ASK ANY fan of The Simpsons and they will tell you without hesitation that dolphins are exceptionally intelligent creatures. They might speak in unintelligible clicks and use echolocation to hunt out a good meal, but the extensive brain curvature of these ocean-bound warriors exceeds even that of homo sapiens. Despite this, one important question still remains unanswered – are they smart enough to stop us from cheating?
Through the incongruous combination of dolphins and classrooms, the high tension hilarity of Classroom Aquatic bubbled its way into existence. Sunken Places producer Remy Karns reveals that it was largely serendipity which resulted in dolphins becoming the stars of Classroom Aquatic, but unlike dolphins, classifying this game into a neat taxonomy isn’t so simple. A true medley of genres, Classroom Aquatic has been described as an underwater stealth simulation game, though its scholastic setting and irresistible splashes of comedy set it apart as it dives into uncharted territory. PopOptiq spoke with Karns about the game’s development process, cheating on tests, and listened as he walked us through the day in the life of an underwater exchange student.
PopOptiq: How did you get involved in game design? Was it something you always aspired to?
Remy Karns: Well, I’ve always liked playing games. I never thought I would be making them. I went to school to learn about writing at Berkley. Game design came from when a friend of mine asked if I wanted to teach a class about interpreting video games as art, and I loved teaching that class. And after my undergraduate degree, I went on to USC to study game design and just continued with the game and art theory portion of it. Just writing essays, give feedback and opinion. And then I started making games and I loved it. So I decided I’d rather make them than talk about them.
PopOptiq: So Classroom Aquatic isn’t your first project, you’ve dabbled in game design before?
Karns: I’ve designed a couple of games but a lot of that was student projects that didn’t really see the light of day. A lot of experiments. This was our first foray – my and my entire team’s foray – into trying to make a professional product. We did it for a 3 week game jam. We had an idea to get together and said, hey, we’re talented people. Maybe we’ll make something that makes us a little more hireable once we’re out of school. It was a VR game jam, and we made Classroom Aquatic, and we all believed in it enough that we wanted to pursue it as a team.
PopOptiq: The setting of Classroom Aquatic resembles Subnautica and upcoming title Abzu, both simulators which are also set underwater. But Classroom Aquatic has a different approach that involves stealth and humour – how was this idea born?
Karns: Well, during the 3 week game jam, we were all pitching ideas, all of us. And we spent something like 14 hours a day for 2 days (on a weekend) just throwing ideas about what kind of games we like. And everyone was getting grouchy because they had ideas, and nobody understood why their ideas were not so brilliant-it was just crazy. Until finally, one of our team members said, “I want to make a game with dolphins in it.” And then it was just like, “Yeah, let’s do that!”. After we got the theme down, we took one of our old ideas which was to play as a teacher to stop students from cheating. And we reversed that because I think we can all agree that no one wants to play a game as a curmudgeonly stubborn rule enforcer. You want to be the sneaky guy, you want to be the one who will break the rules.
PopOptiq: On Steam, Classroom Aquatic is described as being scholastic, subversive, and submerged. What do you mean by that?
Karns: I like puns and I like alliteration, first and foremost. Scholastic of course, it’s a learning environment, a school environment, which is not an environment that is really touched upon in a lot of games unless it’s a JRPG. Submerged–you are underwater in a school with dolphins, and subversive-well we are trying to get you to play a game where you are breaking the rules. Cheating is something you’re not supposed to do, and it’s something we all know you’re not supposed to do because we’ve all been there. In terms of stealth games, not all of us have broken into a mansion and poisoned one of the guards, but we’ve all looked down on a test page and thought, “Oh Jesus”. And then you look over there, and it’s all right there (laughs).
PopOptiq: What was your intention behind making Classroom Aquatic?
Karns: Our intention was to make this game for kids. Children are our future, and it is our promise that kids who play our game will do better on tests. In all seriousness, we’re not too worried about inspiring kids to cheat, mostly because this game is terrifying. Cheating is already really scary, and (Classroom Aquatic) lets you do it in the comfort of your own home, and it’s still terrifying.
“We’re not worried about inspiring kids to cheat…this game is terrifying”
Flipping the test pages and then looking over your shoulder to see Professor Porpoise right behind you, shouting at you? It’s just a taste of what’s to come in reality honestly.
PopOptiq: Do you think Classroom Aquatic has the potential to be used at schools as a learning game?
