Science can be a wonderful thing. But it’s how far one is to go that can make one question if they should. If you take everything you know, your conscience into an AI, would you even stop to question what could go wrong or would you think about the possibilities of it all? Would the world change for the worse or for the better because of the discoveries you made or would your desire turn into greed? It really is quite fascinating when you think about it. So when I heard that developer Cream and B Curious Productions were making an interactive VR science-fiction experience about the transferring of your conscience into an AI that you created, I had to know more. So I reached out and the Vice President, writer, and executive producer, Johnny Kalangis, and writer, and director, Jonathon Corbiere, were happy to talk about their newest game Dark Threads as well as talk about Virtual Reality.
Interview with VP of Digital at Cream, Johnny Kalangis, and writer and director, Jonathon Corbiere
Welcome to THE VR DIMENSION. Would you please introduce yourself and what you do at Cream?
Kalangis: “I’m Johnny Kalangis and I’m VP of Digital at Cream. For Dark Threads I acted as writer and executive producer.”
Corbiere: “I’m Jonathon Corbiere and I wrote and directed Dark Threads.”
Cream has some impressive content with Cream Films with titles such as R40 Live and Names on the Cup as well as other productions such as Weapon Hunter with Paul Shull and Wild Things with Dominic Monaghan to even Survivorman VR: The Descent. What has been the most special project to your heart that you were a part of?
Kalangis: “For me personally, our recent TV series on CNN Primetime The Story of Late Night and the complimentary podcast 6-part series Behind The Desk would be the ones to mention outside of Dark Threads. The stories behind the cultural phenomenon of Late-Night television are fascinating, I was able to work with amazing people throughout the process from our creative and production teams to our interview subjects to CNN TV and podcast executives. It was a great pleasure throughout and we’re proud of the results across the board.”
Your newest game, Dark Threads stars Dominic Monaghan and Kandsye McClure. What can you tell us about the game and what parts do these two actors play?
Corbiere: “Dark Threads is a snapshot of a potential future taking place in and around 2035. In that sense, it is very much a hard science fiction story where the world-building is based on progressing forward in time within the constraints of where our technological advancements currently are and are likely to be in 10-15 years.
Dominic Monaghan stars as an older version of himself – having left the entertainment industry to help develop technological solutions to solve the many threats our civilization faces. His wit and charm are paramount to the game’s narrative and gives the player a very strong connection to this fictional future tech titan.
Kandyse McClure plays Dominics beneficial ai system named RHEA. The game takes place just after Dominic has attempted to merge his own mind with Rhea’s neural network, hoping to speed up her development. As expected, this has interesting consequences for Dominic’s dream of “fixing humanity”. Kandyse’s direct yet friendly performance lends an incredibly rich and trusting voice to this AI character, providing conflicting feelings to the player.”
So Dark Threads really is an interactive drama?
Kalangis: “It is. Interactive dramas come in many forms and really do benefit from being as elastic as possible. The narrative experience we’re offering players here emerges from their actions, choices, and behaviors. I imagine players will find it borrows from many types of narrative styles: It’s exploratory. Sometimes feels a bit like a branching narrative, and then, sometimes it is straight up and feels linear.”
Corbiere: “We initially set out to design an interactive film, but quickly realized that this genre was not quite the best use of the VR tools that were available to us. In wanting to make an interactive drama that fit a traditional film-like narrative but felt like a game we definitely struggled and often had to pull back our ambitions. We in no way wanted to confuse people into expecting a full-fledged action game and wanted the expectations of the audience to be clear. In that spirit, we researched a lot of interactive narrative games, specifically point and click adventures of early gaming generations and then newer interactive dramas of the later console generations. In many ways, this experience takes inspiration from both of those genres and then cements them into what would now be referred to as a “walking sim” within the VR gaming world.”
The idea of exploring consciousness and Artificial Intelligence is an interesting one. Was this always the idea or did Dark Threads have a different look from when you first started to make the game?
Kalangis: “It went through many iterations conceptually. There were many ideas floating around but eventually, we focused on the human dilemma surrounding our current and future relationships with AI. It felt like a conversation we’re all currently having and aren’t like to exhaust any time soon.”
Corbiere: “We really wanted to create a “beneficial AI” and try to understand what exactly that would mean. What would that AI think of humanity, our economic structures, our ecological decision making, and how would it imagine helping us avoid the cliff we all seem happy to be racing towards. We live on a planet with finite resources, yet we treat them as infinite… How would an AI view this conundrum, what if anything could an AI even offer as a solution that our species would find morally and ethically acceptable? These are all motivations we wanted to explore within the character of RHEA without resorting to the AI becomes evil tropes that litter Science Fiction.”
Looking at the trailer, would it be correct to say that the player will be going through different parts of time?
Corbiere: “What’s interesting about the story is that the Beneficial AI Rhea at times will take the viewer into her own deep dreams in an attempt to rationalize the solutions she has discovered for humanity. These story points take place in various times, some in the present, past, and many as visions of the future. To an ai like RHEA, we felt that time may very well not seem linear, and began to imagine that a perfect AI may actually believe that their simulations are very accurate potentials/windows into what is actually going to happen in the future.
An ongoing theme in the character development is the fact that humans have a very short lifespan in relation to their species existence, and it is that fear of death/time running out that drives us to place ourselves over future generations. An AI who essentially could live forever (assuming access to power/maintenance) would essentially not have that short-term “head in the sand” and be able to really feel the effects that a destroyed future world would have.
Choices seem to matter in Dark Threads. If a wrong decision is made could that then be corrected by another choice to get on the right path or is it more of once you make your choice, that is the path you will go down?
