Loren Colcol — Producer at Playstation based in San Diego, CA

Unity | Sa Mata ni Nelya VR

Virtual Reality Game for Oculus Rift+Touch


Sa Mata ni Nelya, (Tagalog for “Through the eyes of Nelya”) is a Virtual Reality Game for the Oculus Rift+Touch. This single player experience puts players in the eyes of Nelya, a thirteen year old girl living through the Japanese occupation of the Philippines during World War II. Featuring heavy dialogue, narrative decisions, stealth and object interaction, this narrative-driven experience follows Nelya’s journey from surviving on her own, to her encounters with the Filipino Resistance and the Japanese military. Set in the town of Kabatan, against a harsh, yet beautiful backdrop of the war-torn rice terraces of Luzon, Sa Mata ni Nelya is an experience centered around culture, history, and representation.

ForCMPM 17X: Game Design Studio RoleDevelopment/Creative Director • Lead Designer
Date09/2016-06/2017 EngineUnity 3D
Team Size11 DevelopmentUnity 3D • Blender • Photoshop • Twine • Audacity • World Machine • ZBrush •
ResourcesVRTK (Unity Package) Project ManagementGoogle Suite • Microsoft Office • Slack • Trello • Unity Collab

In this trailer we overhear a conversation between our two main characters, Nelya and Malaya, played over a sequence of in-game shots of the environment and levels.

The journey in creating Sa Mata ni Nelya, was one filled with passion, excitement, and several achievements, but also a mountain of obstacles, long nights, and criticisms. From the beginning we knew we weren’t just creating a game, we were creating a novel experience in digital media and VR.

Sa Mata ni Nelya is set in the fictional village of Kabatan, based off of actual villages in the province of Luzon, Northern Philippines 1940's.

All the environment assets in the game were based off foliage accurate to the Northern Philippines. It was our mission to create a world authentic to the time period and geography.

Nelya’s Hut. Located on the remains of an abandoned Spanish Estate, Nelya lives here in solace. She makes a living off of fishing and scavenging, but as the war goes on, resources become far more scarce.

A shrine Nelya has dedicated to her parents.

The inspiration for this game came from my grandparents. The stories of their childhood compelled me to create a game centered on the experiences of civilians in war, specifically that of the Filipino people during the Japanese Occupation of the Philippines. It was important to create an experience centered on heritage, history, and morality. Coupling that central theme with the immersive potential of VR, I began the process of pitching the idea for Sa Mata ni Nelya.

To the left, my grandparents. To the right, Capt. Isao Yamazoe, a Japanese commander considered a national hero in the Philippines for his acts of kindness and respect toward the Filipinos. His story inspired the narrative for the game.

Our main character Nelya. Influences to her character include Ellie from “The Last of Us” and Chihiro from “Spirited Away.” Telling the story of a young girl was important in supporting female representation in games, and the stories of children in war.

As part of the pitching process I put together a Game Design Document (GDD) and a quick Digital Prototype. Within the GDD, I outlined aspects that included: background and story, the core gameplay loop as seen below, characters, mechanics, controls, influences, audience, and technical details. After three rounds of pitching, Sa Mata ni Nelya was greenlit as part of my Computer Science: Game Design, Senior Capstone at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

The Core Gameplay Loop is documented in our Game Design Document. The core mechanics of object/npc interaction, dialogue choice, and movement/exploration drive the gameplay and are supported through a dense narrative and a vast open world. At its core, this is a survival game, and the objective is to survive to the end through careful choices.

With only five months to complete this game, I saw a mountain of design, technical, and artistic challenges before me. Before tackling any of them, I had to form a team. Three factors were most important to me in the team formation process: collaboration, passion, and creativity. Technical skills aside, I wanted a team that enjoyed working together while also feeling personal contribution and fulfillment from this project. With 2 designers, 2 writers, 2 programmers. and 6 artists, we formed Team Nelya.

