Emotionally Powerful Journeys in VR Games Require Balanced Intensity

Fire in VR Game Loading Human


Speaking with GamesIndustry.biz, Votypka argued that “As game developers we have a responsibility to be considerate about the types of experiences that we’re doing because it now feels that much more realistic and you feel that much more connected to it.”

VR is an intense experience, and the emotional impact that VR games can have on the player need to be carefully balanced to make sure that audiences don’t react negatively or end up feeling overwhelmed.

But how can developers get the perfect balance in their games? How can they tell a powerful, emotionally impactful story that doesn’t go overboard?

Tugging the Heartstrings

We’re all familiar with moving pieces of fiction that affect us emotionally.

It’s common for audiences to cry at the end of The Notebook or feel pity for abandoned toys in the Toy Story series. In games like Dragon Age Inquisition, players are forced to make a choice to save lives at the cost of others, and are confronted first-hand with the consequences of their actions afterwards. That Dragon, Cancer is an incredibly somber look at the pain of terminal illness, which has left even hardened gamers feeling emotionally drained after playing.

There’s no shame in crying whilst playing That Dragon, Cancer. | Image Source: Kotaku.com via Patrick Klepek
There’s no shame in crying whilst playing That Dragon, Cancer. | Image Source: Kotaku.com via Patrick Klepek


These poignant moments affect us because, as human beings, we naturally have empathy towards those around us—it’s very uncomfortable to watch somebody else suffer, as years of social evolution have led us to want to help other members of our community, even when we’re powerless to do anything about it.

In virtual reality, these moments of empathy can be even more potent. While audiences can feel sad at seeing a child cry in a movie, distressing scenes are so much more upsetting in a VR scenario, where there’s no disconnect between the player and the world of the story.

A VR experience that’s too heart-wrenching or emotionally raw can have a significant impact on the player—one that might be damaging when developers push the boat too far.

Singing the Eyebrows

There’s another side to the intense experiences of virtual reality.

It’s not common for games to deliberately hit players over the head with depressing or disturbing imagery (although it does happen occasionally). More often, games are used for high-octane, often violent escapism—an experience that can be exhilarating as the player’s reflexes and reaction times are put to the test. The most well-known example of this type of gameplay is probably the Call of Duty franchise, where players are never very far away from a Michael Bay-style explosion and an unexpected firefight.

Things go "boom" with disconcerting regularity in Call of Duty games. | Image Source: callofduty.wikia.com via user Advanced Rookie
Things go “boom” with disconcerting regularity in Call of Duty games. | Image Source: callofduty.wikia.com via user Advanced Rookie


The challenge with creating these kinds of experiences in virtual reality is that, as the world players experience is more real and immediate, the physical and mental responses that their bodies produce in the face of periods of intense gaming action becomes more pronounced.

Academics have spent years debating the way that violence in gaming affects the minds of the player. A recent review has concluded that there is a link between playing violent games and more aggressive behavior (though not criminal actions). It’s believed that this is brought on by the ‘fight-or-flight’ instinct within the human body—in order to perform at peak efficiency in a crisis, the body will release adrenaline in preparation to either run from a scary situation or tackle it head on.

In VR, where the experience of playing games is so much more intense, the body is even more likely to react as if it’s in a warzone, and gamers can end up going through a genuinely stressful ordeal whilst playing games.

Explosions feel more real, close calls are more impactful, and jump scares, in particular, mess with our body’s natural fear response.

All of this can lead to an overly exhausting and emotionally draining experience, if developers aren’t careful to balance their games carefully.

A Natural Ebb and Flow

Developers have a lot of power to influence the emotions of the gamers who play their games. With this power comes a responsibility to use their influence wisely.

As with any story, VR games should have a natural ebb and flow to their experience. There’s no point in forcing players through a constantly tense, chaotic maelstrom of action: slower moments are necessary to let the player catch their breath and process what they’ve just experienced.

This is true of all games—the original Sonic the Hedgehog game, while designed with fast gameplay in mind, has a very slow second zone where the player is forced to wait for moving platforms and timed puzzles. This is done deliberately to give the player the chance to slow down and regroup after a particularly speedy initial few levels.

This is the approach that VR developers should take with their games: rather than pushing gamers constantly from one tense, emotional, or violent scenario to the next, there should be time for the player to calm down and regain composure.

In Loading Human, the player is given the opportunity to interact with the game’s many puzzles at their own pace: there’s a mix of experiences in different levels, some of which are emotionally impactful or tinged with creepy suspense, and others which are bright, beautiful, and sunny, to make sure that the player has an exciting, challenging experience without every feeling overwhelmed or emotionally drained.

VR game loading human boasts a tense atmosphere
In Loading Human, players are given the freedom to explore light and dark environments at their own pace to avoid emotional fatigue. 

Balance Makes Better Games

It’s important for developers to not overwhelm their players. Too much violence, gore, tension, or drama can end up diluting the message that the game attempts to communicate, as players are left too overstimulated to react properly.

But a VR game which carefully balances its moments of intense excitement with quieter downtime, which lets players take things at their own pace while still challenging them, will create a more exhilarating experience, as the player is more capable of reacting to the world around them and the excitement of the plot.

Proper balance can make VR an incredible, emotional experience that players enjoy—this is the ideal that all developers should be striving for.

Loading Human is an episodic VR adventure game that’s currently in development. Preorder the first chapter today for the chance to experience VR storytelling at its finest.

Andrew Nguyen

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

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