Living the Hero’s Journey — Ewan Johnson discusses the creative drive behind The Way of Kings VR Experience

I groaned audibly as the world of Roshar faded to black before my eyes, returning me to reality. Adrenaline still sang in my veins, my heart beating quickly from the battle I’d just barely survived inside the demo of The Way of Kings, Escape the Shattered Plains VR experience. Handing back the Vive headset which had just transported me into the pages of the Stormlight Archive, I stole glances at two walls worth of concept art before settling into a meeting area inside Arcturus LA office to chat with Ewan Johnson, Co-founder of Arcturus and Chief Creative Officer for the virtual reality adaptation of Brandon Sanderson’s Way Of Kings novels. Having just explored the chasms of the Shattered Plains, mastered the basics of Surgebinding, fought off a chasmfiend, and punched a Parshendi, I was full of questions about the experience, how it was adapted from the books, and the future prospects of experiencing the cosmere of Brandon Sanderson in virtual reality.

How long have you been working on Escape the Shattered Plains?

We’ve been working on this for almost a year. We started concept and thinking about it last February. We spent quite a bit of time trying to think about how to adapt the books, the scope, the scale, and what were the important elements to really pull into this experience? And then, full scale production after that.

How accessible are you trying to make it for people who aren’t familiar with the Stormlight Archive books?

That’s a great question, that was really one of the big, big important elements, is that this was an opportunity for people to step into The Way of Kings for the first time, but it needed to be accessible for people who didn’t understand the lore at all. We actually felt like Syl was the perfect kind of guidance for bringing people into the world, into this experience, and that’s why we chose to make it Kaladin, why we chose to put you into that moment of first discovering the power of Stormlight. Because we felt like between her narration, and her character, and her relationship she has with Kaladin and the world, that it would give us a framework that we could build history in for people who hadn’t read any of the books. But, hopefully in a way that’s fun and interesting in a way for people who knew the lore and were fans of it as well.

I noticed there were a lot of fun things for people familiar with the books, like watching rockbuds close. Have you had any reactions from people unfamiliar with the world about how alien it seems?

I think the important thing is that, because the world feels cohesive they don’t necessarily react to it as an alien world, they just react to it as like, “Oh, this is a rich new world for me to explore.” There is that wonderful sense of wonder when people first realize that, “Oh, I can actually touch something and it reacts.”

The thing that I actually saw you do that is a surprise that a lot of people do, that we actually want them to do, is to actually pet the chull. You find that balance of like, ok, we’ve managed to capture a character that is cute enough and interesting enough that people will actually do the unexpected. We get a few people who will sometimes throw things at it, but if you throw the rockbud at it, it actually eats it, and it’s food, and it’s appreciative, so that’s a nice little extra.

I was a bit surprised by the look of the Parshendi, how difficult were they to adapt, and what were some of the challenges you faced?

They were actually, I think, the most challenging character for us to design, and it was a balance of trying to find something that was unique and special, and pulled from tribal influences, but didn’t feel too, like, trope-y in terms of its interpretation of tribal nature. And finding the balance with the carapace and skin armor was a challenge.

You wanted something really contributed to that feeling of, “Oh, that grew from their skin.” You don’t really know at first, but then you realize it. But, you’re also immersed in VR, it’s gotta read quickly, and it’s gotta have a presence to it, especially if you’re not familiar with the characters. And so, our initial designs were very close to these… like… taken right out of skin, and when we looked at that against the environment, and people’s quick reaction, you couldn’t quite tell what it was. It felt more just, like a human that had been injured or hurt somehow, it didn’t really feel like it was an offense warrior, and so we ended up with pushing the carapace much more into the shell armor plates.

It was really interesting trying to find a balance where it was clear that this was armor, it was connected at the base, but it didn’t just feel like Arthurian armor, and so there’s small, subtle thing we did, like… If you look at the way their knees are covered, their elbows are covered, that often is a covering that comes up from the bottom in traditional armor. And we inverted that and actually had that come out at the top, let that feel more like a spike or a horn, but then also felt like that gave them a nice additional weapon. I don’t know if you experience it, but sometimes when you fight them, they’ll actually take the elbow and use as a stabbing weapon. So that was a nice, additional balance, where we could turn the armor, that’s defensive, and then make it offensive as well.

