For the past year, Tony Davidson and his 17-year old son Kai have been tucked away in the hills of Oregon collaborating on a VR experience that was inspired from one of Kai’s dreams. Thunderbird is a puzzle adventure game that surprised everyone at Unity’s Vision Summit awards in walking away with the best VR experience award. Even Tony thought that either crowd favorite Fantastic Contraption or Job Simulator would be rewarded, and so there was a collective gasp of surprise when they got the award. I had a chance to catch up with Kai and Tony to get their reactions to winning, what’s it like to be a father/son team, and how their Thunderbird puzzle adventure takes inspiration from dreams, myths, and Eastern religions.
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Thunderbird is a beautiful experience that takes you into another world. Tony and Kai designed a number of room-scale puzzles that make you use the all of the space in your room. There is no teleporting required, and so moving from room to room solving different light reflection puzzles starts to progressively unlock a deeper sense of presence. Tony learned lot about the limitations of trying to do an open-world puzzle game called Ethereon, which helped inform their decision to keep each puzzle to the size of a single room.
There’s also a lot of mythic symbolism inspired from Eastern Religions that’s embedded throughout the experience, and Tony said that they’re really trying to create a meaningful and transformative experience. There’s also a lot of craftsmanship and attention to detail put into the Thunderbird experience, and the light puzzles have an interesting effect in allowing you to slowly discover more about your world through these one-handed and two-handed interactions. It feels like you’re going through a ritualistic initiation into another realm, and I felt a lot of wonder, awe, and a deep sense of presence as I progressed through each of the puzzles shown at the 2016 Vision Summit.
Winning the best VR experience at Unity’s Vision Summit Awards is arguably a lot more meaningful to the potential success of their project. It was announced over the weekend that both Fantastic Contraption and Job Simulator are going to be bundled with all of the HTC Vive preorders, but Thunderbird was mostly unheard of in the wider VR community before the Vision Summit awards.
Tony and Kai still have a long road ahead to complete Thunderbird, but this recognition has helped to validate what they’ve done so far and encouraged them to keep going. During his Best VR Experience acceptance speech, Tony dedicated his award to all of the struggling independent VR developers who were tirelessly chasing their dreams. For Kai & Tony, they’re literally taking inspiration directly from their dreams and making a transformative experience of out them. I’m really looking forward to when they finish so that I can completely immerse myself in their experiential narrative, and learn more about the hidden symbolism that’s embedded throughout their experience.
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Theme music: “Fatality” by Tigoolio