VR Environments: The Delicate Work of Creating a Powerful Atmosphere

VR environment in Loading Human

 

I remember the jump from 2D gaming to three dimensions—it wasn’t always a pretty picture (literally). Low polygon counts in Mario Kart 64 were responsible for more than a few nauseating moments as the speed of movement in the game’s 3D world became too much for many players still  unaccustomed to the perspective.

With the next leap in technology, the struggle begins again: one of the big challenges that virtual reality developers are facing is nausea, as players’ brains struggle to make sense of the virtual world around them. Some developers are even experimenting with including a digital nose to make the VR display better match what the human eye is used to seeing in its peripheral vision. But what about the rest of the view?

When it comes to making VR work seamlessly to create an enjoyable gameplay experience, nothing is more important than a solid atmosphere and environment. In order for science fiction/fantasy games to wow audiences without overwhelming (or sickening) them, their VR environments need to carefully balance a fantasy setting with familiar, grounded elements of the real world.

The Design Style Sweet Spot

Disney illustrators often employ what’s known as the 70/30 law—a design should be 70% ordinary, and 30% extraordinary. This is seen in movies such as The Incredibles and Treasure Planet, which blended fantastical or unrealistic settings with more familiar, grounded fictional worlds—in the latter, the classic pirate iconography of a ship is augmented with glowing sails and roaring science fiction engines.

The Bioshock video game series is often looked to as an example both of how a careful design blend can work really well, and an example of how designs can fall short. The settings of all Bioshock games are praised for taking fantastical scenarios, such as floating cities and underwater communities, and combining them with historical architecture and designs to create fictional worlds that stretch the boundaries of plausibility whilst also feeling lived-in.

VR game environments can take cues from Bioshock Infinite's environment
The Bioshock Infinite environment is the perfect blend of historic and fantastic elements. Image Source: Polygon

 

In this way, Bioshock succeeds—at least until the action starts. Many reviewers noted the dramatic tonal shift that occurs in Bioshock Infinite—one minute the player is walking through a pleasant, Disney-esque cityscape, and the next, everything erupts into an explosion of blood and gore. While much of Bioshock Infinite’s setting is carefully balanced so as to look fresh, colorful, and inviting, its graphic violence doesn’t always fit well with this approach. Soaking the cartoonish visuals in blood and entrails breaks immersion as it presents an uneven, inconsistent visual narrative.

Loading Human takes a nuanced, consistent approach to its environments and design choices. While the game takes place in the future, players interact with locations and objects that feel familiar: desks, papers, and tools all feel natural, which is crucial when navigating a VR space. This falls fairly closely in line with Disney’s 70/30 law, with huge fantastical landscapes visible outside of windows, but just enough modern-day elements to make the environments feel comfortable.

The challenge in VR is making games that, while providing an alternative view of the universe, don’t become so fantastical that they become abstract—or nauseating.

Following the Rules of the Universe

If there’s one area that VR games need to maintain realism, it’s in physics. Players need to know that objects, walls, and even the rules of lighting and depth will still apply, or the game will lose its sense of realism and immersion, and the player might struggle with navigating the VR environment.

With Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, developer Lucasarts was eager to show off a brand new physics engine. It was purported that for the first time in games, materials would react differently to the player’s interactions based on how soft or hard the material might be. Items would shatter, bend and break differently each time the player interacted with them.

In reality, though, this technology didn’t work quite as well as Lucasarts had hoped. In the game, items are shattered  into tiny pieces that are trodden under the foot of the player character, making for distracting background noise. Rather than making object interaction come across as natural and authentic, the physics for the game is unrealistic to the point of absurdity, and make it difficult for players to trust objects, as it’s unclear how they’ll react to the player’s touch.

It’s this level of unpredictability and uncertainty that VR games have to avoid: the rules of the game universe have to match up to what players have experienced in real life. In particular, lighting is crucial for producing a solid atmosphere that doesn’t confuse the player—non-specific or inaccurate shadows can make it difficult to visually parse what’s appearing in front of the player’s eyes.

A lot of effort has been put into the use of shadows, lighting, and color throughout Loading Human. Warm lights in your character’s home create a feeling of safety and security, while darker areas of shadows in laboratories create an atmosphere that feels cold, clinical, and uninviting. Throughout these areas, though, the rules of physics and lighting remain intact.

Loading Human Bedroom VR environment

Keep it Simple

With this understanding of the importance of realistic grounding in mind, it would be easy to assume that VR games need to be as photorealistic as possible in order to draw in users. That’s not actually the case—a game can have an expressive art style while still remaining grounded. If the basic rules of the universe are accurate, the skin over the top can come in a variety of outlandish colors and shades.

Games like Loading Human, No Man’s Sky, and Firewatch are all examples of a new wave of colorful game designs—perhaps a direct reaction to the grimy, brown games that have dominated the market in recent years. What’s interesting is that these games don’t suffer any lack of realism for their bright color palettes.

Simplistic, bold colors don’t break immersion as long as the rest of the rules of the universe are in place. If anything, the color choices make it easier for players to identify what they’re seeing—their brains fill in the blanks naturally, because the art designs have believable physics at their core.

VR Game Environments can also take ideas from Firewatch
Firewatch looks realistic while also sporting a stylized color pallette. Image Source: Kotaku

 

In fact, the wrong amount of realism can actually be detrimental. Take, for example, Ripper, the ‘90s mystery adventure game which featured live action video footage of stars including Christopher Walken, acting against CGI backdrops. Such a bizarre combination of different elements makes it difficult for the human eye to understand what it’s looking at, and the lack of interaction between the characters and their computer generated surroundings make the whole game feel abstract and unnatural.

Realism can work fantastically in games when applied carefully. More important, though, is making sure that the overall design style for a VR game meshes, and that no elements stand out as unusual or out of place.

Through a careful 70/30 balance of grounded and fantastic designs, which leave plenty to the imagination yet also feel natural and comfortable, VR games can create believable yet awe-inspiring environments that players will fall in love with. This grounded, convincing VR world also means that players won’t get nauseous, which is always a bonus!

Loading Human is an upcoming VR title with a powerful story and an inviting, interesting and atmospheric science fiction setting. To get updates on the progress of this excellent example of VR environments in action, sign up for our newsletter today.

 

Andrew Nguyen

Producer, gamer, coffee roaster, leather worker, and part-time streamer.

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