At the heart of upcoming puzzler I Expect You To Die 3: Cog In The Machine is Dr. Roxana Prism, a brilliant scientist and engineer the studio designed as one of VR's most well-defined non-playable characters.
The first mission of Cog In The Machine clues the player into Prism's past and present, much like the studio did for John Juniper in the second game. But the studio always found clever ways to represent Juniper as a shadowy figure in the second game. For example, in the first mission of The Spy And The Liar you hear him just out of view on a theatre's stage as you try to stop a dastardly plot from behind the scenes. You never really get to see him eye-to-eye, so to speak. In contrast, by the end of the first mission of Cog In The Machine you feel like Dr. Prism has looked directly at you.
It's a notable shift, indicative of Schell's attempt to keep true to the fundamental formula of its budding franchise of seated VR escape rooms while also pushing its storytelling to new places.
Taking inspiration from the likes of famed NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson and Doc Ock in Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse, Schell's developers aimed to make Dr. Prism (voiced by Daisy Lightfoot) a fully developed character with more than just a villainous arc to her representation.
"Dr. Prism's story reflects some of the struggles that ... black women may have experienced in the scientific field," said Jared Mason, narrative designer at Schell Games. "We wanted to keep Dr. Prism in the space of being this villain ... but we still wanted to pull some of those real life experiences."
The game's opening sequence, embedded above, showcases Dr. Prism's affinity for robots while the game's marketing materials focus on her backstory:
Roxana Prism, Doctor of Engineering is a former inventor for the Agency and the genius behind the implant in your brain, which allows agents to use telekinesis. She has been an invaluable leader and inspiration for our agents and is currently enjoying a well-earned retirement.
Dr. Prism’s last project with the Agency was a robot meant to replace human agents. Her hope was to limit the number of fatalities in the field, but the project was ultimately deemed unsuccessful. The circumstances surrounding her departure after the robot initiative are classified but all parties involved are considered to have parted on good terms.
The Research and Development team at the Agency would not be what it is today without the technological advancements made by Dr. Prism. Ensuring her safety is a top priority for our team, as is keeping her legacy alive.
Schell devs are purposefully vague on some subjects so as not to spoil their upcoming surprises, but they do hint at twists among the characters you encounter during the game's missions alongside an effort to, as Schell Principal Art Manager Gabe Sabourin put it, show the player "a lot more about the character and their motivations throughout this game."
That includes more clues and information from The Handler – your man-in-the-chair-type assistant voiced by Mason. There's enough clues to trigger via various interactions in Cog In The Machine that developers hope players will still be discovering fresh cues on multiple tries.
"I hope people engage with Dr. Prism at a human level because we really wanted to bring the humanity out of her villain," Mason said. "As soon as we had the character defined people really ran with it in terms of giving feedback about who she is, what she would do in these certain situations. It's a tough balancing act because the player character is a self-insert when it comes to I Expect You To Die. We don't define who Agent Phoenix is beyond the name and so we don't define your character arc, we don't define how you're feeling about certain assumptions ... that character development has to come through the non-playable characters in the game."
Mason says they consulted the studio's Inclusion Advisory Committee and had testers evaluate the character as part of an effort to "make sure that we were doing the character justice and we were being responsible."
"I was very nervous starting off because I wanted to do things right, and they were really supportive and really helped me feel comfortable with writing this character. And then they were there with us every step of the way to make sure that everything was right," Mason said.
"Games like Beat Saber and Walking Dead ... they're about that ... verisimilitude of being in the headset and despite the fact that games like Walking Dead do have really compelling stories, sometimes the story gets set by the wayside," Mason added. "The villains are a hundred percent a part of that narrative structure that sometimes gets set aside in favor of a compelling experience. The advantage that we had is that we already had a base level compelling experience from the first game and the second game, and so we already knew we've got a game that works, right? I think that Dr. Prism is an attempt on our part to say, you know, as a community...let's bring storytelling in VR up to a higher standard."
We'll have more on I Expect You To Die 3: Cog In The Machine next week.