Old School Gamer Magazine chats with Corey King (Co-Founder, ZenFri) and Danielle “Dee” King (Co-Founder, ZenFri) about their upcoming game, The Last Taxi, currently slated for release on SteamVR/Oculus/HTC Vive/Windows MR. Detailing its creation process and more, the King’s let us know what makes this game a special one.
Old School Gamer Magazine: How was The Last Taxi born?
Corey and “Dee” King: After completing our last major title, Clandestine: Anomaly, we wanted not only to pick projects where we pushed technical boundaries but also to tell new stories – and as many as we possibly could. We decided that our next project should focus on a narrative-first experience – and branching narratives that fit comfortably in that endeavour. We started to play with ideas of who could drive the story and who could talk to people all day without feeling weird – without every conversation beginning with, “Oh! Let me tell you my tale of woe while you fetch quest for me!”
After going to conferences for our previous game, Dee stuck to the idea that taxi drivers were always very chatty – and it was quite easy to talk to them. You’d most likely never see them again, so they seemed to get an inside look at what was going on in the world. It was also toward the beginning of rideshares and the gig economy, so Corey landscaped a future world in which all the passenger stories would be set – complimenting how the gig economy could look in the future.
With an established track record in augmented reality, we felt that there was a natural transition into working in virtual reality – and it made a lot of sense for the game to have players physically embody the driver and be present for each passenger’s story. We wanted to make sure players had empathy for each passenger and decided how to proceed in the story based on the understanding that these passengers aren’t always either good or bad – and there’s nuance in their plight.
Old School Gamer Magazine: What is your role in the game?
Corey and “Dee” King: Together, we are the creators and producers of the project – but since it’s a small game, we take on many other roles. Corey is the Game Director, and Dee is the Narrative Director. We both worked on the design and received input and feedback from the team in a collaborative manner.
Old School Gamer Magazine: How did you get involved in the industry?
Corey and “Dee” King: Founded during our University years, we were both working toward film degrees and collaborated on projects during school. ZenFri is an amalgamation of our online handles when we first met way back when Windows Live Spaces was a “thing.” Primarily interested in storytelling, we’ve created projects in a few different mediums (written anthology, gallery work, and film). We’re currently turning our craft into interactive experiences – creating works in AR and VR. Starting with just ourselves – then with a small, passionate team – we’ve been grinding out cool stuff and learning from our mistakes since 2010.
Old School Gamer Magazine: What has development been like?
Corey and “Dee” King: The Last Taxi is an indie game that has taken a bit of time – about four years. This is partly due to the Canadian funding system, though it’s also because we like to keep our team small and manageable; we feel that this improves creativity and gives the entire team decisions in the process, but it also ensures that we don’t become mere managers. We always want to put our hearts into our projects, so we hire the best people possible and work closely together until launch.
VR itself has posed a lot of challenges that have slowed us down. Of course, we decided to take on one of the most challenging problems in VR: locomotion! We wanted our game to be comfortable for most users, while still delivering a vast and detailed environment with physics-based controls that work even when moving at high speeds. Each of those problems would have amounted to plenty of work for one indie studio, but they were compounded into one mega problem where balance between speed, vertical movement, and physics was vital.
Ultimately from a world-building and storytelling perspective, we feel this is the closest we have come to delivering our original vision – and that is a nice feeling to achieve.
Old School Gamer Magazine: What makes The Last Taxi special?
Corey and “Dee” King: Set within a massive, complicated world with diverse characters, The Last Taxi is infused with environmental storytelling and choice-driven conversations. We wanted to give players multiple ways to tackle the story – especially the endings. With more than 20 different endings solely based on a player’s choices, players have a lot of agency to carve out their own narratives within the world.
Set in this future world, players experience a playground of thought experiments based around the existential challenges we are facing today – and how those challenges might grow or alter as time goes on. Beyond that, we have a truckload of voice acting for a small VR indie title, 75+ passengers, and 3-5 minute branching conversations. Apart from the game’s endings, each passenger has 2-7 endings based on how you interact with them. For instance, you can pick up a terrorist – and your conversation with them has dramatically different outcomes in the outside world.
