Students use VR to create game that follows family on a road trip

Zach Flores (left) and Ezra Robinson (right) created their virtual reality game Detour Bus as a part of a class they took in Fall 2019 titled “Intermediate Game Design and Development.” (Angie Orellana Hernandez | Daily Trojan)

 When a player opens the Detour Bus video game, they enter an alternate reality, founders Zachary Flores and Ezra Robinson said. With goggles on, they are launched into an imaginary American landscape, packed with defining elements of the 1970s: flowers, a hippie van and hot lava are just the beginning. 

Flores and Robinson created Detour Bus, a video game where the player navigates a yellow Volkswagen bus on a family road trip across America, and simultaneously build a road by placing 3D blocks on the floor through virtual reality.   

Flores, a junior majoring in computer science (games), and Robinson, a junior majoring in cinematic arts, film and television production, started developing the game in Fall 2019 as part of their “Intermediate Game Design and Development” class. In the class, which was taught by Cinematic Arts professors Peter Brinson and Jesse Vigil, students work in teams and conceptualize innovative design goals by creating their own video game.

Flores and Robinson aimed to create a VR game for adults and children alike that captures the child-like excitement of playing with toys.

“The real goal is to inspire the same sense of wonder that a kid has building a giant Hot Wheels track or those wooden train sets … and capture that in a way that can happen in real life,” Robinson said.

Using a VR headset and two controllers, players face challenges and reach different destinations by arranging pieces of the road together, Flores said. Through body movements and controllers, players fit sections of the road together, ultimately taking the Volkswagen microbus twisting and turning on a forward and upside down ride. 

“Zach and Ezra figured out a really unusual and joyful puzzle game to make VR worth it,” Brinson said. “This game wouldn’t work without VR. It needs VR, but VR also needs it in a sense because we’re still waiting for there to be a lot of really wonderful VR games.”

The cast of characters includes Daddy Flowers, a payroll accountant who wishes to relive the ‘70s and does so by restoring his Volkswagen; Mama Flowers, a workaholic struggling to keep her professional and personal lives separate; Junior, a snarky advocate for communism in America; and Goldy Flowers, the bored 7-year-old sister who loves to stir up trouble by making the road trip as hard as possible for her family. 

They created these characters to reflect the general American experience and comment on the errors in the fictitious vision of the country, Robinson said. 

“Part of making the traditional American nuclear family is based on this idea of … idolizing what the ideal American experience should be,” Robinson said. “There is an attempt being made to engage with these American ideals critically and kind of use the perspectives of the kids to point out the flaws in this ideal vision of America.”

Throughout the game, the family provides commentary in the form of jokes and complaints from inside the bus. Flores and Robinson are also working on implementing voiceover that responds to the player’s actions in the game. They said one of their next steps will be to find voice actors for their team. 

The Flowers family will also make an appearance in the cutscenes between game levels. Robinson said that cutscenes, or noninteractive narrative clips in video games, are generally seen as taboo by the gaming community because they are unplayable. To combat this, the duo plans to film live actors in a renovated bus for the 360-degree virtual reality cutscenes, which will add more interaction with the cutscenes. 

Robinson said the Flowers family, both in the voiceovers and the virtual reality cutscenes filmed from within the bus, makes the game feel more personal.

“The video component … and the continual voices of the family is a really important part of [making the game feel personal] so that this feels like a human experience, not an abstract construction experience,” Robinson said. “It’s not really about building roads, even though that’s the main mechanic — it’s about guiding this family through their journey as they’re trying to reconnect with each other.”

From the microbus to the groovy flower-themed special effects, the game is infused with a 1970s feel. Robinson said that after Brinson played an incomplete demo of Detour Bus and called it a “real stoner game,” Robinson and Flores knew they had successfully communicated their theme. 

“People have nostalgia for the ‘70s, but [‘70s video games] don’t remind us of the ‘70s otherwise … because they were so primitive and simple,” Brinson said. “[Detour Bus] does a good job of simulating nostalgia for something that never happened.”

The duo hopes to be approved for USC’s Advanced Games Project, which would provide them with a team of students and greater access to faculty assistance and resources. They said that while most AGP games are 20 to 30 minutes long and are released for free, their ultimate goal is to go commercial, selling up to two hours of professional content for about $15. 

If the game is not approved, Flores and Robinson will still continue working on the project. They are applying to grants and competitions and have found faculty interested in helping them. Flores is waiting to hear back from a virtual reality grant, and last weekend, the duo attended DreamHack Anaheim, a gaming festival where they networked, demoed their game and earned an honorable mention for their game pitch. 

At the festival, Flores spoke with a game streamer for AbleGamers, a charity that provides people with disabilities accessible gaming setups. The streamer prompted Flores to think about ways to make the game accessible to those who would only be able to play with one hand. Moving forward, now in contact with the AbleGamers community, Flores and Robinson said they want to continue improving the accessibility of Detour Bus. One way they plan to do this is by creating a gameplay option that allows for a controller with two buttons, rather than two controllers with one button each, to accommodate players who can only play with one hand.

Flores said accessibility is essential for Detour Bus because they want it to be playable for people from all backgrounds.

“One of the important things about the Detour Bus … was having something more casual for people who are just starting VR for the first time,” Flores said. “There’s more and more people who don’t come from like a traditional gaming background … But, it’s also a choice for people who want to do VR but need something a little bit more accessible.”

By the time they graduate, Flores and Robinson hope to expand their creative team to no more than 10 members and have eight 10-minute-long levels.