Step Inside a Quirky Interactive Radio Drama with ‘AREA MAN LIVES’

Oculus Blog
May 12, 2022

Imagine yourself in a DJ booth, the radio station’s skeptical producer and a vaguely British woman’s voice in your head to guide you. So begins AREA MAN LIVES, a new narrative-driven VR game where you can have unscripted conversations with the characters in an unfolding radio drama. Numinous Games, the award-winning creators of That Dragon, Cancer, have teamed up with Cyan Ventures and CityLights to bring the game to life, and it can be yours for $19.99 USD on the Meta Quest and Rift Platforms, as well as Steam and HTC Viveport.

Thanks to the game’s innovative use of speech detection, you’ll take on an important supporting role as the drama unfolds outside the radio station—performing alongside an all-star cast featuring actors Max Greenfield (New Girl, The Neighborhood) and Joel McHale (The Soup, Community), as well as Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ronan Farrow.

AREA MAN LIVES mixes comics aesthetics with an inside-out radio drama format, letting you imagine the madcap details of the world beyond your radio station. It also challenges you to save the area man from himself, with 98 possible ways for him to meet his demise.

We sat down with Numinous Games Writer & Game Designer Amy Noel Green to learn more.

What was the inspiration behind AREA MAN LIVES?

Amy Noel Green: We wanted to explore those moments of connection that help a person feel seen. We were especially interested in those little coincidences that happen to everyone, moments that carry enormous value for one person while not meaning much to anyone else around them. And we always wanted to create a VR game where your presence in the space mattered more than the particular space you were inhabiting.

Did the game’s premise change at all during development?

ANG: The premise has changed enormously over time. When we first pitched this game, it was a space game. We were all really excited about it, but by the time we started developing, we found ourselves firmly planted in a local radio station on the Oregon coast.

How long was AREA MAN LIVES in development? Any favorite anecdotes you’d like to share?

ANG: If you include our time working on Untethered, the episodic VR series that eventually became AREA MAN LIVES, we began working on it almost six years ago. But there have been a couple of hiatuses in those years. We have so many favorite anecdotes because once we started making a game about those strange coincidences in life that make you feel seen, they started happening to us all the time. I wrote a scene about a giant piñata, and then someone with no knowledge of the game sent me a piñata through the mail, not in a box—they just mailed the piñata itself with postage attached to it. And, hey, I guess when you think about it, a piñata is just an oddly-shaped envelope. We wrote a scene about riding in a tow truck, and the next week one of our team members’ cars broke down, and they found themselves being towed by a friend using a tow rope. The moments in the game kept showing up in our lives. It was weird but really amazing. It made us feel like we were in exactly the right moment in our lives, making the game we were supposed to be making.

What motivated your decision to incorporate voice interaction?

ANG: We love new challenges. We always want to do something innovative and find a way to try something that other people aren’t experimenting with. Letting the player speak in the game felt like the best way to honor their presence in the game space. We want the player to feel like they belong in this world, and giving them a voice felt like such a natural way to empower them.

Did you encounter any technical challenges along the way? If so, how did you overcome those obstacles?

ANG: Voice recognition (understanding what words the player uses) and natural language processing (understanding what the player means when they say something) has been a rapidly expanding field over the last six years.

When we started, there was no direct way to detect speech in real time using Unity (the game development framework we use), and very few games attempt to detect speech in the first place. So over the past six years, we’ve rebuilt our speech detection plugin multiple times—each time using a new experimental code library or new technique. Thankfully we found great accuracy in Google Cloud Speech for voice recognition and (a Meta company) for natural language processing. We’re hoping to integrate Meta’s new Presence Platform into future versions of the game to unlock even more voice and interaction potential.

You’ve got quite the lineup of vocal talent. What was it like working with Max Greenfield, Joel McHale, and Ronan Farrow?

ANG: It felt like one of those bucket list moments. I sat in the recording studio, and I just kept thinking, “This is Max Greenfield, and he’s performing words that I wrote, and I’m directing him.” And I had that same thought with each of them. I had written these funny scenes that had been making our team laugh for years, and then these powerhouse talents would perform in those scenes, and the words came to life in an entirely new way. It went from funny to over-the-top hilarious. And none of them had an ego—they showed up ready to work, and they were super engaged. I kept thinking, “Who lets a girl from Loveland, Colorado direct celebrities? Don’t they know I wrote most of this in bed?”—desks are so uncomfortable—but they never acted like we didn’t belong in the room with them. We’re still in awe of the experience, and we think the players are going to be totally absorbed in the game because of the incredible cast that said “yes” to this project.

At the risk of spoilers, what’s up with the raccoons?

ANG: That’s what the player will be asking themselves throughout the experience. Early on, a listener slips through the screener on the call-in-show and rants about the raccoons. Environmentalists are up in arms because “raccoon beach” used to be overrun with raccoons, and now that it’s been purchased by a mega-conglomerate, the beach is pristine—not a raccoon in sight. Sure, it makes s’more roasting a little easier, but what happened to the raccoons? The entire game isn’t about raccoons, but their plight is definitely a storyline throughout the experience.

