Jumping into a virtual world can sometimes mean having to learn on your feet. A game character will often have established relationships with the various non-player characters that players interact with, and that needs to be conveyed quickly.
The backstories determine how friends and foes should interact within the narrative, which is why games need to quickly convince players to care for (or loathe) particular characters, as they’re brought up-to-speed on the long-term relationships that their character has had before the start of the game.
Doing this well can be difficult, but the payoff is all the more enjoyable when the player is better able to invest in the game’s virtual relationships right from the start.
The Folly of the Sledgehammer Approach
There’s a lot of information to dump on the player when they first start a game.
Players need to learn gameplay mechanics, plot details, and character backstories, all as quickly as possible.
Unfortunately, this has led to a large number of games using information dumps to quickly throw all this detail at the player. This isn’t good for immersion, and it doesn’t help the player form any true bond with the non-player characters they interact with.
In the roleplaying game Jade Empire, the player starts off in what they are told is their character’s hometown, surrounded by people that they’ve known for years. In an attempt to inject realism into conversations with these lifelong friends, though, whenever the player asks an NPC for directions or insight into other characters, they’re met with incredulity—NPCs will taunt or scoff at the main character for temporarily forgetting details about their long-term friends (info which is brand new to the player, and which can only be gained by asking).
This kind of exposition, which involves punishing the player for their lack of familiarity with a brand-new fictional world, is all too common in games. Games like Skyrim and many of the later Final Fantasy titles throw crucial plot-relevant terminology around, expecting the player to either pick things up quickly or struggle through without fully understanding what’s going on.
With character introductions, this is all the more trying, especially if the player is expected to buy into a relationship while learning its history through expositional dialogue.
To overcome the sledgehammer approach to character development, it’s necessary for VR game developers to take a more nuanced approach: one that is perfectly suited to the medium, and which relies on one of the great strengths of virtual reality.
Show, Don’t Tell
With virtual reality comes the opportunity for developers to trust more fully in subtle interactions between the player and the characters they come in contact with.
Body language, eye contact (or the lack thereof), and physical proximity to the player all communicate something about the way an NPC relates to the story’s protagonist. When the player notices the way an NPC reacts around them, they’re able to infer a lot of history and emotion without necessarily needing to be told the specifics.
Many games are beginning to make progress in adding visual cues to character movements. Telltale’s The Walking Dead games do an excellent job of this, as players are able to learn about the relationships between NPCs, not through explicit exposition, but through furtive glances between family members or facial ticks expressing reactions to player choices.
Yet while traditional games have often worked hard to use these methods of storytelling, when watching through a screen, all movements have to be a lot more exaggerated in order to communicate their intended meaning—especially in cases where games’ character models aren’t detailed enough to reflect a human level of subtlety.
In VR, there’s far more impact in small gestures than there is even in traditional games. It’s hard to ignore a family member’s expression when they’re looking directly into the eyes of the player, and this goes a long way to building a bond between the player and their new NPC family. This subtlety doesn’t just need to come from characters themselves—smart level design can even be used as an actor in a scene to create context for an NPC’s actions. An empty bottle of liquor or a photo hanging on a wall can say a lot without anything needing to be explicitly discussed.
Allow the Player to Create Their Own Interpretation
It’s important to note that these blank spots in the story are actually very useful to the player’s immersion.
It’s often not necessary for a game to tell players everything up front—holding back an explanation for characters’ behaviors and interactions allows the player plenty of opportunity to speculate on what may have happened in the past. This makes for a more enjoyable experience for the player as their own curiosity feeds their excitement for the story and lets them project a little of their own interpretation over the events of the game.
Some games deliberately remain ambiguous permanently—there’s plenty of speculation online over the varied relationships between characters in classic gaming franchises such as Mario and Zelda, simply because the original games don’t come with an explicit explanation of characters’ wants and needs.
It’s also possible for a game to use ambiguity, along with subtle design, to communicate character bonds, helping the story unfold in such a way that the player doesn’t feel like they’re being beaten over the head with exposition.
Loading Human does an excellent job with this—the player learns about their connection with the attractive lab assistant as much from going through books and photo albums as they learn from dialogue or exposition. The relationship between the player’s character, Prometheus, and his father, Dorian, is similarly built up by a reliance on images, items, and other contextual cues which subtly affect the player, without them realizing that they’re receiving backstory information.
As the game drops small clues as to the relationship between Dorian and Prometheus, the player slowly learns more about this relationship, building up the tension that grows between the two as the story unfolds. This allows the player the opportunity to fill in some of the holes in their understanding and view previous events in the game under a different light.
Digital Relationships That Last Forever
Getting players to jump into a relationship, learn everything they need to know about its backstory, and not feel overwhelmed by plot isn’t an easy design exercise. When developers get the balance just right, though, players are happy to invest emotionally and will maintain their love or hatred of digital characters long after they’ve finished playing games.
The trick to engendering the desired level of enthusiasm is not to give the player a lot of exposition or to slow down the game to communicate affection or loathing: instead, using the unique attributes of VR, games can communicate subtle moments of character interactions that feel more natural and believable than anything that’s been possible in games up to this point.
Clever writing and design choices can help players treat their VR companions less like fictional characters, and more like actual people.
To try out a VR relationship simulator which uses subtlety rather than the sledgehammer approach, preorder Loading Human today.