Who Am I? The Ins and Outs of Playing Multiple Characters in VR Games

virtual reality game Loading Human

Plenty of games have a diverse cast of playable characters. Cult classics like Super Mario Bros 2 (or Doki Doki Panic if you’re a purist) give players the opportunity to choose between several, all of whom are controlled in slightly different ways and have notable special abilities: Mario is an all-rounder, Luigi can jump higher, Peach can float in mid-air for a second, and Toad is a tiny speed demon.

Providing multiple characters in games is common, but as virtual reality gaming grows in popularity, it will be interesting to see to what extent VR games try to explore multiple characters and viewpoints. When playing in VR, the player needs to feel attached and connected to the character whose body they’re stepping into. To throw players inside different characters as the story progresses could be dangerous—doing so risks a loss of immersion, a failure to connect with the game’s protagonist, and in extreme cases could even cause nausea or disorientation.

If developers do plan on creating VR games with multiple viewpoints, without confusing the player, they’ll need to adhere to several key gameplay concepts.

Portal video Game helps you identify player
Portal uses a unique method to help the player identify their character–by seeing themselves within one of their own portals. Image source: rockpapershotgun.com

Games Will Need to Clearly Establish Each Character

In a number of games, especially in first-person titles, it’s important for players to see the character they’re playing, to get a better idea of who they are. In Portal, this is done by getting the player to spot themselves through one of the game’s titular ellipses (which also conveniently introduces the player to the core concept behind the unique gameplay mechanic). While you may not need to physically see the character you’re embodying in a normal VR game, gamers who are expected to control multiple characters must be able to differentiate between each.

If you’re juggling multiple characters, you need to have a clear picture of each in your head. Are you the tall blonde mage who can shoot fireballs right now, or the short dwarf with the wicked axe? Gameplay (and the story) can depend on knowing exactly what character you’re controlling. Obviously, this is harder in VR, without physically seeing your avatar. And if the game frequently shifts between characters, it’ll be an even bigger challenge.  To shift seamlessly between perspectives, a VR game will need an establishing moment for each role that the player takes on, including a defined moment of storytelling that makes it clear that the perspective has shifted. Forgetting which body you’re inhabiting rarely makes for rewarding gameplay.

But as long as the game clearly signposts when the player is leaving one body and traveling into another, VR games might be able to succeed with multiple perspectives—though it needs to be clear, at any given moment, which character is which. And that can be done through creating distinct viewpoints.

The low vantage point of a drone in Rainbow Siege Six makes it obvious when you are controlling them. Image source vg247.com
The low vantage point of a drone in Rainbow Siege Six makes it obvious when you are controlling them. Image source vg247.com

Each Character Will Need a Distinct Viewpoint

How can a gamer be expected to differentiate between different characters if the view remains the same from one to another? The best way is to make sure that each character’s perspective looks, feels, and handles differently. Games like Rainbow Siege Six, for example, allow players to use remote control drones. When controlling one, the viewpoint and the look of the screen is dramatically changed: as the small device is on wheels, the player sees the world from a bottom-up perspective, and the screen is presented in monochrome, letting the player know that they’re looking through a completely different set of eyeballs.

There are other ways to expand this further: beyond coloring the screen differently, various characters could sport different physical features on their arms (typically the only part of the body seen in VR). There’s also options of sound: the whirring of robotic treads, for example, indicates that the player is inhabiting the body of a different character than the one who generated the echoey clacking of high heels in the previous level.

Depending on the plot of the game, it might even be worth separating each character by location—one character may be situated on a space station while another is on planet Earth. If the characters are geographically isolated, it’s easier for the player to spot which character they’re playing as, based solely on their surroundings.

loading human vr game alice character
The stories of multiple characters can still be told engagingly with only one player-controlled character, like in Loading Human.

Telling Multiple Character Arcs Through a Single Viewpoint

It may be, however, that jumping between bodies is not the most effective form of storytelling—especially with VR.

This isn’t to say that VR can’t dramatically convey multiple viewpoints, but rather that it’s not always necessary. The way non-player characters interact with a single player avatar can communicate a lot about their disparate story arcs, and giving a player the chance to mediate in discussions can help the player to see arguments from all sides.

The Star Wars role-playing game Knights of the Old Republic II shows several possible directions that character development can take. At different times in the game, the player will control different members of their party in order to move a multifaceted story forwards. However, in many cases the best character development comes in moments when the player, as their main avatar, has to mediate between arguments and fights that break out between crewmembers. In these moments, choices made by the player can affect the development of characters throughout the game, as they either grow more allegiant, or lose faith in their leader.

This approach, of exposition through dialogue and conversation, is the approach that Loading Human takes – the game features well-written, engaging characters including the genius scientist Dorian Baarick, his assistant Alice, and his son Prometheus, whom the player controls. Through realistic VR conversations and tasks designed to further each character’s needs, the game helps players develop a strong bond with all characters, and lets a single viewpoint explore multiple story arcs through the way supporting characters influence and are influenced by Prometheus.

Whether it’s through providing clearly signposted changes in viewpoint or sticking to a single perspective and focusing on character interactions, VR games can take advantage of the possibilities of virtual reality in exploring multiple characters while creating a cohesive story that won’t confuse players.

Loading Human is a virtual reality adventure game that emphasizes strong characters and storytelling. Preorder your copy today!

 

David Bridgham

Producer, Gamer, Musician, Sports Car Enthusiast, Slow Jogger.

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