mflogo_FINAL_red_whitePollen from Helsinki based developer Mindfield Games is an immensely promising ‘Oculus Rift Optimised’ story driven adventure set on Saturn moon Titan. I got a chance to catch up wit of the Mindfield team at this year’s Gamescom in Cologne, Germany and try an early version for myself and also sit down for a chat to find out more.

Pollen: Unity Never Looked So Good

OK, that subtitle is a little unfair. However, after having spent an inordinate amount of time with Unity 4 based demos and games over the last 18 Months, the fabulously accessible and portable development engine favoured by many VR Devs, can tend towards looking a little dated. After Olli Sinerma, Project Lead on Pollen drops me into a very early demo of the game I take a look around and ask “what engine is this?”, “Unity 4” he replies, “really?!” I exclaim. Even on the team’s now ‘last generation’ DK1, this game looks fantastic.

There’s a point to mentioning this and that is that this small 6 member team from Helsinki take a lot of care and attention over the way the world they’re creating looks and feels. The game looks as good as it does because they’ve implemented various advanced rendering features, such as custom shaders and a physically based lighting system. More than that though, the attention to detail extends to every object in the world, no matter how mundane. An object doesn’t make it into this world unless it meets the team’s stringent art direction. Even after spending little more than 10 minutes occupying the world of Pollen, it feels cohesive and believable and I want to see more.

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The demo has me starting on Titan, outside one of the research lab’s airlocks. You play an as yet unnamed character stationed as one a team of researchers on the moon. As I approach the entrance I marvel at the incidental detail in the bases structure. Movement of my avatar is interestingly weighty, with none of the floaty, frictionless sensations on a lot of first person games. I gesture with one of the joypads analogue sticks to manipulate the door lever. The door slides open convincingly, and I step into the airlock. Lighting is superb and once again I remark to myself how every bit of the room and it’s occupying objects feel as if they belong there, rather than just carelessly dropped in from a mesh library. I’m only a few minutes into the demo and I’m already becoming less aware of the hubbub on the Gamescom show floor as the world engulfs me. Pollen is an enormously atmospheric game, even at this early stage.

Later I wander into the station’s hydroponic labs, a large room juxtaposing industrial metal structures with verdant organic matter. This is already a world I’m itching to see more of, but unfortunately that’s where my brief time with Pollen must end for now.

All About the Narrative

If it feels like I’ve thus far focussed too much on the game’s technical aspects, it’s because the game’s story is being closely guarded at present. What we do know is that you play a member of a research team, stationed in an underground research facility on Titan, one of Saturn’s moons. The team have discovered something mysterious and are endeavouring to discover precisely what. That’s about all I can tell you right now. The team are nervous about accidentally letting story details slip as they view this as a told through your interaction with the game world, a premise particularly powerful in virtual reality. One thing the team are very keen on emphasising though – this is absolutely NOT a horror game.

The team’s influences include such Sci-Fi genre classics as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, so whilst the title is steadfastly not a horror title, suspenseful mystery is on the cards. As Ilona Lindholm, 3D Artist on the project tells me, “..that’s kind of the ‘mood board’ for the game”. But more recently, the team’s love of the highly acclaimed mystery adventure game Gone Home, gives a good clue as to what you can expect from Pollen. Although the team is keen to state that that Gone Home’s  monicker ‘walking simulator’ won’t apply to Pollen.

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Reaching into the World of Pollen

Unlike the raucous, rapid-fire progression of most first person shooters, Pollen’s pace is much more sedate. As such, you have time to ponder and explore the world you find yourself in. This is another reason for the team’s fine eye for detail. “Every object you find in the world should work exactly as it does in the real world”, Olli tells me, “ if there is toilet paper in the world..” – well, you get the idea. During my time in the Gamescom demo, everything I saw looked as if it would work should it exist in reality and, picking up objects and spinning them around using the joypad controls revealed that merely inspecting things in Pollen is an engaging experience.

As far as the ‘game’ mechanics of Pollen extend, Ilona states that yes there are indeed puzzles, but that they’re both contextual and tightly woven into the narrative of the game.

The game is currently still deep in development, but although Pollen is not a title exclusive to VR (enhanced for Oculus Rift), the team are betting on a 2015 release to coincide with the consumer edition of the Oculus Rift, whenever that might be exactly. Due to the game’s heavy reliance on narrative, a playable demo is a tricky prospect – however the team is considering a technical preview for the DK2 to get people’s feedback on the feel of the world and the interactivity mechanics. As Olli puts it “I friggin’ love the VR community!” in reference to being able to throw something out and get great and valuable feedback almost immediately.

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We wish Olli, Ilona and the rest of the  Mindfield Games team the best of luck and thank them for taking the time to talk to us. We’ll of course keep you up to date on any developments and whether that DK2 demo ever surfaces.

You can find more about Pollen over at the game’s website here and the team itself at Mindfield’s website here.

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Based in the UK, Paul has been immersed in interactive entertainment for the best part of 27 years and has followed advances in gaming with a passionate fervour. His obsession with graphical fidelity over the years has had him branded a ‘graphics whore’ (which he views as the highest compliment) more than once and he holds a particular candle for the dream of the ultimate immersive gaming experience. Having followed and been disappointed by the original VR explosion of the 90s, he then founded to follow the new and exciting prospect of the rebirth of VR in products like the Oculus Rift. Paul joined forces with Ben to help build the new Road to VR in preparation for what he sees as VR’s coming of age over the next few years.