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.
Many games are already moving away from traditional ‘cinematic’ notions of the cutscene, in favor of delivering storytelling in the background of the game itself. With VR comes an opportunity to capitalize on this style of narrative exposition, and a chance to provide a new, even more emotionally impactful version of a cutscene which plays out before the viewer’s eyes.
The First Person Cutscene Conundrum
Cutscenes are a great staple of the video game formula, but in the first person perspective, it’s difficult to make an establishing movie work.
Metroid and Halo tried to work around this by delivering a third-person cutscene before zooming back into the player’s viewpoint. But this rapid shifting of viewpoint won’t work at all for VR cutscenes, who need to remain in the first-person viewpoint to maintain immersion.
Not being able to shift view changes a lot about the way stories can be told in games. Without third-person cutscenes, it’s not possible to show, for example, the outside of the spaceship that the player’s exploring in games such as Mass Effect. Players can’t get a sense of what other characters in the game are doing in their absence, as is crucial for the advancement of the plot of certain titles.
These limitations are most challenging for games with strong stories at their core—restricting the viewpoint means removing tools from the storyteller’s arsenal, and can make it more difficult to communicate a sense of scale when all players can see is what’s directly in front of them.
A Solution in the Making
These problems are not unique to VR; plenty of first-person games have been experimenting for a while with cutscenes which play out from the perspective of the player character.
Games such as Skyrim, Half Life 2, and the Call of Duty franchise all provide all their exposition through the eyes of the player. In doing so, some of the cinematic quality of the cutscenes are lost, as the only action that can be shown is what happens right in front of the game’s protagonist. These games all feature lengthy periods where the player’s movement is restricted while non-player characters provide exposition or other important information, which isn’t quite as exciting as watching a fast-paced movie scene that provides all the relevant details.
At the same time, though, the games gain a level of immersion—with the player experiencing the entirety of the game through the eyes of the hero, and without cutscenes to break this uninterrupted viewpoint, it’s easier for the player to emotionally invest in the game and put themselves in the place of their avatar.
VR provides an even greater level of depth and immersion in storytelling directly through the eyes of the protagonist, as can be seen in Loading Human. Instead of breaking for long, cinematic cutscenes, Loading Human relies on providing the player with exposition and story points based on their interactions.
As players travel through the game’s world, different objects and items can be interacted with that give the player a better understanding of who their character is and what matters to them. Loading Human uses books, photo albums, and other documents that are present in the game’s environment, in place of cutscenes, to teach the player the lore and history of the world.
Beyond this, the game also provides narrative through dialogue and interaction with other characters. Whereas in some games cutscenes are used to make a game feel more like watching a movie, Loading Human uses very brief flashes of first-person cut scenes to make the game feel more like reality.
This approach is also helpful for anybody who’s not interested in seeing cut scenes, such as those replaying the game for a second time—with most exposition being provided through voiceover and items, there’s nothing to get in the way of progressing at your chosen pace.
For Better or Worse
So will VR narrative devices be better for their realistic viewpoint? Or will VR games suffer for the loss of a free-roaming camera?
There’s no simple answer to this question—any approach to cutscenes in a VR environment will have its own strengths and weaknesses. The process of providing exposition through objects and items, or through on-rails delivery of exposition through non-player characters, does mean that games have to spend a lot of time telling the player what’s going on, rather than delivering all relevant information in a single cinematic.
That said, the complete immersion offered when using alternative forms of exposition in VR, such as books to read and items to interact with, can work towards overcoming the limitations of fixed perspective cutscenes, and perhaps even surpass them.
Ultimately, the VR cutscenes that will work best will be the ones that find a way to utilize the unique experience of head-turning, behind-the-camera action, while not breaking the gamer’s connection to their character. However that happens, we’re sure to see plenty of unique and exciting variations on cutscenes in the years to come.
With its own take on exposition delivery and cutscenes, Loading Human is venturing boldly into the uncharted waters of VR. Preorder your copy of Loading Human today!