So, smaller way of saying saying that: a challenge to come up with armor that felt natural and original, but didn’t feel like Arthurian, just pulled from traditional armor, but then a great opportunity to turn what is just a defensive mechanism into also a weapon.

Will the whole experience be from Kaladin’s point of view?

The whole experience, at this level, is from Kaladin’s point of view. Certainly, there’s a large world to explore and to grow beyond this, but this is supposed to be that contained narrative, interactive story, where you get the gist of it, you get the hero’s journey, you get the experience.

How far into the books do you plan to go in the future?

So what you experienced is what we’re releasing. You get that lash of like, learning Stormlight, learning about the history, learning the Shattered Plains, it will be another episode where we develop it further.


So… in a future episode we’ll actually get to fly?

You want to, don’t you?

I do, I was trying to figure out how! Working the hands, trying to lash myself upwards…

We actually… when we first started, lashing was clearly one of those things we clearly wanted to capture. We did some prototypes early on where we said, “Okay, what if we do the whole experience around lashing? And gravity altering… the assassination moment, where the Assassin going through the hallway.” And what we found early on with the prototypes, is that… lashing, changing gravity, while immensely fun, is also the thing that needs to be a very controlled amount, because otherwise you do experience motion sickness. And, as you know from VR, it’s a cumulative thing, and so you can push people past where they really should be, and we stayed away from that.

I felt like the experience had something of a dual nature, both exploration and fighting, with a balance between the two. Was that a deliberate decision?

It was. I mean, from our focus, we believe in interactive narratives, and we really believe that there’s this important through line where you can have story and you can experience it as a traditional story structure, but it can be interaction, there can be exploration. And so, from the very beginning, that was our writing style and our intent. “Ok let’s chart our through line, chart what we want people to experience and to feel as they go through the experience. Let’s think about how we decompose that into elements that can expand and contract, and allow exploration. Let’s make sure there’s enough fighting, enough battle, that that actually feels like you’ve built to a climactic moment, and then enough pause to really explore. So I’m glad you felt like we had achieved that.

Is there anything important I’ve failed to ask that you’d like to talk about?

Really, for us, the important moment was… there is so much of the hero’s journey in Kaladin, and in the first book and even in the second book, that was the spirit we wanted people to feel, to capture. That essence of… Okay, I’ve had something horrible happen to me, but I’ve learned from it, and I’ve grown, and, ultimately, even though I’m fighting the Parshendi, I do learn a little bit about them.

We wanted the world to both be exploratory and linear, so people can go through the experience pretty quickly if they want to, but ideally, people are spending twenty, thirty minutes in it and really exploring and discovering. One thing you didn’t actually discover was that– you tried to pick up the vinebud, which we don’t currently have pick up-able–we’re looking at that. But right next to it was a frillbloom and rockbud, which, when you’re on the wall, if you had picked up and let go, would have reacted to gravity normally. That’s a fun thing, but you discovered most of the world.

Looking far into the future, are you thinking about creating VR experiences for other Sanderson titles?

We have looked at a lot of the books, Mistborn is certainly one that has been really high on the radar as a potential. We don’t have anything yet that we can really talk about. We’re just looking at the world, and where can we build out from here. There’s a lot.

Amazing. Any closing thoughts?

I guess the one thing we’d like to talk about is that, like we said, it is an interactive narrative experience. We’ve tried to make it something that could be appealing to both to people who just want to watch something and people that are gamers, but it’s not a full game. It is a small sliver of the world. We’ve really tried to do our best to push the boundaries of the graphics also, and get something that could feel rich and rewarding in the world.

The first chapter of The Way of Kings, Escape the Shattered Plains will be coming to Steam and Viveport on March 2nd. The experience lasts 20 to 30 minutes, depending on your playstyle, and costs $10.99. You can learn more by visiting the Steam Store, or by checking out our hands-on demo of the experience.

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