Where’s the Bathroom? Immersion in VR Video Games Requires Believable Environments

Where's the bathroom?

‘Where’s the bathroom?’

It’s a question I like to ask myself a lot in video games.

Obviously my character doesn’t actually need to use the restroom—it’s a matter of realism for me. When I enter a spaceship or a military base for the first time, I’m always curious to find out how carefully the designers have paid attention to the little things that otherwise might be overlooked.

It’s easy to think of video game environments simply as mazes or puzzles to be solved, and glaze over the details that make an environment feel realistic. While to a certain extent this can be forgiven in traditional games, virtual reality thrives on immersion, and it’s more important than ever that game environments feel believable, and even comfortable, so that players can sink into the fantasy that’s in front of them.

Not Everything Is a Hidden Secret

Video game environments are often designed as levels to be explored—there are goals that a player must accomplish, and the spaces they travel through are designed to make that experience interesting.

This has led players to typically be able to tell what’s coming when they enter an area—a hidden cave in Zelda games is usually indicated through a crack in a wall, and any unusual feature a building might have leads players to assume that there’s something special to be found there. After all, if a room doesn’t have a secret treasure in it, why bother building the room?

Some details in games stand out as being hiding places for secrets, amid otherwise featureless environments.
Some details in games stand out as being hiding places for secrets, amid otherwise featureless environments. Source

In real life, though, this isn’t how buildings are designed—rooms aren’t laid out solely for the purpose of helping a game protagonist gun down enemies from behind cover, and boxes can’t always be rearranged to aid in accessing a secret hidden item.

In VR, it’s important that environments don’t feel like mazes or game puzzles: in order to provide the player with full immersion, there need to be bathrooms, closets, desks, bookshelves, and other features which don’t immediately further the plot of the game or help the player unlock a new skill: these window dressings are important to make the world feel like a living, breathing place, rather than a simplistic simulation.

Dead Ends Aren’t Dead

While Goldeneye on the Nintendo 64 might not look like much by today’s standards, one of the things that made the game stand out when it was new was this realistic approach to game spaces.

The story surrounding this game is legendary: a group of developers who had never built a game before was tasked with the project of adapting a James Bond movie into a first person shooter. They designed the levels for the game before deciding on what items and villains would populate them, which meant that plenty of rooms lead to dead ends or don’t have anything exciting in them.

Goldeneye levels were built to be functional buildings, giving players the feeling of sneaking around real places rather than just gaming environments.
Goldeneye levels were built to be functional buildings, giving players the feeling of sneaking around real places rather than just gaming environments. Source

This actually helped the feel of the game, though: players enjoyed that the experience wasn’t always obvious, and that the game felt a little more open and free because players weren’t being led in any particular direction. Goldeneye presented buildings that felt more believable than the typical, carefully designed levels of the time.

If anything, the empty corridors and dead ends of Goldeneye helped to communicate the experience that players were looking for: that of being a covert spy, sneaking through an enemy base with limited intel as they seek out clues to help in their mission.

Incidental Objects as Storytellers

Just because a VR environment should feature objects that don’t instantly further the game’s plot or give the user an important item, doesn’t mean that those items can’t be used to draw the player further into the game.

As in Goldeneye, virtual reality games can actually gain a lot by using their window dressing to communicate something to the player. A well-organized environment within a game can help the player feel comfortable as they fall in love with a game world and start treating their virtual home as a familiar space.

Resident Evil 7 VR thrives through making incidental items look creepy and distracting.

At the same time, the opposite can be achieved—Resident Evil 7 VR, for example, is filled with every tiny creepy, horrible thing that the player can imagine. Not all of the window dressing within the game is a monster or a dangerous horror, and it’s that uncertainty that makes the entire game scary.

loading human vr game realistic interaction

With Loading Human, environment design is crucial to the mood of each level. The player starts in their character’s luxury loft, exploring a room filled with comfortable furniture, interesting books, and other possessions. The player can explore around as much as they like, getting to know their home, and while many of the items they come across don’t specifically move the story forward, the player can learn about their character, his history, his interests, and his family, simply from looking through his possessions.

This can be contrasted with later levels in the game, where nothing is warm and comfortable: bleak laboratories full of uninviting steel and impersonal computers lack any human touches that often creep into a work environment (no cheesy posters, family photos, or stress balls here).

Different Angle Lab in VR Game Loading Human
Laboratory settings are also filled with detail, but they’re designed to feel more clinical and unwelcoming.

This contrast shows the central pull at the heart of the game, between the protagonist’s yearning for his romantic partner, and the cold, hard pursuits of scientific business. These environments speak volumes, and feel real and grounded because they’re filled with objects that exist for a purpose beyond providing the player with objects to collect or secrets to unlock.

And hey, look at that—Loading Human doesn’t skip over bathrooms.

The Little Things Add Up

VR developers might wonder how much little touches actually matter in their games—whether or not the player will notice if an environment’s objects don’t match the kinds of things they’d find in a place in the real world.

The thing is, though, these little touches add up. A realistic environment will help to sell the player on the immersion that is at the heart of the VR experience, and help them to completely forget that they’re playing a video game.

Instead, players will live the experience within the game as if it’s really happening to them. That’s a level of immersion that’s worth putting in the extra effort in set dressing.

To try out Loading Human and experience a powerful level of immersion for yourself, preorder the first chapter of the game today.


Andrew Nguyen

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

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