maximize their profits.
With all that you have created, what do you find is the most rewarding and most challenging when it comes to developing for Virtual Reality?
“Developing for VR has been extremely challenging. Our core concept asked us to face many of the most ambitious design and technological challenges facing VR developers. Tackling comfortable (nausea-reduced) locomotion, physics-based interactions, and VR game performance we had to overcome huge challenges due to the world’s immense scale and the player’s constant movement.”
What is that one wow moment that you still find is amazing for Virtual Reality?
“I love creative and educational apps; using an app like SculptrVR to build your dream home or an app like Google Earth to explore the world have been profound experiences for me.”
When it comes to developing a game like The Last Taxi, do you think more about the visuals first or think about how hit has to sound and then develop around that aspect?
“I think about the story first, everything else extends from that. Dee is great at building characters and giving them a unique voice, and I love creating the inner working world — we craft that first, then figure out the mechanics and visuals.”
Do we have a release date for The Last Taxi?
“We have internal targets, but COVID19 has undermined a lot of our timelines. Our team has been work from home since March which comes with its own set of challenges.
All we can say now is it will release early next year.”
Any chance that we could see a PlayStation VR or Oculus Quest 2 version in the future?
“We’d love to get the game onto both those platforms, but our ability to put the resources into optimization is contingent on its initial success on PCVR.”
If you could tell your younger self three things what would they be?
“I love this question.
First, dude, you get to make video games! What!?
Second, being a father will be the most fantastic experience of your life. I always wanted to be a dad, but it’s been far more rewarding than I ever imagined. It has taught me what matters and that a lot of my more youthful goals were perhaps misplaced.
Third, with enough tenacity and focus, your low grades, and broken/dysfunctional family will not determine your life. Keep at it! You can create a life that is happy and fulfilling.”
If someone was looking for something new in VR, what would you say to them on why they should experience The Last Taxi?
“It’s a massive and detailed story world where your choices matter. It challenges you not only through gameplay but in considering the profound beauty and peril our future may bring.
It’s a chance to meet characters, make jokes, and explore stories unlike anything currently available in VR, and we hope it’s a lot of fun!”
I really want to thank Corey for taking some time away from his schedule to give us a closer look at The Last Taxi and Virtual Reality. I also want to thank you Dee King for arranging everything.
The Last Taxi is coming soon to Steam and can be wishlisted now.
In case you missed the trailer, please enjoy.