Life Off the Rails: Freedom, Exploration, and Virtual Reality


Virtual reality is a developing medium.

As gamers and developers alike discover the potential of this new technology together, there are certain questions that need to be answered as to how best to explore digital spaces in a way that feels comfortable, while still presenting an open world that players can properly engage with.

The challenge facing VR games revolves around how movement is tackled within a game. A lot of VR experiences are “on rails,” with players able to look around themselves, but unable to choose their own direction of travel.

In spite of the popularity of these titles, VR has the potential to offer more. Gamers can be provided with vast open spaces to travel through as they see fit—all it takes is a little ingenuity on the part of developers.

The Foundations of an Open VR World

One of the big questions that face developers and gamers is the issue of finding the best possible way to move around. This isn’t an easy question to solve, and many games use different solutions to player movement.

VR’s immersive experience thrives when there’s as little dissonance between a player’s physical body and their virtual experience as possible. If a player character in a game moves to the left or the right, without the player moving, there’s a potential for confusion and nausea.

Games handle this challenge in different ways. The simplest solution is to design a game so that the player’s character is constantly stationary—space shooters, racing games, and mech titles like Battlezone VR are excellent examples of this. The player feels like they’re in a car, or a cockpit, and as such, they’re less bothered by the lack of inertia.

Battlezone VR
Battlezone VR gets around the challenge of a confined space in virtual reality by placing the player in a cockpit for the entire game. Image source: VG 24/7

The HTC Vive, on the other hand, can accommodate a small amount of movement. The platform is designed to let players explore a small space, as motion tracking allows exploration of an area that’s a few feet in circumference. This allows for a little more freedom, as the player doesn’t need to feel strapped down in an on-rails experience.

Both of these approaches to VR are laying the foundations of wider, more open virtual reality gaming. As developers generate new ideas for movement, gamers can look forward to titles that allow for less encumbered virtual exploration.

The Long Way Around

The ultimate goal for VR is to create a game that feels as immersive and realistic as possible.

Players need to feel free to go wherever they want in a game world, visiting different sites and locations without a second thought as to where they can actually physically travel. They also need to be able to do so without fear of bumping into their coffee table.

There’s no single consensus on the best way to more around in a VR space so that the whole thing feels natural.

Games like Portal Stories: VR use a teleportation system, allowing players to perform short hops to various locations so that they can explore a larger test chamber without the need for a large space to walk around in.

Portal Stories VR
Portal Stories: VR gets around navigation issues through the use of a teleporter tool. Image source:

This works within the game that Valve has created, and its plausibility and immersion is certainly aided by the fact that the world of Portal already revolves around experimental sci-fi technology for fast travel.

Not all games have a convenient built-in explanation for a bizarre form of travel, though, so it’s no surprise that the number of on-rail games on VR platforms is so high. It’s easier for developers to move the player automatically through their environment than it is to give the player the freedom to move themselves.

There is a way, however, for players to have greater freedom in VR games. Getting this right is important, as it helps make virtual reality titles more immersive, more entertaining, and more interactive.

What Can Be Accomplished

Loading Human features a movement system that, at present, is pretty novel.

The player can center themselves in a particular direction through turning their head and moving an analogue stick on their motion controller. This then can be used to let the player explore a larger space without the need for restrictions.

Or, in the words of a reviewer for PlayStation Nation:

I found it to be innovative, and again, I also found that I could play [for hours at a time] without a semblance of motion sickness. I’m pretty sure this is due to the avoidance of strafing and turning used in other first person adventure games.

The game takes full advantage of this, presenting something that’s fairly rare in VR games at the moment: an open world level that can be explored at will, which is filled with little, hidden details that provide the game with greater depth.

Loading Human VR
Loading Human takes advantage of the game’s unique freedom of movement to pepper hidden areas with unique worldbuilding elements.

With a little practice, players can travel easily around each explorable part of Loading Human, and doing so provides a lot of additional insight into the game’s story and its characters’ history together.

The game is built around natural movement and exploration, which is why PlayStation Nation says in its review for Loading Human that its puzzles “truly show how unique playing in a virtual world can be.”

Life Is Better Without Rails

VR games have the potential to revolutionize what players expect from video gaming.

There’s a lot to still figure out regarding movement in VR that feels natural and comfortable, but in the meantime, several different games sport fantastic options that will lay the groundwork for the future of the platform.

As time goes on, gamers will get the chance to explore plenty more open world VR titles without worrying about how to move around.

To try out an immersive, open virtual reality game for yourself, order Loading Human today for PlayStation VR, Oculus Rift, or HTC Vive.


Andrew Nguyen

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

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