Scanning through the games featured in Extra Credit’s Indie Game Megaphone, the one which immediately caught my eye was Runaway Mage — a VR experience designed to help those with PTSD and anxiety disorders. As someone who has experienced both these mental illnesses (and who owns a VR headset), I was immediately curious to see what the game had to offer. To find out more, I spoke to Lexi from Misfit VR about their upcoming game.
Could you introduce yourself and your role in Misfit VR?
My name is Lexi and I am an Australian VR artist/illustrator as well as the Director at Misfit VR.
What can you tell us about Misfit VR?
I established Misfit VR in January of 2020 with the hopes of building a studio where early to mid-level practitioners could work on building games and VR experiences with magic and artistic themes. Misfit VR is an Australian indie VR development company that mainly works on its own IP, as well as providing 3D environments and characters for VR games and academics working in the health fields.
I always like to say that Misfit VR specialises in imagination, as I find most people don’t really understand what VR is. We aim to push the boundaries of creative and digital environments especially with innovation and future technology in mind.
What made you want to create a VR experience for people with anxiety disorders and PTSD?
The project was originally designed after I had received my first redundancy after 7 months in the industry, fresh out of university. I’d decided that I wanted to take a year to work on my own project and release a game from start to finish, living on the income I had accumulated in that short period of time. As someone who suffers from PTSD and anxiety, I found that when I couldn’t sleep or was suffering from high stress, I would put my VR headset on, paint an environment in Tilt Brush (a VR illustration program made by Google), and lie in the environment to calm down. Runaway Mage was built off of this concept mainly for myself and the few people in my life who had expressed they suffered from similar illnesses.
At the time, my friend and producer Jazna suggested I apply for a government funded grant with the project. After the assessment period for the grant, they contacted me and expressed that they wanted to fund me for twice as much money in the next round and so the Runaway Mage project commenced. With the funding I was able to establish Misfit VR and give the project the resources and attention it deserves, therefore enabling us to help as many people as possible.
How will the game help people with those mental illnesses?
Apart from the general relaxing environment, Runaway Mage has a simulated companion/therapy animal as well as simulated gardening with plants growing at the rate real plants do. Gardening in the past has been used for destressing, creating a calming environment, and even a therapy tool in some cases.
These aspects of the project are aimed to provide a calming and therapeutic environment for people who may not have access to it in their current living situation. The project falls under the ‘self care’ umbrella as we found this will help prevent the (unwarranted) negative stigma mental health tools have had for some consumers.
Where did the title ‘Runaway Mage’ come from?
As someone who has had to adapt and be independent from a young age, I have found I have been associated with the term ‘Runaway’ regularly, especially as a young adult. Originally the term made me feel ostracized, but as I grew older, I found it actually comforted me. To me it means that even if I feel like an outcast, I am free to feel emotional in solitude. People who suffer from anxiety (especially when it is due to being ostracized) tend to value solitude and I therefore wanted the game title to relay this positively.
What will the player be able to do as a runaway mage?
For the current build, players will be able to interact with the Omen (companion animal) and garden as if it were just like the real world. There will be over 20 plant species to find, collect and grow, with every plant growing in a way unique to the player. You will also be able to feed, play fetch, interact and take care of the Omen. With it being an entity of its own, it will even go as far as sleeping on your lap when you are seated and interacting with you when it can sense you are feeling distressed.
Omen looks adorable! Why do they have such an… ominous name?
For me, omens have always been a sign of the future, whether it be negative or positive. We found that a lot of the time anxiety is initiated by environmental factors and/or actions which impact a person’s future, whether it be in a drastic or negative sense. Especially within a magical environment, an Omen is a sign for what is to come. If people can associate this creature with signs of what their future can hold, I believe it will help replace or release anxiety regarding a person’s perceived negative future.
I’m also attempting to rewire how we perceive words with negative connotations. As ominous as the word ‘omen’ can be, I believe there are ways to reattune how we respond to it as a concept, which will in turn adjust the perspective of people more susceptible to concerns of their future.
Which VR headsets will Runaway Mage be compatible with?
Runaway Mage will be available on the Oculus Rift and we are currently working for an Oculus Quest release. It is designed to be as mobile as possible as well as utilise hand tracking capabilities, especially with the Oculus headsets being for more personal use.
How has Covid-19 affected development?
Covid-19 has definitely halted the development and opportunity for investment in the project. With all conferences and travel suspended, we missed the opportunity to attend events like GDC to help build an international audience as well as potential investment. It is such an integral time within our development timeline. As difficult as Covid-19 has made this, it has also shown that in the time of crisis, when the world has stopped, everyone turned to creativity and technology.
Any closing remarks?
We are currently working very hard to gain additional funding so we can expand the project. It was designed to also integrate spellcasting, VR reading and additional unlockable areas. We are also working to have a version of the game suitable for children who are hospitalized and/or bedridden and we really hope we can expand the project and do it justice.
So, Runaway Mage sounds like the perfect respite from a troubled reality, particularly for people living in rented accommodation, apartments, and other locations where gardening and/or keeping a pet is impractical. As Lexi pointed out by categorising it as self-care, I expect it will even prove useful to users who don’t suffer from anxiety disorders or the like. What I’m most looking forward to is interacting with Omen – the cute, little creature I’ve glimpsed in their trailers!
Currently, Misfit VR is in the process of finalising their first playtest demo. Hopefully, I’ll get to don my wizarding hat as a runaway mage very soon.