In the PlayStation VR booth at the Penny Arcade Expo 2015, one group of players dodged garbage thrown by cute little robots before blasting off into space. Beside them, another gamer withstood the threat of torture, wincing as a gruff-looking man threatened them with a blowtorch before engaging in a violent shootout. While the first demo might appeal to players of all ages, the second, called The London Heist, is targeted squarely at adults, making it part of the larger, adult-oriented nature of virtual reality technology.
While games are often associated with younger players, VR is targeting an older audience; not just with explicit storylines, but with those that explore themes and ideas related to navigating the world as an adult. Sure, there will be explicit VR games out there, but those aren’t the only reason VR is one of the few pieces of gaming tech not targeting the kid market—a combination of other factors are also at play.
Back in the late ‘90s, home consoles made the leap to three-dimensional, polygon-based gameplay, leaving behind the pixel sprites and two-dimensional worlds that had dominated the previous generation.
With this change in viewpoint came a wealth of new titles, as games like Tomb Raider, Resident Evil, and Perfect Dark all took advantage of the possibilities of the new perspective. These brand-new intellectual properties made for a period of rapid transition in gaming culture, as players got to fall in love with a variety of fresh faces.
With VR now upon us, a new period of transition is about to arrive as players discover a range of new games and gameplay options designed with VR in mind. While there are a few adaptations of existing titles to VR, and a few franchises such as Final Fantasy and Psychonauts taking advantage of the new platform, most studios are using virtual reality as an opportunity to try something completely new. Both large and small developers alike are creating brand-new IPs, and this means an opportunity for gamers to discover a variety of novel, interesting titles that don’t have the baggage of a long series behind them.
Ah, the Adventure game. Once the mainstay genre of the gaming industry, point-and-click titles lost popularity around the turn of the century, and for a while were considered a dead format by many developers.
Hope is not lost, though: a recent resurgence in the popularity of adventure games, led primarily by small and independent game studios trying new ideas and formats for the genre, has seen returning interest in these masterpieces of storytelling. Even more exciting are the opportunities that virtual reality technology will create, as games driven by character development and narrative progression take on a new direction as immersive, first-person experiences.
VR might well be about to breathe new life into this genre that was once almost entirely written off by critics and gamers alike – which ought to give fans of Monkey Island, Day of the Tentacle, and King’s Quest plenty to be excited about!
Plenty of games have a diverse cast of playable characters. Cult classics like Super Mario Bros 2 (or Doki Doki Panic if you’re a purist) give players the opportunity to choose between several, all of whom are controlled in slightly different ways and have notable special abilities: Mario is an all-rounder, Luigi can jump higher, Peach can float in mid-air for a second, and Toad is a tiny speed demon.
Providing multiple characters in games is common, but as virtual reality gaming grows in popularity, it will be interesting to see to what extent VR games try to explore multiple characters and viewpoints. When playing in VR, the player needs to feel attached and connected to the character whose body they’re stepping into. To throw players inside different characters as the story progresses could be dangerous—doing so risks a loss of immersion, a failure to connect with the game’s protagonist, and in extreme cases could even cause nausea or disorientation.
If developers do plan on creating VR games with multiple viewpoints, without confusing the player, they’ll need to adhere to several key gameplay concepts.
It’s 2:00 a.m. and I’m riveted to my computer screen. Yes, it’s long past my bedtime, but I’m caught up in the emotionally driven world of an episodic game. I started it just the day before, I can feel the conclusion nearing, and I can’t put the game down. Life is Strange might be laying it on a little thick with the teen melodrama, but I can’t help but be sucked in; like a well-written soap opera, it draws me in and keeps me hooked.
If today’s narrative-heavy games can get players staying up long hours to get the whole thing done in one or two sittings, the potential for immersive, you-are-the-hero virtual reality games is limitless. Longer games can stretch out the narrative over many hours and pack the story full of combat, puzzle-solving, and other elements that sometimes bloat an otherwise good story. Episodic games boil the story down to its essentials. Putting you in the shoes of a game’s protagonist, a virtual reality game loaded with emotion is a concentrated gut-punch (in the best way), showing the powerful storytelling capabilities of both episodic games and VR.
With the first batch of VR headsets entering the wild and finding their way to reviewers recently, a lot is being said about the experience of donning a visor and interacting with a virtual world. One common issue that journalists are experiencing is the challenge of getting used to seeing things from another person’s perspective.
It’s going to take gamers a while to get used to the concept of living in another body—and one that (at times) might be very different to their own. Because in virtual reality it’s not possible to see the controlled character, it can feel like jumping into the skin of a brand new person; without proper context, this can be a jarring experience. So how can games help players to develop a relationship with their new digital avatars, and what can be done to soften the blow of the virtual reality transformation?
When constructing a virtual reality game, all developers come across the issue of space.
No, not outer space (although science fiction games are a lot of fun). The problem that developers face involves physical space as opposed to virtual space, and making games that don’t require more movement than players can manage in their living rooms, bedrooms, or dens.
That’s probably not a surprise to you, but considering my childhood dream of leaping tall buildings in a single bound, getting to this stage in life without being bitten by a radioactive spider or being the product of a scientific experiment is something of a letdown.
I, like many other people raised on comic books, would jump at the chance to feel what it’s like to have fantastic powers. And that’s not the only fantasy out there – others dream of success, fame, travel, or even physical intimacy that they’re not able to get in their ordinary life.
Enter virtual reality: an opportunity for people everywhere to be able to experience what it’s like to see their every wish come true.
Cutscenes, in their current form, won’t translate very well to VR.
Cinematic cutscenes are often used to give players a sense of perspective and an understanding of their character, explaining their mission, their place, or their relationships. They offer dramatic camera angles and sweeping shots, pleasing the eye as well as the mind.
In VR, though, where the action is seen solely through the eyes of the player character, any attempt to deviate from this viewpoint will break immersion and confuse the player. It would feel as if the player’s eyes had left their head for a minute.
Video game love stories can be excellent, immersive experiences in a way that other media simply isn’t. A relationship feels more real, in some senses, because we actually take on the role of a person—even if that person is very different from us.
With modern games capable of complicated branching storylines, relationships in games can become deep, powerful things. Choosing a love interest for your Inquisitor in Dragon Age: Inquisition challenges you—I spent time with each potential partner, considering Iron Bull’s unique take on romance and mourning Cassandra Pentaghast’s lack of interest in my character’s gender, before pursuing the diplomatic and charming Josephine—with each character adding to and complicating the picture of romance I had for my Inquisitor.
Games have the ability to make us experience romance and related emotions to an incredible degree. I’m nothing like my horned, stab-happy Qunari Inquisitor, but I still found a connection with her romance options because I embodied her for a time. I made decisions for her that were not necessarily the decisions that I would make, but playing somebody else gave me an incredible new experience.