With the first batch of VR headsets entering the wild and finding their way to reviewers recently, a lot is being said about the experience of donning a visor and interacting with a virtual world. One common issue that journalists are experiencing is the challenge of getting used to seeing things from another person’s perspective.
It’s going to take gamers a while to get used to the concept of living in another body—and one that (at times) might be very different to their own. Because in virtual reality it’s not possible to see the controlled character, it can feel like jumping into the skin of a brand new person; without proper context, this can be a jarring experience. So how can games help players to develop a relationship with their new digital avatars, and what can be done to soften the blow of the virtual reality transformation?
Getting to Know Your Character Through Your Environment
On the whole, game developers are getting pretty smart with indirect exposition.
While in ye olden days of gaming, backstory was either communicated through a lengthy text crawl (as with The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past) or confined to the game’s manual, many modern developers are finding ways to provide more subtle clues about the game world, a character’s motivation, and what gamers need to know to understand the weight of their actions.
Often modern games will feature incidental items, posters, computer screens, or other visual clues that teach the player about the world they’re in and the character they’re playing. Games like Mass Effect do a lot of their world building through incidental media displays. A series of movie advertisements for ‘Blasto,’ an action movie starring an alien jellyfish, can be seen on various planets throughout the series, giving the player insight into the popular culture of the universe.
In virtual reality, little clues left in the environment can be the most powerful way to teach players about their character. Through leafing through books and examining keepsakes in Loading Human, players are able to discover the backstory and personality of their player character, Prometheus – hearing the character’s ruminations on these objects also helps to give insight into his thought process and beliefs.
Getting to Know Your Character Through Your Interactions with Others
Just like how reading the environment can teach players a lot about the persona they’ve taken on, interactions with non-player characters throughout a game can go a long way toward explaining who a game’s protagonist is and what’s happened in their past.
Witcher III uses supporting characters to give a great deal of backstory into the game’s protagonist in an engaging and interesting fashion. Throughout the game, the player character, Geralt, interacts regularly with two love interests – Triss and Yennifer. These two characters have a lot of history with Geralt that plays out before the game starts, and the way that Geralt interacts with each of them explains a lot, not only about the character’s motivations, but also the complexities of his personality.
Supporting characters can make all the difference in communicating to players who their avatar is as a person – especially in virtual reality, where instead of watching these characters interact from a disconnected viewpoint, players see directly through the eyes of the game’s protagonist. As players are part of the action, conversation takes on an extra level of depth and realism, and it’s all the easier to feel connected with various characters who interact with the game’s protagonist.
It’s this feeling of connection that drives much of the plot in Loading Human, as players get to know Prometheus’ love interest Alice – through participating in their conversations, players learn about Prometheus and are drawn further into the world of the game by developing a genuine interest in Alice. With VR providing an uninhibited, natural immersion within this relationship, players are able to better understand Prometheus as they watch the way he and Alice treat each other.
Getting to Know Your Character Through Your Own Brain
Developers often choose to make the protagonist a bit of an ambiguous or unknown entity because it helps players from all walks of life identify with the character. Silent protagonists such as Gordon Freeman from Half Life, Crash Bandicoot from the games of the same name, and Link from The Legend of Zelda series are but a few examples of characters who keep quiet in order to let players fill in the blanks for themselves (fun fact: Link was originally named thus because the character was intended as the player’s ‘link’ with the game world). Many games (notably Lionhead’s recently retired Fable series, and anything by BioWare) even go further than this, allowing players to choose their character’s image, actions, and morality.
In many cases with characterization, less is more. In the seminal Understanding Comics, graphic author Scott McCloud explains that the more detail there is in a character’s design, the harder it is for readers to put themselves in the place of the character. By contrast, everyone who sees a simple smiley face made from two eye dots and a curved line can identify with the drawing. This identification through simplicity is one of the standout points of VR, as by watching all the action through the eyes of the protagonist, and because not much of the character is seen throughout the game, players are able to imagine for themselves the facial expressions and reactions that their character has based on the way they would personally react to what’s going on. So each player’s perception of their character is unique, and they can get to know their protagonist as they want them created.
Acclimating Gamers to Their Virtual Reality Characters
This is the trick to getting players to believe in and identify with the new character whose body they inhabit. Through showing, rather than telling, about their protagonist’s life and backstory, and through inferring personality and history from the game’s environment and supporting characters, a game can convince a player to put themselves into the action and believe in the VR experience, rather than just feeling a confused disconnect with the new body they’ve been assigned. When it comes to embodying their virtual reality characters, it turns out that gamers don’t need to see to believe.
Loading Human is currently in development, and will feature a strong, character-driven story. Click here to preorder your copy!