AREA MAN LIVES seems like quite a departure from That Cancer, Dragon for which your studio is known. Is there any thematic overlap between the two?

ANG: For us, there is. Those coincidences that inspired AREA MAN LIVES began for us as we were making That Dragon, Cancer. After our son died, there were times when we questioned whether or not we should continue making That Dragon, Cancer. We continued out of our love for Joel, but it was hard not to doubt ourselves. And then, three different people brought up scenes from our game to us without knowing they were doing it. Our sister-in-law called us up and told us she woke up from a dream crying, and when she tried to recall what had made her cry in her sleep, she remembered that in her dream, she had looked out the window and a wall of clouds parted, and she saw a carousel up in the clouds and she knew Joel was on it. We immediately thought of the space carousel we had designed in That Dragon, Cancer,but she had never seen the game in any form. Those odd coincidences felt like orchestrated moments to show us that we mattered and we were on the right track. So AREA MAN LIVES is a game about exploring those moments. It’s also a game about choosing relationship even when it’s hard, and that’s another theme that carries over.

What was it like working with Cyan Ventures and CityLights?

ANG: Cyan Ventures is all about giving creators the support to realize their vision. At the time they signed on to publish AREA MAN LIVES, they were one of the few shops that were all-in on the vision of VR and its potential, and we wanted to be part of it.

CityLights joined the project last year, and their team was instrumental in providing the resources and guidance necessary to deliver the amazing voice actors we were able to cast.

In the end, we could not have asked for better partners in making sure AREA MAN LIVES lived up to its potential.

What’s the best reaction you’ve seen while demoing the game?

ANG: Oh man, we had a demo of AREA MAN LIVES at PAX, and it was so much fun to watch the players there try out the game. At first, they’d be a little reserved, because with a line of people waiting to try the game right after you, it’s like improv in front of an audience while you’re blindfolded. But then they’d get super into it, and there was this one girl we’ll never forget. She was hilarious. Everything she said back to the Producer was so funny, and then when the Area Man called up, she started shouting and arguing with him. It was amazing, like watching a stage show. I don’t know if people will stream themselves playing AREA MAN LIVES, but I think it would be really incredible to see how different people interact with the game and what they choose to say.

What influenced the overall art direction?

ANG: AREA MAN LIVES was conceived as a theatrical rather than cinematic experience. Theater doesn’t chase realism in the way it depicts a story. Sets tend to be symbolic or minimalistic, and emotions are evoked through lighting and sound. In the same way, comics leave the action in “the gutter,” that is, the space between frames on a page. The reader is left to use their imagination to paint in the gaps. We felt that a comic style would best build that expectation in our players. We wanted to paint a simple, yet beautiful set and let the player fill in the gaps with their voice, performance, and imagination.

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

ANG: The original music in the game is a mix of songs written and performed by members of our team, our cast, and musicians who knew of our previous work and were willing to lend their amazing talent and voice to the project.

We met Jill Sobule at a conference in Maine and immediately took her up on her offer to help us with music should the need arise. She wrote the haunting song “Penelope” after we gave her the prompt, “Write a song about a pregnant woman in the rain.”

They say, “Don’t meet your heroes,” but the members of Future Folk could not have been more generous with us. We have a soft spot for novelty folk duos on this team, and we were so taken by the wholesome absurdity of The History of Future Folk on Netflix that we cold-called them with an email request to write a song for AREA MAN LIVES. Their prompt was to create a song about a tow truck, and in no time, they had delivered a hilarious banjo-fueled romp through space in a rocket tow truck. (It felt like the perfect nod to the game’s origin story.) General Trius even lent a cameo to the game. If you haven’t seen their movie on Netflix, do yourself a favor and go watch it now!

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

ANG: Recording the emergency broadcast message. It happens early in the game, but I won’t spoil it.

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

ANG: A player’s imagination makes VR better. Look for opportunities to reward the player’s creativity by asking them to play along.

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

ANG: At Numinous, we are always looking to do something new and different. We never want to make a similar game twice. We’re working on a player-created VR platformer that focuses on environmental storytelling. It’s so much fun to play—the people who have playtested it for us can’t wait for more.

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

ANG: Lately, we’ve seen a groundswell of players looking for more relaxed VR experiences. They’ve tried out a lot of action-packed VR, and now they want something a little different. We hear people asking for more story-forward games where they can slow down and just take the whole experience in as they enjoy the space. We hope AREA MAN LIVES scratches that itch for players and inspires more developers to explore the chill side of VR. We encourage players to take their time, settle into the experience, play along, and see what they discover.

Check out AREA MAN LIVES today on the Quest and Rift Platforms, and listen to our episode of That Other Gaming Podcast featuring Green on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts to learn more.