A few weeks ago, I played the retro game Flashback on the Sega Genesis for the first time.
It’s a complex game with a lot of story to it, where players live out a science fiction fantasy by taking a job as a mercenary as they try to reveal their character’s lost memories.
Of course, I missed all of this nuance—I was playing the game in a speedrunning race against friends (who were already familiar with it), and was bashing my way through cutscenes and expositional dialogue as fast as possible. Because of this, I got incredibly frustrated with the game: I found myself running in circles, having missed clues about what I needed to do, and every new assignment felt like a chore.
Later, when I went back to the game and tried to play it without rushing, I found it to be an immeasurably more enjoyable experience. This got me thinking—if a game, though no fault of its design, can become an onerous task when the player isn’t paying attention, VR games with stories at their center need to do everything they can to hook the player’s interest and give them a reason to become emotionally invested in the stakes that advance the plot.
Giving Players a Reason to Care
Virtual reality is a wonderful tool for creating games with a previously unheard of level of immersion.
Players are able to experience first-hand sights and sounds that would otherwise be impossible, and can develop meaningful relationships with diverse characters in a way that audiences have dreamed of since the advent of popular fiction.
But for games to work, there needs to be an element of challenge and something to do. While players enjoy puzzle solving and assigned tasks within games, if these tasks aren’t rooted in emotionally resonant storytelling that advances the plot, a VR game can quickly become nothing more than staring at the pretty scenery—which can only entertain for so long.
The challenge for developers is creating something that players really connect with. In many cases, the difference between a player willingly taking on a task and choosing to ignore it comes from how the mission is portrayed.
In the surprisingly good Spider-Man 2, players are able to travel around an open-world New York City as the titular friendly neighborhood wall-crawler. While swinging around the city and climbing buildings, the player will periodically hear the cries of pedestrians on the streets, as crimes take place, or see victims dangling precariously from rooftops—standard fare for a superhero to deal with.
The player can choose to ignore these situations if they choose, without suffering consequences, but it’s hard not to want to help someone who’s hanging off the side of a building screaming piteously.
What’s easier to ignore, though, are the random cases when crying children will yell for you to rescue their lost balloon as it flies up into the sky.
This is by far one of the more tedious jobs within the game, even though, from a procedural standpoint, it’s not that different from stopping a robbery or saving someone from falling off a building. Because the stakes aren’t as high, it’s more difficult for players to get invested in the action, and to feel bad if they don’t intervene (because hey, maybe it’ll teach the kid an important lesson).
Tasks That Don’t Get Tiresome
There’s more to creating emotional investment in a game than just proper motivation for actions—it’s also important to make sure that the player can enjoy participating in the activity.
Game tasks should never be overly monotonous, repetitive, or otherwise frustrating. Your players will only be willing to tolerate so much before they get bored—note how roleplaying games like Final Fantasy have moved away from random encounters in previous years: performing the same battle actions over and over is a gameplay style that’s losing popularity.
The ‘Monkey Puzzle’ is deliberately frustrating and time-consuming. (YouTube).
Exhibit A: the woeful story of the Lion King tie-in video game. Disney’s game policy at the time required that games couldn’t be completed too quickly–if they were, there was no incentive for people to purchase instead of (or after) renting. In response, the team working on the Lion King game invented the infamous ‘Monkey Puzzle,’ a game with no clear direction or guidance, which left more than a few players frustrated, and which exists solely for the purpose of slowing down the player.
Puzzle design should be naturally intuitive in order to keep players moving forward. There’s no problem with repetition within the design of the puzzles, so long as the player feels like every iteration of the puzzle serves a purpose that they can get behind.
Focusing on People
In my opinion, one of the best ways to make people care about the stakes in a game and get emotionally invested is to prioritize the human element.
In a game with a strong story, characters are the best driving force for player motivation. As with Spider-Man 2, the consequences of leaving someone who’s seriously in danger in the lurch will push players to engage with a game’s challenges and puzzles with an added sense of urgency and enthusiasm.
In VR, it’s possible to make the player care even more about what they’re doing than in traditional games. Because non-player characters can look the player directly in the eye as they respond to the player’s actions, they feel more genuine and realistic. When it comes time to help these characters, the player will happily engage in tasks throughout the game for the sake of aiding friends, rather than to simply move the plot forward.
In Loading Human, there’s a particularly good example of this in the form of the two main NPCs, Dorian and Alice. It’s the drive to help Dorian that initially motivates the main character, but through interactions with Alice, the player’s motivations may begin to shift. When Alice is put in danger, you feel genuine concern, and rushing to her aid feels like a natural response to the circumstance.
Through telling a story that’s centered on characters, the game is able to encourage players to invest personally in the narrative and take the actions necessary to help their in-game friends, not just because it’s fun, but because they genuinely care about the outcome.
Emotional Investment Provides Stakes and Enjoyment
There are a lot of great VR games in development at the moment, many of which are coming up with new and interesting ways to challenge the player and provide some fun, diverting puzzles to solve.
It’s my belief, though, that the games that will best convince the player to take action, will be the ones that first make the player care about what they’re doing.
This motivation is what turns an enjoyable game into an exhilarating experience—one that only VR can do justice.
To try Loading Human for yourself, preorder the first chapter today.