Karns: You know, I used to tutor kids. I used to teach. And to be quite honest, I think this does offer a lot of help for kids. Not only do we have the ability in the game to make your own questions-so you can put in your questions as flashcards perhaps, and if you need the answers you can get a reminder- but the questions are all written to be something a little bit enticing. They’re subjects that are of course way too difficult, so I’m trying to make sure that all the questions have a bit of a hook. You know, maybe they’ll be inspired and say, this question was actually kind of interesting-this question about this great commander or scientific experiment, maybe I’ll check that out, you know? Perhaps it will inspire kids to learn. But otherwise, I hope no one has a big headline saying ‘Classroom Aquatic leads to High School cheating across all nations’. If it’s all nations I guess the game would be selling pretty well.
PopOptiq: In terms of Classroom Aquatic’s gameplay, players take control of a human diver exchange student, who must spend a semester abroad at Dolphin school. Did you choose a human protagonist because it was easier to relate to?
Karns: I think people can relate to it more mostly because you’re in a different environment. You’re underwater, you’re in school. We wanted to capture this feeling of being in VR. When you put that headset on you’re transported into a completely different world, and what better way to make sure you feel that difference in the game than by having everyone sitting around you be dolphins?
“We wanted to capture the feeling of being in VR…you’re transported to a completely different world”
We also wanted to focus on the idea that you are not prepared for the test. The dolphins are just way smarter than humans, and these tests come so easily. The only thing you can do in recourse is to cheat your way through to the top of the class. Otherwise the idea that you are a diver really did come from this wonderful idea that we had where the VR headset was like goggles.
PopOptiq: The teachers’ names – Professor Porpoise, and Doctor Delphinidae sound very specific. Was scientific accuracy important for you going into the game?
Karns: Oh absolutely. We want to go cartoony with the world that we’re making, but we also want to keep it uncanny. One of the most wonderful things about the game is you go down, you see the dolphins and they’re all very cute. And then the gameplay starts and then the slow realisation sets in that something all too real is going on. In order to make sure that’s felt throughout the narrative of the game, we’re trying to put special consideration into the world. We’re not only doing a top down thing where we’re going to have a D&D setting in the game, but you’ll see we’re taking special care to make sure this world is believable, and something you can dive into.
PopOptiq: From my understanding, gameplay consists of avoiding the gaze of teachers and students, looking at other students’ papers to get answers, and then the very interesting game mechanic of throwing erasers to create distractions and cheat more successfully.
Karns: Yes. The eraser mechanic came from a lot of people saying that they wanted to affect the world somehow. Originally we didn’t have the erasers at all. It was just looking around, and if you got caught cheating by the teacher, then the students would get angrier. If you stared at them they’d block their tests or tattle on you. A lot of people said it was great but I saw it as more of a passive thing and I really wanted them to be able to affect the world. So the erasers were put in so (players) could throw things at students, to cause them to unblock their tests, and the Professor would go by and tell them to keep quiet. Or you could toss it over at objects in the classroom and everyone looks over at these dioramas, and then that gives you an opportunity to cheat. Of course with every way that you affect the world there’s some rubber banding. If you throw an eraser at a student, they’re going to get really mad. And the more stuff you break in the classroom, the teacher’s going to get even madder. One of the things we’re considering is throughout the campaign, all of the stuff you break doesn’t get replaced.
PopOptiq: The main teachers you currently have are Professor Porpoise and Doctor Delphinidae. Are there any others planned?
Karns: We do have one more teacher in the campaign. So Professor Porpoise, the office Professor from the university who now has to take a middle school teaching job, he wanders around the classroom, very dignified. Doctor Delphinidae the incredibly stern science teacher, who wishes all his kids would just leave the lab. She watches everyone from her desk veering left to right and making sure no one is doing anything wrong. And then we have one more teacher – the career counsellor. He’s an elusive sort of guy, but he’s slowly taking over the entire school as he’s advising everyone to become an assistant career advisor. And he’s got a council of cronies that go around and administer standardised tests one question at a time.
PopOptiq: Many of the test questions cover such a broad range of fields – maths, history, and politics. Is there a difficulty curve to the questions or are they unfair? What was it like designing them?
Karns: Well, the questions are just so fun to write because it’s so many disparate topics spread across a wide amount of fields, that I’m hoping once or twice in a campaign someone will look down at a test question, and they’ll try to cheat on it but go, “Wait, I know this! Yeah!” It’s this little magic moment that I hope they’ll have. Otherwise I’m trying to make sure that the questions are unfair. They’re multiple choice questions, mostly to figure out whether you can logically work things out, or whether you’ve read the reading. In terms of the difficulty curve for the gameplay, once you get to customise the test cheating mechanics, you become pretty good with it. We see a lot of times when we go to conventions multiple repeat players, and one person could get 3 out of 10, a second time they could get 6 out of 10, and finally they ace it and they feel so happy. What we do is we take a funnier approach with the teachers, and try to make different ways to stop students from cheating. Whether it’s putting up little desk dividers or rearranging the classrooms, taking you after class and teaching you solo while they grade papers, but after a while they get kind of crazy. The science teacher-she starts inventing anti-cheating devices. We just try to make sure that it keeps going and that you have fun with the campaign, until things go crazy and it turns into something like an animal house, or Ferris Bueller’s Day Off -just vindictive anger all these teachers have towards you.
