There’s an air of respectability involved in curling up with a good book and getting immersed in a story on the written page. Coworkers will nod and smile if you mention your weekend plans of getting started on a reread of The Lord of the Rings or diving into some Sherlock Holmes. But that same respect is very rarely given to people who dive deep into an interactive story in the form of role-playing video games.
This is a shame, really—especially since a solid RPG can deliver an experience that’s just as immersive, an emotionally resonant story just as strong, as that of a well-crafted book. In many cases, the element of control offered by a video game can provide an even more meaningful narrative, and upcoming virtual reality technology will allow players to immerse themselves in a game more fully than has ever been possible before—if developers approach certain elements correctly.
The Truly Immersive Fantasy Experience
With the advent of VR comes a fantastic opportunity to take RPGs to the next level. Instead of watching their character from a distance, separated by screens and outside distractions, players can virtually inhabit their avatar, seeing the world from their perspective and disappearing inside a fantasy world. It’s this logic that recently led Sony to trademark the term ‘VRPG,’ although there are no signs yet as to whether this particular label will take off.
The prospect of experiencing a game like Final Fantasy completely through the eyes of the protagonist is enough to get any fan of RPGs excited. These games have typically focused on building stories around impressive, beautifully designed environments, either realistic or fantasy, and lovable yet outlandish characters. Through giving these elements a first person perspective, VR will allow players to truly buy into the fantasy of a game world in a way that’s not possible when a computer screen or television provides a literal barrier to entry.
That said, the transition to VR might not be completely smooth. Some RPG storytelling elements will transfer to the VR experience seamlessly, while others will take some careful planning from game designers.
The Hard Part: Text, Inventories, and Immersion
There’s one key element of the RPG experience, though, that players expect to find regardless of the type of RPG they’re playing: inventories. For many gamers, the experience of playing an RPG is as much about personalizing their team, balancing their equipment, and choosing their abilities, as it is about enjoying the narrative.
Modern games which have minimized the importance of customization options have received criticism as a result. Mass Effect 2, for example, provided subtle ways to alter characters’ equipment that many players felt were too shallow compared to the first Mass Effect. They didn’t like the idea of being stuck with a crew wearing default armor that provided little room for personalization.
Providing customization options—dialogue trees, inventories, player stats, and item lists—is an important element for many RPGs, but it has a significant drawback: there’s no real way to provide these functions without involving an awful lot of text. This becomes a greater challenge in VR: forcing players to squint at detailed lists damages the experience, breaks up the gameplay, and can strain immersion.
Overcoming the Limitations of the Genre in VR
Some games have found a way to incorporate large amounts of text in a way that doesn’t break the player’s suspension of disbelief. Fallout 4, for example, relies on the player character’s wrist-mounted Pip-Boy to provide inventory management as well as other interactions with the game world, such as playing audio tapes to explain the backstory of various locales. The game even went so far as to give players the option to use their phone as a real-world Pip-Boy, providing a second screen for organizing loot. This way of letting inventory management play out naturally in-game items ensures that the player’s immersion is never broken, and makes the process of sorting through items more natural. This kind of approach would help to make virtual reality inventory screens feel natural, giving players a way to continue to interact with the game world while navigating menus.
Physically interacting with the items is better than any menu or display for maintaining immersion, however, and that’s the approach Loading Human takes. While not an RPG, this VR title presents an exciting example of what might be possible. Backstory and plot points are provided through various items that the player can pick up and interact with, organically learning more about the world—much like the critically acclaimed mystery game Gone Home, which used items (newspaper clippings, photographs, and phone messages) to tell a powerful story without breaking the flow of the game.
Ultimately, the trick for developers will be finding ways to keep players interacting with the game world while also dealing with the organizational aspect of RPGs. The games that will succeed the best will be the ones that find ways to make micromanagement fun.
What Matters Most
Considering that the first-person perspective is already gaining traction in RPGs and story-based games, virtual reality RPGs will no doubt be popular, and could easily become a spellbinding genre. The challenge for the developers of VRPGs is to create a thrilling experience that maintains key elements of the RPG genre without breaking the immersion that VR offers.
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