PC, Rift, Vive
“We want to encourage players to interact, which means creating incentives”
E ven in this early stage – objects popping in and out of view, framerate all over the place – Nostos is breathtaking to behold. Blades of grass and lavender flowers dance in the wind; clouds roll overhead like foamy waves over sea-blue sky. It’s a scene straight out of a Studio Ghibli film, or plucked from the artbooks of classic JRPGs. As animals roam the fields stretching out before us, there’s a flurry of movement over to our right – another human. Their limpid anime eyes stare at us. Then, they wave, before motioning for us to join them.
Nostos is an open-world virtual-reality RPG featuring online multiplayer, a place full of lush forests, dusty deserts and frigid mountainsides to explore. This expansive world comes courtesy of a partnership between Chinese company NetEase and Improbable, creators of SpatialOS. The latter’s remarkable cloud-based platform is the key to the instance-based multiplayer, which allows players to hunt, craft, cook and build together. It also lends an edge of reality to the candycoloured apocalypse of Nostos: the world is persistent, and your actions have an effect on its ecosystem. Chop down a tree and it won’t grow back unless planted, meaning you have to be careful about how you alter the environment. Get too axe-happy, and you run the risk of creating more desert. Still, we open our inventory and pull out the tool we need, before swinging it repeatedly into the trunk to fell it.
“SpatialOS empowered us to think differently about the design of our game,” producer Shui Ge says. “Even at that first stage, being able to think about what could be done without having to cut down your design to accommodate the limitations of singleserver architecture is quite exciting – you get to throw in wild ideas!” Whereas the social and multiplayer capabilities of many VR games are limited in terms of complexity, SpatialOS can handle it all, and more besides. “We can experiment with ideas like having a human player building a village by instructing AI-controlled allies, and then working with other humans to defend their villages against threats, and see how that experience plays out,” Ge says.
The beautiful cel-shaded land of Nostos is under constant threat from a destructive storm known as the Coralsea. “We want players to feel connected to other players of Nostos, and to feel encouraged to interact, which means creating incentives for interaction,” Ge says. The Coralsea is a remarkably effective one: with the threat of extinction quite literally thundering overhead, we find ourselves keen to get on with our new acquaintance in hopes of staving off disaster. It’s a shame we can’t communicate beyond vague gestures for now – voice chat or an emote wheel would work wonders. But still, there’s something peaceful about silently agreeing to work together with strangers, gathering materials to place down walls, ceilings and stoves. Two people head up a large hill to forage nuts and berries; we split off to help fight and loot a marauding bug boss, before defending our camp from an incoming AI bandit.
Combat is not Nostos’ best feature: our opponent just sort of stands there as we whale on them with a clumsy-feeling sword until the in-game model eventually falls over, like a cardboard cutout in the wind. What we’re playing is clearly more of a proof of concept than anything, but the concept is strong, a kind of multiplayer interactions-focused
Dragon Quest Builders in VR. And we sense Nostos is more about collaboration than conflict, anyway. “I think the world of game development is getting smaller, but there are definitely still cultural differences in different approaches – not just between China and the West, but between different regions as well. I like these differences,” Ge says. “We can definitely learn from each other without losing the elements that give these games character. Western games often focus on a more individual experience, and produce games with very deep characterisation and plots for a singleplayer experience. I believe that Chinese games have really advanced in making different forms of connected play rewarding.”