The recently released Transpose takes you into a mesmerizing and surreal world where you’ll need to manipulate time and gravity to overcome various obstacles. We spoke to Josh Manricks at developer Secret Location to find out what inspired this stunning out-of-body experience.
Interview by Nathan Ortega, Viveport
For those unfamiliar, tell us a bit about yourself and Secret Location.
Josh: I am the Senior Technical Director of Content and project lead on our game Transpose. When I started at the company 6 years ago it was 15 people, today it is over 80, it’s crazy how much we have grown over the years.
We run two production teams internally that consist of a small group of full time staff, maybe like five people on each team. It lets us stay lean and prototype things quickly when we have ideas. Once we go into production though those team can grow to around 15 people in the office plus any external partners we have helping us.
Tell us about the previous projects Secret Location has developed and how it influenced the direction of Transpose.
Secret Location used to be a work for hire studio doing web and mobile game extensions for movies and TV shows. In 2015 we did our first VR project for a show on FOX called Sleepy Hollow. It was a 5 minute VR experience to help promote the second season of the show and premiered at Comic Con that year. It went on to win the first Emmy for a VR project and from there we moved more into the VR space.
After that we made an experimental hybrid TV / VR show called Halcyon and went on to form an internal innovation lab lead by our Creative Director at the time, Pietro Gagliano, a producer, an artist and myself. We were just a small team jamming on week long prototypes for a couple of months to see what felt good in VR. The first full production to come out of that lab was Blasters of the Universe.
Blasters took us a year and half to finish and the landscape of VR drastically changed over that time. By the time we were done, the market was flooded with shooters. We knew that we had to be more innovative if we wanted to stand out in the market. The two projects we put into production after that were The Great C, a 35 minute short film in VR (available on Viveport) and Transpose.
What were the key inspirations to Transpose, from the art direction, to the music, to the mind bending puzzles?
The earliest idea for Transpose came when I was playing a mobile game call Does Not Commute. You drive cars across a screen, rewind time then drive another car across the same screen with the original one playing out at the same time. I thought it would be really interesting to see that mechanic in VR, but with a full body representation of yourself. I talked it over with our game designer Mike Sandercock the next day and a few weeks later we had a working prototype.
In terms of the art, Transpose was highly inspired by ancient geometry and how organic matter forms “mechanical” looking systems and complex shapes. There is heavy use of geometric symbols repeating themselves. Geometric construction, like master building diagrams. Shape framing and how patterns are formed. Recurring art motifs in ancient civilizations. The art of impossible architecture, a sci-fi take on Escher’s grand illustrations and concepts.
With the music we wanted something that was relaxing for the player, so they felt like they could take their time with the puzzles, be contemplative and plan out their moves. The music evolves in each level the closer you get to solving the puzzle, it’s pretty subtle but it really adds to the overall feeling of achievement. We worked a local composed Robby Duguay, who took inspiration from such video game composers as Masashi Hamauzu (Final Fantasy), Hirokazu Tanaka (Metroid) and Whitaker Trebella (Piloteer).
Tell us a bit about the challenge of designing intuitive puzzles in an immersive VR space. Did developing Transpose provide unique development challenges not present in your previous works?
Our previous works had very little locomotion in them, with the player standing in one spot with the environment changing around them for the most part. Immediately we had to start trying to understand how to direct people’s attention when they can freely move around the environment. To that point I’d say one of the biggest challenges was getting the tutorial right.
We iterated over the first three levels so many times. Every two weeks we did user testing sessions with new players to see if they could understand the time rewinding mechanic. We also reworked the keep / discard interface numerous times.
Transpose has a pretty unique gameplay hook with Echoes, where players can interact with ‘ghost’ versions of themselves from previously recorded actions in order to solve heady challenges. Was this the idea at the core of the game from the start, or did it naturally evolve during development?
It was at the core of the game from day one. From our very first prototype through to production the ability to rewind time and interact with your past selves was central to the game. The world rotation and everything else came after that as we started to develop the idea further.
What are the key things you want players to take away from their time with Transpose?
We want people to take their time and not feel rushed with the puzzles. The music is chill and there are no time limits, just take it all in. I think it can be very meditative.
Talk to us a bit about your thoughts regarding the future of VR, especially as it pertains to the types of projects your team is interested in developing.
I think the industry still has a long way to go to mass adoption. The biggest struggle I see right now is getting people into a headset and having a good experience. Awareness is definitely spreading further outside of the immediate industry. I hear people talking about it on my morning commute, but a lot of them still haven’t tried it for themselves. The other side to this, as I see it, is being able to show a value in the technology outside of entertainment for the average user. If it can used to better their lives in a way that resonates with people then we will really be on to something!
What’s next for Secret Location?
I would love to do Transpose 2, we learned so much during development and left so much on the cutting room floor that I think it would be awesome to revisit that world. If we did, I think I would like to put more emphasis on exploring the story of the world and its inhabitants, but we will have to see. Currently the team is working on a free roam experience called Occam’s Razor, where you and your friends must race against the clock to solve a dark strange mystery.
Sounds exciting! We can’t wait to see more of what you and the team have cooking. Thanks for speaking to us!