A couple Thursdays ago, Sarah Northway was sitting in her living room with a flying green cat and a man wearing VR gear. This is totally normal. She routinely livestreams her recently released VR game Fantastic Contraption with a green screen, resulting in a strange hybrid of game and apartment.
The man was assembling a lumbering machine out of various building blocks, and the cat was holding his tools for him. As he busily slapped wheels onto some metal rods, the man seemed to be doing the lion’s share of the work. But his anime-eyed feline friend is deceptive in its usefulness—turns out it’s crucial to how players navigate space in virtual reality.
“Your toolbox is a cat that you can move around from place to place. You can call it over. ‘Here kitty, kitty!’” explained Northway, who comprises half of the husband and wife studio Northway Games.
Northway’s first task when she started doing some of the programming on Fantastic Contraption was to train the cat. This was important because Fantastic Contraption is a game about building machines. You can’t do that without the right tools, and the cat has them. However, cat training in VR is more complicated than putting down a litter box and neutering at an early age.
In the game’s code, the cat is known as “wheelbarrow” because, at one point, the cat was a small cart with a large front wheel. In the very beginning, the player had a simple bucket that regenerated tools for them, but a bucket was no good: it allowed the player to be stationary. The builders tended to stand beside the bucket and view their contraption from a single side, when they should have been circling around their project, considering it from all angles.
“We needed to have large gestures. We needed to have people walking around. Mostly because that’s what’s new about this VR stuff. That’s what exciting with the Vive,” said Northway.
To put it another way, the tools needed to go wherever the player went. So the bucket became a wheelbarrow. But why push a wheelbarrow if the wheelbarrow can be programmed to follow you? Hence the wheelbarrow became motorized. Cats are much cuter than wheelbarrows, though. So, it wasn’t long until “wheelbarrow” the cat was born, complete with the gloss of a vinyl toy and a pin-cushion head.
“You feel like you are dancing when you paint.”
While a virtual kitty that followed the player around seemed both handy and adorable, the feline companion proved to be far from perfect. “People found it super annoying. I mean, very cat-like, right? You turn around and you are tripping over the cat again. You go to reach for a tool and suddenly the cat is over there licking itself. You’re like, ‘damn it, cat!’” Northway said.
While the annoyance doesn’t bode well for overeager videogame companions looking to make the jump to VR—Navi, Ellie, and Dogmeat, take note!—mellower sidekicks fair just fine. Eventually, the team scaled back the level of servitude and, in the current version of the game, “wheelbarrow” exists as a somewhat lobotomized version of her former self, rarely displaying emotion or scurrying from side-to-side.
As a result of Northway’s diligence with the not-so-artificially-intelligent cat, players have a full range of motion to build their fantastic machines with. “The reason we decided to do the game is that we wanted to have these big gestures. It was inspired by [Google’s VR painting app] Tilt Brush. You feel like you are dancing when you paint. You want to reach up because things are really high,’” Northway said, recalling the first time she and her husband Colin moved around in virtual reality using their own legs.
Fantastic Contraption is set in a highly pleasant, fairly kawaii, and cartoonish dreamscape. The goal is to build some semblance of an autonomous mechanism that can go lurching into the distance, crawling over piles of building blocks and other debris to reach the designated zone safely. The creations resemble robotic centipedes, Seussian cages, conga lines of push lawnmowers turning end over end, and to see a machine in the process of being built is kind of amazing.
At the Northway’s residence in Vancouver, a play session rarely fails to draw a crowd. Northway said she was surprised by how their single-player game facilitates a communal experience, watching as the player monkeys around. She likens parties to live performances, with players pulling rods over their shoulders and pieces out of their ears, but concedes that the excitement could also be due to the relative newness of moving inside a VR room. “I’m sure that when people first saw Pong (1972), there would be a crowd of people watching and cheering: don’t you know about spin?” she said.
The irony of this newfound freedom of movement is that, for the time being, the bulkiness of VR development equipment has grounded the Northways in Vancouver. The couple is known for their itinerant lifestyle and have been traveling the world developing games ever since they found success with the original Fantastic Contraption, the Flash game version, in 2008.
“I’d like go back to Mexico. I’d really like to do that some more. But going back to the bulky headsets: it’s a lot of equipment. It’s heavy. The big ass tower that you need to run it. . . it’s hard to carry all over the world. I hear pretty soon there will be laptops that run a Vive. Maybe next year I’ll be able to stick it in my backpack,” Northway said. Otherwise, it would be too hard to leave the flying green cat behind.