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Into The Black: A Stunning Look At The Infamous 1988 Yellowstone Wildfire

Into The Black: A Stunning Look At The Infamous 1988 Yellowstone Wildfire

A couple of film students are making one of the more visually striking and thought-provoking VR games out there. The UK’s National Film And Television School (NFTS) is taking a shot at this new technology by letting a couple of Masters students tell the tragic story of Yellowstone National Park’s 1988 disastrous wildfires like never before with Into the Black.

Into The Black is a third-person adventure set in Yellowstone that has players assume the role of a spirit guide that aids a red fox and a grizzly bear as the unlikely pair try to work together and escape this disastrous event. On top of trying to simply survive, the two animals also have to deal with humans that are, sadly, taking advantage of the situation. By letting you witness this wildfire through the eyes of two innocent animals directly affected by it, Into the Black tells a poignant story in VR about the importance of taking care of your environment.

The Dangers of Wildfires

Naomi Kotler, a designer and developer working on Into the Black, felt inspired to make a game about Yellowstone Park due to her fascination with one of the United States’ biggest national preserves.

“Into the Black stemmed from a couple of inspirations,” Kotler said. “My love of animals and nature was one, and how we need to be a part of the protection of the places that try and conserve both. Influences for the characters were a couple of drawings I had done the summer before that were of a bear and a fox and also the general unlikely pairing of two natural predators in the wild. And finally I have always had a fascination with Yellowstone.”

Kotler and the rest of the students working on this project want to nail the educational aspect of Into the Black, hoping players will gain valuable knowledge about the 1988 wildfire and the lessons both learned and not learned from that event. The main goal for the team was to not only make a gorgeous and enjoyable VR game to play, but also one with a story that impacts players and stays with them long after the credits roll, hopefully changing their relationship with nature for the better.

“There’s a strong educational aspect to Into the Black,” Kotler said. “We hope that it’ll encourage players to think about the importance of nature and the dangers of illegal hunting, how wildfires in Yellowstone and in other areas affect the wildlife and particularly what we may potentially lose in the near future if fracking is allowed on national reserves and global warming continues to affect the planet. We hope that through VR the player can form a close bond with the characters.”


Choosing to Tackle VR

Into the Black has you swap between the two characters — a red fox and a bear — and explore Yellowstone before and during the chaotic wildfires. You have to make tough decisions and make both animals work in harmony to survive. For many players, Into the Black can remind them of developer Starbreeze Studios’ fantastic and emotional adventure game Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. It also has you control two different characters and the game tells a impactful and poignant story about family and death.

Kotler and the rest of the NFTS team could’ve easily made Into the Black a regular console title, similar to Brothers, without having to learn the ins-and-outs of VR.  It’s unfamiliar territory and a huge risk for the team to tackle such heavy subject matter in a successful way while also trying to figure out how to make the experience work on a VR headset. Especially considering that, since Into the Black is a third-person adventure, it might’ve been just as impactful just playing it on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One without having a headset strapped to your face.

But, Kotler and the rest of the development team felt that they needed to take that risk with VR, and push the boundaries with what they can do for several reasons.

“We wanted to make Into the Black as a VR game because the immersive nature of the story and art style lends itself better to VR,” Kotler said. “When people think of Virtual Reality they immediately think of first person games, and we wanted to explore what could be done with a highly stylized third person experience. As students we were extremely lucky that the NFTS has great links to the industry and they were able to offer us the chance to develop for the Oculus [Rift]. The games department encourages students to really push the boundaries and take risks. Making mistakes is actually encouraged as it allows you to learn far more when developing games and can often lead you to finding great ideas and inspiration.

“In particular, the defining aspect of VR is how it creates empathy within the player, and we wanted to use that to put them right at the heart of animals in Yellowstone park would have felt and experienced during the wildfires.”


Making Yellowstone Come to Life

Once it was decided that VR was the only way to go, it was time to overcome some well known challenges associated with this new tech. For example, the development team had to design the levels around the limitations of a third-person VR camera.

“This means avoiding uncontrolled turns, otherwise you risk making the player disorientated and potentially causing motion sickness,” Kotler said. “All the levels were designed in a straight line, with the terrain design creating the illusion that you’re actually making some turns. The design was inspired by Edge of Nowhere. After testing out camera movements and rotations, we decided that the best option was to lock the camera to strafe only.”

A particular issue Kotler and her team discovered was just how unfamiliar game development was, and still is, for many of the students working on Into the Black. NFTS is a film school where students mostly only work on TV and Movie projects, and so it was a herculean for these student to learn how games are designed and developed.

Kotler’s “sound designer had to learn Unity and Fmod to be able to implement the sound as he uses Pro Tools on a day to day basis. I think I even taught him a small bit of programming as well. My 3D artists also had to understand how modelling for games is different than it is for creating CGI for film.”

The development team also decided to veer away from the realistic art style found in most VR games, and instead create a world that looks like it’s made out of paper and have the characters feel like they came from a children’s book.


“Paper has a fragility to it that certainly reflected the danger our characters were in due to the wildfires and hunters,” Kotler said. “Due to time constraints the art style was pulled back a little for the demo to just appear stylized and somewhat low poly until we could perfect the paper texture look. We wanted the colors to be striking in the headset but also not too cartoony so we kept to a semi-realistic color palette, using Firewatch, The Long Dark, and other stylized games and artwork as an influence.”

Players will be able to experience Into the Black’s stunning paper-like aesthetic sometime in 2017.

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