The Little Things: Why Small Details Make a Big Difference in VR

Loading Human Details in VR

At the start of the 2010 movie Inception, a movie about creating believable dream worlds that fool their occupants, Saito, a wealthy businessman, realizes he’s dreaming thanks to an out-of-place detail. He spots that the material his rug is made out of doesn’t match up with reality, thus breaking his immersion and revealing to him that he’s trapped within a dream.

Virtual reality can be very similar to the rules of dreams within Inception—it’s the tiny details that make or break immersion. The believability of a game world hinges on the tiny touches that developers put in to make their worlds feel lived-in.

When things aren’t quite right, gamers pick up on it. When a developer really nails these tiny details, though, it can make for an incredibly powerful VR experience.

How Far We’ve Come

It’s important to note just how far gaming has come over the past couple of decades. Take, for instance, the vast differences between the 2016 release of Hitman and the original game in the series, which was released in 2000.

Hitman Codename 47
Hitman: Codename 47 is a product of its time, without much detail in textures or models. Image source: WSGF.

With its low-res graphics (at least, compared to today’s standards), nobody could mistake Hitman: Codename 47 for anything other than a video game. Of course, at the time, it looked pretty impressive, and while even now the graphics don’t damage the experience of playing the game, the limitations of game technology at the time prevented this title from presenting the level of sophistication that’s possible in modern installments in the series.

The little details in Hitman (2016) really sell the game’s immersion. Image source: Geek of Oz.

By contrast, at first glance it’s difficult to tell that 2016’s Hitman isn’t a photo of a real location. Gaming technology has become so advanced that accurate simulation is a norm by this point, as games developers craft incredibly detailed digital worlds that look almost entirely like the real thing.

It’s the small details in this screenshot that make the game look so realistic. Cracks in brickwork, scratches and dirt on street signs, and an impressive lighting system, all work together to create something that looks genuinely believable to the untrained eye.

The progress that gaming has made in the past few decades points to the likelihood that over the next few years, VR games are going to look increasingly realistic and visually impressive.

In the meantime, though, VR games can deliver incredibly immersive experience even without this level of graphical perfection.

Maintaining the Illusion

To a certain extent, our brains want to be tricked by VR.

For the same reason that motion sickness is a challenge when playing a handheld game in a moving vehicle, VR can create an incredibly believable experience simply by presenting our brains with unique visuals.

This is because the brain trusts our eyes to tell the truth, and when there’s a dissonance between the images we’re seeing and the input the brain is getting from our other senses, our first instinct is to trust sight first, and disregard information from our ears and sense of inertia.

All of this means that even games with particularly abstract art styles, like Windlands, can feel incredibly immersive and realistic when played in VR.

Windlands Details in VR
Windlands features a simple art style, but it’s still immersive thanks to the power of VR. Source: The Rift Arcade.

In spite of this game’s simple appearance, it’s still filled with tiny details (like textures on trees and cliff faces) that build together to create the game’s enjoyable aesthetic.

A large part of this is consistency—as long as a game world doesn’t break its own rules, we’re able to believe what’s going on. For developers, this often means making sure that no sprites or objects within a game appear out of place or unusual, as gamers will be quick to notice something that doesn’t fit in.

Just as Walt Disney World was constructed with a series of hidden tunnels throughout the park so that employees on lunch breaks could travel around without breaking the illusion (seeing a cowboy in a sci-fi region, for example, would certainly be distracting), game developers work hard to hide the cracks in games, keep art assets organized, and make sure that no part of the VR experience sticks out uncomfortably.

A well-built VR game will keep all of its hidden parts completely invisible to players who are eagerly buying into the fantasy that the game presents, thus maintaining solid immersion.

Emulating Reality

Creating a VR world that feels lived-in and immersive all comes down to the little touches.

Light switches, power outlets, books on shelves, and reflections on surfaces all work together to build up an environment that has both depth and believability.

Loading Human Details in VR
Tiny details in Loading Human feel real.

One of the best examples of this on VR at the moment is Prometheus’ apartment in Loading Human. The space is designed to feel real, like an actual place that a person would live, complete with a bathroom, stairs, and windows that offer scenic views.

Beyond this, though, are the small details that really sell the game’s immersion. Items can be picked up and interacted with, rather than just being used for window dressing. Players who choose to delve further into the game by exploring its hidden secrets will find vinyl records to play, photo albums to flip through, and wine bottles to drink from.

It’s these tiny, seemingly unimportant touches that make Loading Human come alive, and transform the space from a facsimile into a believable world.

It All Adds Up

As a gamer, you probably won’t consciously notice a lot of the tiny details that developers put into VR games in order to make their games feel more immersive and realistic, but they leave a big impact on the experience that you have within a game. Every piece of paper, tree leaf, and scuff of dirt on an object, makes the VR game world feel all the more believable.

So the next time you’re playing a VR game, take a moment to enjoy the scenery. A designer probably worked incredibly hard to put in those tiny elements that you’ve never noticed before.

To try out Loading Human and explore its immersive, interactive VR world for yourself, order the game today—it’s available for PSVR, Oculus Rift, and HTC Vive.


David Bridgham

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

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