PopOptiq: Is that the end point of the game or is Classroom Aquatic more of an endless type of situation?
Karns: We have a storyline all planned out as well. You’ll be taking 3 semesters which are all teacher focused, and we’ll tell the story about this foreign exchange diver student who’s cheating his way to the top, and a little bit about the teachers-why they’re there, we have all the character backstories. Yeah, something for everyone because part of VR is being transported into this cool world, and sometimes you really want to dive into a story too. We want to make sure that the people who just want pure gameplay will have a solid campaign, but the people who really like the idea of exploring will be able to search around and see a lot of the story that we’ve put in.
PopOptiq: Usually when development starts on a game, there is a particular target audience in mind. Have you been surprised with who’s been interested in Classroom Aquatic?
Karns: It was a huge surprise. We entered (Classroom Aquatic) into a competition and we weren’t selected to be shown in public, and we thought well that’s understandable. There was a ton of bugs, and it wasn’t really in a showable state like that. Honestly, we just liked the idea so much that we said, “Why don’t we show it off at MAGFest, see if anyone likes it.” And I was told, “Oh yeah they’ve roped off an entire section and there’s a line that’s extending outside the room, and now a whole bunch of internet personalities are talking about it.” I’m on the phone hearing this and going, “…That’s cool!” Kickstarter too. It was our first kickstarter and I’ll admit, we didn’t know what we were doing.
“It was our first kickstarter and we didn’t know what we were doing…A lot of people said, how did you do it? I didn’t. Everyone else did. I’m so grateful”
We were all a bunch of college kids straight out of school, so it was like why not do a kickstarter? I wish we had done a lot of things differently, and on the final day we had this big update saying, well we didn’t make it but we’ll still develop and don’t worry. And then suddenly, this huge surge on social media happened and it got funded. A lot of people said, how did you do it? I didn’t (laughs). Everyone else did. I’m so grateful. I just loved developing this game, loved designing it and I’m so grateful to everyone who supported us. This is all just pure honesty on all our parts-how much we love this game and working on it, and maybe that’s the thing that’s shown through to everyone who’s supported us.
PopOptiq: On the surface, Classroom Aquatic is a really lighthearted game with great fun and humour, which doesn’t come across as too serious. But it also made me think of dolphin conservation and protection. Do you think Classroom Aquatic has the potential to influence serious issues?
Karns: Everyone of us who is working on the game feels very strongly about the environment, we love dolphins of course. I’m a master diver and I love the ocean and I’m certainly aware of the state of the oceans and everything like that. As far as what Classroom Aquatic is going to do, we thought long and hard about what sort of message we wanted to send across. First and foremost, we are making a game for fun. We’re making something that people can play and enjoy and have a great time with, and we will have some nods and mentions to the oceans or dolphin conservation, but we decided against a preachy tone. Mostly because the number one thing we want to do is make it an enjoyable experience, and I think that’s really the best way to go about these things. Certainly you can have a game that has a clear cut message, but if it’s not a fun game that message might be lost. So we hope that people enjoy (Classroom Aquatic) and perhaps they will take away a message of conservation.
PopOptiq: Classroom Aquatic is a game that is being optimised for VR. Will it be released for non-VR platforms as well?
Karns: Yes. It absolutely will. Many of our fans would like to play it with a mouse and keyboard, they would like to play it with a controller, whatever device they like. As we are developing the game, it is primarily for VR. But, we want to make sure that it is fun and enjoyable for anyone that wants to play it. We feel that’s important.
PopOptiq: What has been your favourite part so far about working on Classroom Aquatic and what advice would you give to anyone interested in making a VR game, based on your experience?
Karns: My favourite part of Classroom Aquatic is I wake up, and I like to do this. It’s my favourite thing. I love making games, I love developing games. It’s my dream to keep doing this and keep making stuff I’m passionate about. The one thing I would say is, if you’re going to be a game developer, it’s a lot of hard work. But if you’re passionate about it, you will find ways to make it work. You will be smart enough to have business acumen, you will have enough management sense and you will develop skills needed to do what you want to do.
PopOptiq thanks Remy Karns for his time and making this feature possible. Stay up to date with the latest Classroom Aquatic updates leading up to its release via Twitter and Facebook. Those interested can play a demo version of Classroom Aquatic here.