The final piece is diversity: With 75+ passengers, they encompass an array of class, sexuality, gender, humanity, and ideology. It was essential for us to showcase many forms of identity and represent any many people as possible that all have a nuanced viewpoint. Similarly, it’s not a game where the rich are just simple mustache-twirling villains. They have problems – trapped in the system, just like everyone else; their concerns are just a lot different than another character who’s a migrant seeking refuge.
Outside of storytelling, there are a lot of unique mechanics such as a cargo-stealing tractor beam, tollbooth hacks – and the option to report passengers to the authorities.
Old School Gamer Magazine: What games influenced this one the most?
Corey and “Dee” King: For the story, we looked at games like Mass Effect and BioShock. For gameplay, we took inspiration from Job Simulator and Papers, Please. Combining heavy story gameplay with cool mechanics, we tried to give players a narrative while they engage with the environment.
Old School Gamer Magazine: Any fun stories or wild moments during development?
Corey and “Dee” King: Midway through development, the entire office was broken into and ransacked. We lost all of our VR equipment – but thankfully none of our desktops. The real loss, though, was our combined collection of childhood gaming consoles. From PlayStation 1 to the original Nintendo (in MINT condition), they were all collected and lost to the resell market underworld. We’ve since moved office locations but have not yet rebuilt our great display of retro games for the team to enjoy. And then there’s COVID. Nothing really crazy beyond what everyone else is experiencing, but it’s undoubtedly capping off the final moments of our development with intrigue, fear, and frustration – and story ideas for future updates.
Old School Gamer Magazine: What were the major lessons learned?
Corey and “Dee” King: Most of our lessons are juxtaposed against earlier work, so we see this project as the cumulation of lessons learned during Clandestine: Anomaly. The difference in the scale and quality made in a similar timeframe and budget is staggering. The critical difference came down to understanding the value of having a cohesive team with thoughtful and collaborative workflows. We’re different leaders than before – and we try to create a focused but highly collaborative and open environment. We learned that when you run a company that cares about its people as much as the product, you attract fantastic talent – and they’re committed to the project’s future!
Old School Gamer Magazine: Do you think preserving older gameplay mechanics in new games is important?
Corey and “Dee” King: There are no hard, universal rules. In game design, there’s the right place for everything – and each idea is like a different colour of paint, so they all have their place. In the context of one project, it’s essential to choose a complementary palette that works together – but what works for one doesn’t work for them all. Each project can bring a unique palette of mechanics and visuals that complement each other – even when meshing old concepts with new ideas. When you strip down the layers, The Last Taxi fundamentally follows classic text-based-narrative design. If you stripped out all the new technology we employ, the story could easily be told as a text-only game – like those we played as kids – without losing the core concepts. We really enjoy all those new tech layers on top, but the core is classic choice-based storytelling.
Old School Gamer Magazine: What’s your favorite memory as a gamer?
Corey and “Dee” King: Corey had a penchant for staying up way too late with his friends and remembers trying to get the Couple’s Mask in The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, but he also has fond memories of making life or death choices for team members in Mass Effect. Like some other females in the early ‘90s, I was not allowed a game console as a teen. After earning some hard won concessions, she saved up all her babysitting money to buy a PlayStation 1. She then spent way too much time being a completionist on all the Spyro games. She also fondly remembers putting off her homework to sneakily boot up a demo floppy of Conan: Hall of Volta on her used Apple II.
Old School Gamer Magazine: How do you want The Last Taxi to ultimately be remembered?
Corey and “Dee” King: We’d like players to pay close attention to all the characters and think and decide for themselves on the issues facing humanity – including the advancement of AI, climate change, surveillance, inequality, and much more. In the end, conversations, even with perceived enemies is what may save us. Democracy and freedom depend on our ability to listen, understand, and make choices that benefit all of society.
Old School Gamer Magazine: What’s next?
Corey and “Dee” King: After the game is shipped, we plan to keep improving our company and talented staff by investing in their ideas. But beyond that, we have a few ideas in the works – mostly in new VR narratives, including some more short-form VR art projects.