Though a smaller team with an extremely ambitious project, I was confident and optimistic in our abilities to create a profound VR experience. The coming months would ultimately push us to our limits.

As Project Lead, I found that leading a team was more than just delegating tasks and managing schedules. It was channeling the talents and passions of my team members into a collaborative environment where we were constantly challenged. As much as possible I wanted everyone on the team to feel like a game designer. I believed that bringing together unique perspectives and backgrounds to the forefront of development would allow us to think creatively and development collaboratively.

Meetings were the backbone for collaboration. It was my goal to ensure everyone could give feedback and input during meetings. In doing so I found value in sharing knowledge to come up with creative solutions.

Developing a project in Virtual Reality was a learning experience from start to finish. For one, we were all developing in VR for the first time. Everything we thought we knew about designing games changed, and our understanding of gameplay and narrative broadened from developing a virtual reality experience. There was a steep learning curve at the start of development as we spent a six weeks getting our bearings in VR. The five most important challenges we faced were:

  1. User Experience & User Interface in regards to VR.
  2. “Presence” and understanding player immersion.
  3. VR gameplay with respect to object interaction.
  4. Optimization with respect to frame-rate and motion-sickness.
  5. Story-telling through VR.

Developing for the Oculus Rift+Touch gave our team first-hand experience to develop for hardware at the forefront of technology. But it came with plenty of play-testing sessions, several late nights debugging, and a ton of meetings to come up with solutions and iterations to design problems. Keeping to a development deadline of only five months, it was my job as Project Lead to be cautiously optimistic, being thoughtful with each Release Plan, and overseeing our tight schedule to ensure progress was being made.

Developing for VR in Unity had its ups and downs. There were a number of great built-in features and tools, but unfortunately a plethora of bugs and issues. We spent several hours a week play-testing for these bugs and glitches, addressing them in SCRUM meetings and resolving them with each iteration.

In this early prototype, we are using our player character for the first time in the game world. Our height here is too tall and speed to quick so we made proper adjustments to build the presence of being a young child, which was crucial to immersion and gameplay.

Interactive objects were an alluring feature to VR and the Oculus Touch. We wanted players to treat the game world like a sandbox for object interaction, allowing them to grab fruits, sticks, buckets, books, and other props that would trigger in-game events. In this alpha release, you can see the player unable to reach the banana since Nelya is a child. Using the stick the banana falls and the player discovers it is covered in flies.

Level design proved especially fun yet challenging. Factors to level design included both narrative design, VR gameplay, and building all models and assets from scratch. In VR, player comfort suggested the need for wider and open spaces. As such, we had to ensure that we scaled the level appropriately. With small spaces, the player would run into tracking issues, so we had to ensure our level was comfortably spaced, while also not sacrificing the integrity of a small fishing village and dense foliage. As for narrative design, I worked in level design to ensure that we were building a world that complemented the story. Certain points required altering a road or path, adjusting the placement of certain buildings, the type of building, as well as foliage placement. In doing so, we wanted to create a visually guiding experience that players felt guided through. An example would be placing a large church tower at the center of the village. Visually, this would draws players toward it as they navigated from the outskirts of the town toward the town center.

In the paint-over below, you can see the general lay of the land. We featured a sloping world along the rice terraces of a Philippine valley. The player starts the game near the top of the terrace, and traverse toward the bottom of the valley toward the town below.

Paint-overs were an essential process in the level design pipe-line. The process involves taking an in-game screenshot of a rough level block-out using simple shapes. From there, we have an artist paint-over the screenshot, suggesting ideas for object placement, foliage, and geography adjustments. In this paint-over, we were able to determine how far the terraces would crawl down the valley, where the town would lie, and the appropriate foliage.

We went through several iterations of the world and level design. In this top-down of our final iteration, we see blue dotted lines of the player path and areas marked X designating key narrative moments. We wanted to ensure that players were given space to explore in-between each checkpoint and narrative moment, so there was a continual design iteration that required collaboration with story and level designers to build a level that felt organic with those narrative moments.

