ROTU Brings Rhythm of the Universe’s Song Of Empathy To VR

We talk to Rotu’s Jason Parks about the developer’s big VR launch, Rhythm of the Universe: Ionia.

The forest vibrates with song around you, as animals of all kinds follow their ancient rituals seemingly unimpeded. But the woods are also hurting, grappling with a pain only you can help ease. If you’re unsure whether I’m talking about a real-life ecosystem or Rhythm of the Universe: Ionia, that’s exactly what Rotu Entertainment CEO and executive producer Jason Parks wants.

Rhythm of the Universe’s roots go deep, down through a decade’s worth of music education, advocacy, and undercover environmental activism. Rotu Entertainment’s founders attended Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts. Parks started a film scoring group during his time at the college, and ROTU’s future CCO, Emir Cerman, approached him with a proposal to bring dozens of musicians and countries together for the project that eventually became Anthem for the World, the seed from which Rhythm of the Universe grew.

“We had a music video that the support team created that brought 90 different countries together, and they wrote a song of peace,” Parks told Upload during Gamescom 2021. “We literally had citizens of countries that were at war with each other at the same table, afraid to even share their real name because of the retribution they would face and that song went viral all over the world on YouTube, and ultimately led us to selling out Symphony Hall in Boston.”

ROTU continued working on documentaries and other advocacy music videos, and in 2015, the Amazon Aid Foundation approached them with a request. The foundation wanted ROTU to travel to the Amazon rainforest and film both the illegal mining and deforestation and how they affected the environment.

“That trip really inspired [Ionia] because it was all about going to this beautiful lush jungle, then coming across just absolutely devastated land and understanding this was human impact but ultimately, there was something we could do about it,” Parks said.

ROTU wanted to create something big out of this experience, their own Star Wars franchise or Avatar, Parks said. A friend introduced the ROTU team to VR around the same time. He’d purchased an HTC Vive headset and invited them over to see what it was like. Parks said the sense of immersion, particularly in a nature scene as they watched a whale swim by in the ocean, is what sold them on VR for ROTU’s dream project.

Immersion is key for Ionia. Parks wants it to feel like a lucid dream, something that pushes the boundaries of entertainment forward through interactive storytelling and imparts a message about humanity’s relationship with the environment like no other. 

“Our message and our vision is all about creating empathy through our lore, through our stories and through our universe,” he said. “It’s a lot easier to do that in virtual reality because I can put you in front of a creature that you have to take care of. You have to progress through making decisions that help you understand the world around you.”

To that end, ROTU also partnered with Wildlife Warriors, the conservation organization the late Steve Irwin founded that’s branching into Europe and Africa, as well as its native Australia. 5% of proceeds from Ionia will go to the foundation to help further its efforts.

Parks said they recognized even creating Ionia was a risk, though, let alone pinning such hopes on it. Ionia’s conception took place before VR carved its niche in entertainment, but the ROTU team believed the medium was here to stay and would only grow bigger. Working on video projects with nonprofits and other clients led ROTU to Epic’s Unreal as their ideal production vehicle. The next step was recruiting a team with “decades” of experience working with game engines and no shortage of ideas for bringing Ionia to life.

Ionia’s gaming inspirations are too many to count, but Parks noted Uncharted, Ocarina of Time, Breath of the Wild, Moss, Lone Echo — anything with a unique approach to narrative and storytelling.  Music was always at Ionia’s core, though. They vary as much as the games that inspired Ionia, from John Williams’ sweeping scores, to Ennio Morricone’s score for The Mission (1986) and its idea of music creating harmony among disparate cultures. 

Ionia’s musical identity is its foundation, so much so that ROTU composed the soundtrack before even designing the first area. They build every stage, encounter, animal, and puzzle around some aspect of music theory. One puzzle Parks demonstrated has you using a basic understanding of intervals on a scale to align a set of stones and unlock the way forward. Another involves using the environment and music to care for a turtle and earn its respect to help heal the forest.

Even more spectacular, set piece events, such as traveling through a valley on zipline, weave a sense of wonder and curiosity into its soundscape. That area, in particular, comes from a brief, 30-second segment from John William’s “The Never-Feast” (Hook, 1991), the moment where Peter realizes that the imagination affects reality. 

It affects ROTU’s reality as well. While Parks couldn’t divulge much about Rhythm of the Universe’s future, he said this transmedia franchise will only continue to grow. Ionia itself is just one region on the continent of Pangaea. Other regions — inspired by music modes, such as Locrian and Dorian, of course — exist with their own stories to tell. ROTU plans on telling them as standalone narratives anyone can access, regardless of how familiar they are with Ionia or any of Rhythm of the Universe’s other parts, with more information to come later this year after Ionia’s September 23 release date on Oculus Quest, PC VR and PSVR. 

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