Film Noir Meets Point-and-Click Adventure in ‘The Secret of Retropolis’

Oculus Blog
November 4, 2021

Blending classic point-and-click adventure with immersive cinematography and a film noir aesthetic, The Secret of Retropolis has racked up a nearly perfect five-star rating since launching on the Rift Platform and App Lab. And today, we’re excited to share that it’s now available on the Quest Store proper.

Produced by a small and scrappy indie development team, The Secret of Retropolis boasts assets that were developed in VR using Quill by Smoothstep. We sat down with Programmer and Producer Asaf Geva and Writer and Director Eyal Geva to learn more.

Tell us a little about your background. How did you first get involved with VR?

Asaf Geva: I first saw the Oculus DK1 at my university, where I studied computer science and character animation. I was blown away by the potential and soon after ordered the DK2. My first VR project was a wedding proposal to my girlfriend. She said yes, which taught me how powerful this medium really is. Afterwards I went to my brother, Eyal, who was studying film at the time, and put the headset on him.

Eyal Geva: VR was different back then, with less resolution and no hand controllers. It totally blew me away and reminded me of the first film projections when people were scared to see a train approaching a station. I instantly wanted to prototype some ideas for VR storytelling. Plus, it meant I got to work with my older brother, so we had a lot of fun while figuring out our shared style.

What was the inspiration behind The Secret of Retropolis? How (if at all) did the game’s premise change over time?

EG: As kids, we were obsessed with point-and-click adventure games, especially with Grim Fandango. This was our inspiration for the story and game mechanics. During development, we also took a lot of inspiration from Blade Runner, BioShock, and Batman: The Animated Series to create the retro futuristic setting for the story.

How long was the game in development? Any favorite anecdotes you’d like to share?

AG: We created our first prototype for a VR point-and-click adventure in 2018, during a break we took from a location-based VR experience we were making. It was so well received by playtesters that we knew this is what we wanted to further develop next. So after the LBE project ended, in September 2019 we started pre-production on Retropolis, where we built all the aspects of the game’s mechanics and experimented with genre and story. We moved on to actual production just as COVID hit hard, in the beginning of 2020. Production was bumpy. There were hardships like lockdowns—and good hiatuses like the two months of parental leave I took when my son was born.

Tell us a little about your research process. Were there any surprises along the way?

EG: To write dialog lines for the game’s protagonist, a hard-boiled robot detective called Philip Log, I started reading books by Raymond Chandler. I didn’t have many expectations going in—since I had already watched the films, I thought I knew the plot and twists. But the writing was insanely good. Chandler’s books were a gate to the morbid poetics of this genre.

You produced the game’s assets inside VR with Quill by Smoothstep. What was that experience like? Any lessons learned you can share?

AG: I actually coded a Quill-to-Unity asset pipeline that supports the kinds of interactions and animations we use in the game, and while working on this it made me fall in love even more with this brilliant software. It yields a unique look that’s brand-new to VR gaming, and it allowed us to produce the whole game in an indie team of just three, which would have been impossible with any other traditional 3D method. Also, as XR enthusiasts, it’s awesome that we can use the same headset both as the end platform as well as an important part of the asset creation process.

What influenced the character design and overall art direction?

AG: The game’s talented Art Director Daniel Ho single-handedly defined the stunning visual language of the game, as he literally drew and animated this world with his hands in Quill by Smoothstep. The main visual inspirations were Samurai Jack, the Star Wars: Clone Wars animated series, and Blade Runner.

EG: It’s such an honor to work with an art director as talented as Daniel. His designs are monumental and yet filled with world-building details. In the first playtests after final art was added to the game, we saw that playtesters stopped once in a while from interacting with the game. We feared there was a problem, but actually they just wanted to take a few moments to look around at the incredible art.

Who did you work with on the soundtrack and sound design? What was that experience like?

EG: We met the composer of the game, Yuval Levi, at a game jam, and we clicked instantly. When we started to work together, he really wanted to dig into the game’s themes and mood to figure out the composition. To create the feel of future-nostalgia, Yuval combined motifs from jazz and vaporwave. We even recorded a jazz singer for a song we wrote together, which is performed on stage in the second part of the game. It was a really fun experience.

Sound design and mixing were made by the amazing Eyal Shindler, who used his vast experience in many fields of sound, from designing a cinematic soundscape to the mix for the in-game live music show. Sound is one of the elements that VR creators often neglect, and the work with Shindler helped us to use the spatial sound’s full potential.

What’s your favorite part of the game and why?

AG: No spoilers, but I really like the ending. Everything there comes together beautifully—soundtrack, art, story, animation, and puzzle design. I’ve seen this part a million times, but it still makes me cry.

EG: My favorite part is the exact opposite—the intro. We’ve put a lot of effort into the opening sequence, so it’s immersive and captivating from the first second of the game.

You originally launched The Secret of Retropolis on App Lab. What was it like to bring it to the Quest Store proper?

AG: The game launched on App Lab just three months ago. We’re excited and thrilled for the recognition from the official Store and honestly surprised by how fast this happened. We’d like to take this chance to thank the community that rallied behind this game and championed its release on the official store. This wouldn’t have happened without such an awesome, vibrant VR-gaming crowd checking out the cool indie projects that come out on App Lab. If you’re someone who shared the game on social media, posted a review on the game’s App Lab page, or produced a YouTube playthrough video, know that you helped make this happen. Thank you from the bottom of our robotic hearts.

Did you encounter any obstacles along the way? How did you overcome those challenges?

AG: Getting the story right was a long and challenging process. We worked on it iteratively, which means the game was already playable from beginning to end with temp assets from a very early stage. Each iteration was followed by playtests and internal discussions, where we had to cope with the fact that a lot of the story wasn’t where we wanted it to be yet. Working on a project with so many uncertainties about how it will come out in the end is daunting, and it’s only thanks to Eyal’s vision and ability to process feedback and translate it into meaningful story rewrites that we were able to incrementally get every beat of the drama to perfection.

What advice would you give to a developer looking to start building for VR?

EG: Don’t do what everyone else is doing. Be different. VR gamers are in VR because they’re looking for something new—something they haven’t tried before.

What’s next for you? Any exciting updates in the works?

EG: We can’t officially reveal our next step just yet. But I will say that we read the comments for the game. We know how much our fans want a sequel. We’re here to make them happy.

Anything else you’d like to share with our readers?

AG: If you’d like to talk to us directly, ask us more about the process, and hear where the studio is heading, join our mailing list! We’re personally answering every email reply, so it’s a great way to stay in touch and give us feedback for future work.

Check out The Secret of Retropolis on the Quest and Rift Platforms today.