Depth in VR: How Three Dimensions Make Virtual Reality Feel Real

Believable NPCs in VR Games

At this year’s PAX West, there was a singular moment when I discovered how powerful virtual reality could be. I was playing a demo for a VR title and found myself struggling with the controls, repeatedly moving my hand while trying to interact with an object. After a couple of failures, it dawned on me what the problem was—I was only thinking in two dimensions, not three. Sure enough, I extended my hand a little further and hit the sweet spot, allowing me to continue with the game.

Suddenly, it was like somebody had flipped a switch in my brain. This is what VR can do that no other gaming form can. I’ve traversed a multitude of gaming worlds, appreciated small details in any number of gorgeously-rendered titles, and engaged with more expertly-crafted environments and cohesive worldbuilding than I dare try to count—but never have I felt as though I, personally, was really, physically there.

When VR embraces its power to simulate depth, it truly sets itself apart from other gaming platforms. Games that play with depth in VR provide a perfect display of how the technology can open up an entirely new realm of gaming possibilities.

VR Depth Changes How We Interact With Games

Games are naturally immersive. Like any other media, the point is to draw you in and let you enjoy something that isn’t technically real, whether it’s navigating an ever-quickening labyrinth of swirling hexagons or engaging in diplomatic relations with mages and templars.

But, despite beautiful environments and incredible storylines and gameplay, there are few, if any, games that are able to truly move away from merely having you control an external avatar. Even in first-person games set in 3D environments, it’s not really you, but your avatar, moving through the three-dimensional space. While it’s still a satisfying experience, especially in the beautiful settings of games like BioShock: Infinite or Far Cry 4, it still feels two-dimensional to players because of the distance between you, your controller, your avatar, and the world your avatar inhabits.

Depth in VR games
While BioShock: Infinite’s environments are certainly immersive, the ability to sense depth in VR could make them feel even more realistic. Image Source: Delyth Angharad.

VR changes that. Because you’re wearing a headset that blocks out the outside world, and because VR puts you into the 3D world with no perceivable gap between what you see and the avatar you control, the connection you have to the game’s world runs far deeper. This creates a sense of depth that just isn’t possible in conventional gaming. It’s a bit of a shock at first encounter—hence my initial frustration with the demo at PAX—but the moment it clicks, you understand how powerful this technology really is.

Heightened Immersion

Depth is hard to convey in any media. And while it may not be important to every title, depth in VR showcases the core difference between virtual reality and conventional gaming.

In the sci-fi VR game Loading Human, the environments are fully explorable and sport numerous objects you can interact with in order to gain a better understanding of the main character, Prometheus. As you explore an Antarctic research base and uncover the darker aspects of Prometheus’ relationships with the important figures in his life—his father, Dorian, and Dorian’s secretary, Alice—you’re encouraged to pick up and examine the different pieces of his life to discover what they mean to him.

You might play a record to get a feel for his taste in music, or take a closer look at a pair of wine glasses. Even the most random-seeming objects may shed light on a new aspect of the story.

Depth in VR games
Loading Human’s environments allow you to appreciate them in a three-dimensional sense as you can physically interact with the objects within.

Many games, of course, tell stories through exploration—the walking simulator genre is almost entirely based on this premise—but that extra layer of depth makes this an entirely new experience. VR lets you embody Prometheus more fully than a conventional game would, and the sense of depth lets you appreciate details like the size of rooms, the distance between objects, and the powerful feeling of reaching for something, rather than just pressing a button to pick it up.

It seems simple enough, but depth has a powerful effect on how we perceive the world. Loading Human’s beautiful environments come to life when there is actual, perceivable space between objects. Because the game is made specifically for virtual reality, this engagement is built into the experience. Depth is as key to appreciating Loading Human as are elements like sound and basic controls, and that’s something only virtual reality can deliver.

Only the Tip of the Iceberg

Depth isn’t something we often think about in gaming. Environmental design is important, but appreciating the depth virtual reality brings to the gaming field is a huge jump in engagement. You can think of it as something like the difference between early DOOM’s simulated 3D environments and modern DOOM’s multiple heights and shifting perspectives. VR adds that extra level of depth to make the gaming experience feel truly three-dimensional, rather than just a world of flat, projected texture.

And with the rate at which technology has been advancing, the possibilities are limitless. We’re only at the beginning of practical virtual reality—as more VR games are released, developers will continue to find new ways to explore depth in gaming as we dive ever deeper into the virtual realm.

Loading Human, developed exclusively for virtual reality, lets you explore the powerful potential of this unique medium in thrilling new ways. Order your copy today!


Michelle Peniche

Pokemon catcher, coffee lover, part time road tripper.

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