Kalangis: “We really didn’t want there to be moments where a player makes a ‘wrong’ decision. We were looking more to create meaningful choices that came with other viewpoints, benefits, and consequences depending on a player’s expectation. We can nudge them, but in my experience, we can rarely predict what players will think and do.”
Will there be multiple endings in the game?
Corbiere: “There are 2 main endings to the game that are based on a specific philosophical choice you make with your actions in the game, and a third hidden ending for those who really pay attention to the deeper aspects of the narrative. The endings are set up in a way that subverts the traditional Sci Fi tropes, and we think the audience will find them very interesting.”
Without giving too much away, what do you think will be the most surprising to players when they play the game?
Corbiere: “I think one of the most surprising elements of our narrative will be presented to those who take the extra time to read between the lines of the story. It is a relatively linear narrative with a few obvious choices to make, yet there are some deeper meanings, connections, and secrets that only some will discover. I also think the audience will appreciate that we did not hold back on our views of where our world is headed, even in the short 10-15 year timeframe that this story takes place. There is a lot of sideline world-building and storytelling that really frames this potential future that we all could very well be inhabiting soon.”
When you work with VR, immersion is key. From the sound to the graphics to even the storytelling. What do you feel is the working formula to make sure you have the most immersive experience possible for the player in VR?
Kalangis: “I think consistency in the world is vital. Many games can immerse a player in an experience with simple graphics and sound design if the world stays true to the rules it’s established. That said, players bring their imagination in with them so, we need to balance expectation with surprise. Those are the experiences I feel people can lean into.”
Corbiere: “One of the key storytelling tools that help with immersion is pacing. We really tried hard during story developing and early gameplay tests to ensure that pacing was paramount to the experience. As you progress the story in Dark Threads the pacing and environments really begin to amp up, climaxing in one of the largest and nicest set pieces within the game. This really helps a player to maintain interest and excitement while in a game. The rule of thumb was, once the audience has learned or experience something and it’s become the baseline, let’s find a way to subvert that baseline. This in our case was mostly done through storytelling, set design, and narrative but gameplay expectations and puzzle consequences also played heavily into the pacing.”
Graphically speaking, Dark Threads looks fantastic just from the trailer and the pics. Did the game have a different look compared to the final product?
Corbiere: “There were a lot of challenges graphics-wise within the production of the game, specifically due to our status as a very indie developer. We wanted something that felt hyper-realistic and from the beginning had the commitment and support from our funders that we could develop this solely for computer rigged headsets with relatively high GFX specs. We knew that this would limit our potential audience and understood at the time that when this game released 3 years later that Quest and likely Quest 2 would be the most popular VR install base. Luckily both Quest models support a very robust tethering system and we have found that many have experienced Dark Threads on these devices tethered to their gaming PC’s.”
What still surprises you about Virtual Reality?
Corbiere: “Locomotion within VR is very difficult to develop for. There’s a large group of people who you could say have their “VR Legs” and seem to be able to use fairly advanced 6DOF+analogue stick movement without issue, while there are many others who find this nauseating. We went through countless locomotion approaches including an early point and click prototype that provided much more of a third-person gameplay with first-person interaction moments. In the end, we tried to tweak a full range of motion and analog joystick approach while limiting speed and movement during important dialogue/cinematic moments. This approach was not as refined as we would have liked and we are already brainstorming internally on how to make it better next time.”
Kalangis: “I’m just surprised how quickly I believe the world. It’s almost instantaneous. I think I was more suspicious of it in the past.”
Do you see Dark Threads coming to other platforms such as PlayStation VR, or even Viveport in the future? Also, do you see this as a series?
Kalangis: “We’re looking at PlayStation VR and Viveport for sure. We’re also in discussions about making a graphic novel of Dark Threads. That might be a continuing series or anthology which might spin out more games and entertainment on different platforms. We feel there’s a lot of places we can go from here with this one.”
If you opened the door to THE VR DIMENSION with the only caveat of not being able to return, but the world you entered was your next VR game. What would be about and who would it star?
Kalangis: “Great question. It wouldn’t likely be Cream’s next VR project called SurvivormanVR. That one stars TV Survivorman’s Les Stroud. It’s shaping up to be an amazing experience for sure, but I think the game world in that case is a place I’d like to visit and not live in. It starts when you crash land on a snowy mountain top and you have to survive. It’s an exciting virtual reality but perhaps too much stress for real life.”
With the content for Virtual Reality continuing to grow, what would you say to someone as to why they should experience Dark Threads?
Kalangis: “I think Dark Threads is for people who would like to have a VR experience that is thought-provoking, exploratory, and entertaining. The cast, Dom Monaghan and Kandyse Mcclure are really excellent. Ultimately, if someone likes to lean into a story, they’ll hopefully find it leans back.
Corbiere: “If you love hard Sci-Fi, series like Black Mirror and want a narrative experience driven by high-level performances from two talented film/television actors then you will definitely enjoy Dark Threads. In our opinion, this story experience sits in that sweet spot between film and game, which seems to be a less explored format for VR experiences. We’ve made a huge effort to price the game in a range that really fits the value that it offers, as well as be clear to the audience about what they will be experiencing. We hope you enjoy it!
I really want to thank both Johnny and Jonathon for taking the time out of their day to give us a closer look into Dark Threads as well as talking about Virtual Reality.
Dark Threads is out now on Steam.
To learn more about Cream, please visit the site, like them on Facebook, follow them on Instagram, and subscribe to their YouTube channel. To learn more about B Curious Productions, please visit the site.
In case you missed the trailer, please enjoy.