You can’t die in a video game, right?
As much as developers try to make games feel authentic and immersive, players are always aware that what they’re going through has no real-world consequences. The stakes in a video game won’t carry into real life, and it’s hard to forget that.
With VR, there’s an opportunity to give players a more immersive experience than ever before.
Virtual reality developers are aiming to create experiences that allow the player to get swept up in the emotion of a game and suspend their disbelief. This can be a challenge, as players often struggle to leave behind the idea that “it’s just a game.”
So what kinds of narratives work well in games to create a strong sense of genuine peril, and what can gamers do to help themselves suspend their disbelief and sink into the game?
Do You Believe in Monsters?
Last year, I played a horror game with a friend.
Slender: The Arrival has the player race to complete various challenges, such as turning on generators or collecting pages of a notebook, in a dark and spooky setting while being pursued by Slenderman, a faceless monster that will capture the player if they look at it for too long.
We took turns playing, with my friend going first. She dashed around the woods, genuinely terrified by the monster that was stalking her, before getting trapped in a corner and being overcome by Slenderman.
When my time to play came, though, I approached the game in a more inquisitive manner. I wanted to see how Slenderman worked, how close I could get without being caught, and where the developers had set traps for the player. Fully aware that the game couldn’t actually do me any permanent harm, I wanted to see how far I could push the boundaries.
Before long, I figured out that the ‘hit box’ surrounding Slenderman was actually fairly small. When I got cornered like my friend, I realized I could dash straight past the monster before it could catch me as long as I didn’t look at its head while doing so.
These are two very different responses to the exact same game. I was arguably ruining some of the fun by refusing to suspend my disbelief while playing, while my friend bought entirely into the game’s setting and peril, and treated it as if she was trapped in a real-life horror situation.
And there’s the rub. A lot of the way we experience VR games will depend on how much we as players are willing to invest in the scenario. If we approach a game from a cynical perspective, it’ll be hard to enjoy the narrative as the developers intended. Ultimately, when it comes to any video game, what we get from an experience depends on how much we’re willing to put into it. This is especially true in virtual reality, where the immersive setting allows for players to really let go of the real world if they’re willing.
At the same time, the responsibility for convincing players to invest in a game falls on developers. If a game is well-built and the peril feels real, a gamer will be more willing to spend time learning the lore of a particular title, and will feel more emotionally connected to its events.
A Fate Worse Than Death
The most common trick that developers use to make a game exciting is the threat of failure. If a player gets hit by too many enemies or can’t solve a puzzle, they’ll die and have to start again.
This approach is often easy, but it’s not necessarily the best way to get players invested. A death scene always breaks a game’s immersion. The player is reminded that they’re playing a game, and knowing you’re about to get a do-over takes a lot away from the authenticity of the narrative.
Wario Land II for the Gameboy foregoes the threat of death by making the player character unkillable, and instead setting traps that force the player to loop around if they’re unsuccessful at a challenge. Boss fights involve large enemies trying to push Wario out of the arena, off cliffs, or up past impassable barriers so that the player has to regroup and come up with a new strategy before they can progress.
But what of regular enemies? Where’s the challenge if Wario can’t be beaten?
Instead of relying on the threat of death, the game punishes players by making Wario drop coins.
This is a genius move on the part of the developers. The whole point of the game is to collect as much money as possible, and bonus content can be unlocked if Wario becomes rich enough. Instead of inflicting physical damage when injured, the game takes away some of Wario’s money, creating an even more potent threat that lends real urgency to the gameplay.
Using NPCs as Collateral
In games which focus on building relationships with characters, on the other hand, the primary form of peril comes from the death of NPCs. In the Fire Emblem strategy game series, if one of your troops takes too much damage, they will be permanently removed from all battles for the rest of the game.
Fire Emblem builds up the importance of keeping these characters safe by giving each of your soldiers their own unique backstory and personality. Over the course of the game, you learn about these characters and learn to care for them, making it all the more vitally important that none of them are killed.
This approach of putting NPCs in danger is an excellent way to create peril in virtual reality. In Loading Human, for example, the player gets to know a character named Alice. Over the course of several interactions, the player’s character, Prometheus, develops a romantic relationship with Alice, which the player is also able to invest in.
Then, disaster strikes—Alice is put in danger, and the player must rush to rescue her.
Player death might not be much of a motivator, but the threat of NPC death is a whole other story. There’s every chance that Alice could be killed off permanently if the player can’t save her in time, and that makes for some far more believable tension.
Through the use of virtual reality technology, games developers can create wonderful, immersive worlds that really suck in the player.
In order for the experience to be exciting, there need to be solid, believable stakes that don’t break immersion. For this, VR developers can look to finding more unorthodox ways of inspiring players to care about what they’re likely to lose out on, beyond simply forcing them to replay a game segment.
Meanwhile, it’s up to players to put our inhibitions to the side and fully invest in a game, choosing to believe in the narrative and letting ourselves be scared by the monsters chasing us.
If we all plays our parts well enough, VR games will start to feel that much less virtual—and that much more real.
To try out an exciting new VR experience with a strong character-driven story at its heart, order your copy of Loading Human today!
Lead image source: GameBitMag