Everybody knows what it’s like to invest emotionally in fictional works, whether they be books, movies, or games. What eleven-year-old hasn’t waited impatiently for their Hogwarts letter or dreamt about what it would be like to train as a Jedi?
With virtual reality, the opportunity to disappear inside an imaginary world becomes more concrete and believable than ever before. Gamers the world over are able to lose themselves in a narrative in a way that, thanks to the immediacy and presence created in VR, feels realer than any storytelling medium that’s come before.
What matters, though, is that developers give players a world that they can invest in: a deep VR experience that has enough substance to allow immersion, but enough freedom to let players insert themselves into the story they’re being told.
Suspension of Disbelief Comes Naturally
Gamers are very happy to meet developers halfway when it comes to the believability of their fictional universes.
The popularity of pen and paper games such as Dungeons and Dragons, which has been played by over twenty million people worldwide, indicates that a strong storytelling environment and the opportunity to take on a new role or persona has a huge draw for many people—even in the absence of visual images to guide the experience.
If developers provide images and an interactive world, all the better—the popularity of online role-playing games such as World of Warcraft, which at its height saw twelve million people playing regularly together, indicates that a good platform for personal investment will always find a solid audience of gamers who are willing to leave reality behind them.
All of this comes from a willingness to suspend disbelief. Players are happy to invest emotionally in a fictional narrative and fill in the cracks themselves, where necessary, in order to experience a satisfying alternative reality. Gamers are able to shed their typical persona and take on a new role. Psychologists believe that the act of taking on a new role even enables players to learn greater empathy for others. What’s more, role-play practice helps players develop more nuanced social skills in a safe fantasy environment.
With VR, the opportunity for even more immersive, believable worlds grows, as players are able not just to suspend their disbelief, but to fully invest in the fictional world that they enter.
Accessibility Breeds Emotional Investment
The central draw for virtual reality is the creation of a set of digital experiences that override our senses with new information.
In so doing, virtual reality removes the barrier between the player and the fiction they’re absorbing. Instead of watching a drama through a screen or mentally picturing a world as described in a book, players are able to take everything they see and hear at face value, trusting their brains to compile the fiction without too much reliance on imagining.
This means that instead of fabricating a reaction to events in a game, players experience emotions viscerally. Scientific research has found that emotional responses such as fear and empathy occur much easier in VR than they do in other storytelling media—players’ emotional barriers are lessened as the drama that unfolds feels more real.
No matter what role-play experience players prefer, there are VR games in development to scratch the itch. From light-hearted escapist sandbox titles like Eagle Flight to pulse-pounding adventurous peril in The Climb, to the dark and disturbing world of The Assembly, plenty of VR games let players leave their real world behind and truly invest in new characters, personas, and identities in ways that have never been possible before.
Relying on technology alone to dazzle players isn’t enough, though—VR games need to work with the player’s own sense of imagination to create an experience that gamers can truly lose themselves in.
Blending Technology and Imagination
No matter how visually impressive your VR world might be, players can’t inhabit it if there’s not enough substance to dive into.
Players are very happy to be tricked by virtual reality experiences—in fact, they’ll go out of their way to allow VR game developers to overrule their natural skepticism for the sake of a strong narrative. Such is the case in VR games that use simplified, cartoon graphics (such as Job Simulator), where the player knows what they’re seeing isn’t realistic, but they’re willing to bend their interpretation of the visuals they’re given because, while not photo-realistic, the environment at least has enough substance for the player to treat it as real. If that depth isn’t present, though, there’s only so much that VR can do. Developers must give their players enough freedom of imagination to not just watch the story unfold, but feel like they’re participating in the adventure.
In this way, there’s plenty that VR developers can learn from pen and paper role-playing games, or even digital RPGs that tell a branching story.
A recent huge success amongst the indie video game scene is Undertale, which provides players with a world reminiscent of retro role-playing games, but which fills the world with little jokes, compelling characters, and multiple choices that influence the end of the story. While the main game isn’t very long, the depth of the storytelling is what keeps players eager to seek out hidden clues and details. It’s this kind of worldbuilding, which allows the player freedom to explore and choose their own path, that will help gamers embrace the digital worlds created in virtual reality.
This is how Loading Human approaches everything surrounding its game design. The player isn’t forced down a linear path, but is instead given an open stage to explore. Books can be pulled from the shelf, photo albums can be leafed through, and items throughout the world can be interacted with, making locations throughout the game feel like more than just facades created for the sake of pushing the player forward.
Throughout all of this, the player is constantly taught, through voiceovers which provide the thoughts of Prometheus, the character they play. They’re reminded at every turn that they’re not experiencing the event of the game as themselves, but rather, they’re inhabiting the body of a different person. Through the digital world around them, players can learn about the relationships between different characters and can gain as much backstory and lore as they need to feel emotionally connected to the story that unfolds.
Down the Rabbit Hole
Role-playing has always been a large part of our culture as a species. From pretending to be a superhero at recess as kids to reading books and playing video games as adults, we long for opportunities to take on fictional roles, to explore ourselves through becoming somebody different.
With VR, gamers have the opportunity to explore a new role in a more believable, emotionally resonant way than ever before. But it’s not enough for developers to give players the keys to a new body and send them on their way—the world that developers create needs to have enough depth and texture to let players pour themselves into a role.
When gamers are given this opportunity, they relish it—and in the years to come, VR role-playing is likely to explode in popularity as storytelling and fantasy become more powerful than they’ve ever been before.
Loading Human is a science fiction virtual reality adventure game with a strong story at its core and plenty of space to explore and role-play. To experience the game for yourself, preorder the first chapter now.