This is a top-down of the first level, the Hut. The left half is the Hut without lighting, and the right is in-game lighting. This area is meant to act as a intro level, with areas to interact with objects and explore. In writing the story, I had to ensure players felt a progression in the game. The idea was to start the player off in small areas at first, in this case, Nelya’s isolated Hut on the outskirts of town. As the game progresses, the player enters the outskirts of town, and then the town center. Through this progression, NPCs start to increase in population, suggesting more interaction and decision making by the player as traversing the levels becomes more difficult.

Art was broken down into 4 sub-groups: concept art, character art, environment art, and object/prop art. As Art Director, I wanted to ensure the artists on the team were able to flex their strengths but if desired, build on their weaknesses. Determining an art aesthetic would also prove difficult, but the contributions and passion from the art team allowed us to create visuals I’m personally proud of, given our time constraint of five months.

Created by our artist Kim, this concept art of Nelya features a very warm and vibrant color pallet.

Working with a team of artists challenged me to communicate to the best of my ability, in order to get what I was envisioning in my head onto paper through concept art. Here are some ideas we explored for the character design of Nelya, with changes to hair style and clothing.

This is concept art for our Fruit Basket Lady, an older female character who is a friend to Nelya. In doing character design, I conducted extensive research into accurate clothing of the era and culture, citing online sources, as well as the aid of my grandparents to ensure authenticity.

This Banner Artwork features Nelya, overlooking the Philippine valley and the sloping terraces. We composed a piece that illustrated the environment and the journey of Nelya, as she gazes toward the town below. It plays on the title of the game, which translates to “In Nelya’s eyes.”

Getting the right look and feel in the game was essential to the experience. The render above was after 2 months of development. The render below was at the end of 4 months. Tweaking the DOF, color, tone, lighting, and ambient fog were part of the process I undertook to get the right feel and aesthetic of the Northern Philippines.

As Creative Director, developing the story and overall narrative of the game was an inspiring yet daunting responsibility. With only five months, we were limited in scope and overall content creation.We began with story meetings to determine the overall arc, plot, and characters. From there we used Twine to build out branching narratives through player dialogue choices. Lastly, we would polish the script, record lines with voice actors, and then import audio files into Unity to be sequenced and triggered accordingly. As a first time story writer, there were definitely moments of trial, error, and criticism. In the end, it was an eye-opening learning experience that taught me the importance of research, design, and iteration.

A game with over 15 different NPCs from civilians to soldiers, props ranging from a rifle to a banana, and over 60 assets all made from scratch proved to be a huge undertaking.

Stealth is key. But not all soldiers are “bad guys”. Some interactions with various NPCs reveal that there is good and bad on both sides of the conflict.

For all of us, voice actors and designers, this was our first time using a sound studio to record audio. Learning to direct voice actors in regards to tone, timing, and execution was both fun and challenging.

Artwork created by Alexandra Winters for our website and social media.

Taking the team out to try Filipino cuisine was one of the ways I wanted to welcome and introduce them to Filipino culture.

Celebrating with ice-cream cake on the day of Final Release.

Presenting Sa Mata ni Nelya at the Sammy Awards 2017.

From managing weekly SCRUMs to drafting sprint documents. From meeting strict deadlines to leading a team built around passion and collaboration, being the Project Lead for Sa Mata ni Nelya has been one of the greatest experiences of my life. I poured my heart and soul into this project and it’s tested my resolve as a leader and developer.

But from the accomplishments came the failures. Looking back there were definitely some hurdles we couldn’t overcome; “lack in polish” and an “unrefined design”, “quality of voice acting” and “subpar graphics.” We took a risk and with only five months, we experimented with the “new” in VR and story-telling and I believe our team has accomplished a great feat as game developers––we tapped into the potential of VR and computer games as a platform for digital humanities. With the enormous love, support, and hard work from my team, I couldn’t be more thankful for the opportunity to make my dream of creating this game, come true.