And the intricacies of an immersive experience
Escapism, whether it be intentional or unintentional, is fundamental to storytelling. The feeling of being engrossed in a good book, movie — of being taken away to another world — is one we chase all the time. Colloquially, we know this as immersion, and both creators and consumers have been pushing for perfection. Rapid progress in camera, microphone, and post-processing technology makes each film feel more real than the last, pulling viewers out of their seats and into the world of the movie. The video game industry hasn’t been at rest either. Technology has advanced from early 2-bit pixel art to realistic water simulations and character modelling, going from Oregon Trail to The Last of Us II in under a half-century.
Half Life Alyx by Valve.
Virtual reality represents the latest advancement in the pursuit of perfect immersion. It turns video from a flat, locked viewing experience into a 360° screen that takes up your entire field of view and takes advantage of surround sound to recreate reality. Already, artists have begun pushing the envelope for virtual reality art. Titles like Flesh and Sand by Alejandro González Iñárritu, which won the first Special Achievement Academy Award in twenty years, and Half-Life Alyx by Valve, the first triple-A foray into virtual reality, present the cutting-edge potential of the medium. But the pursuit of immersion continues beyond sight and sound. Take the Omni One by Virtuix, which incorporates VR with an omnidirectional treadmill to simulate movement. Rather than two hands and a 360-degree camera, players will now also have two legs to stand on and explore their surroundings. After seven years of development, from a shoddy prototype to a now fully realized device, it is now market-ready. But is there even a need for it in the first place?
Source: Omni One.
Connecting with a piece of media requires bridging from reality to the world of imagination, which, for this article, will be coined abstraction. For something to be impactful, it must feel real, and for it to feel real, the brain must forget about the medium of delivery and focus on the meaning of the piece. The brain must abstract, something it does to make sense of the world all the time. Reading these words right now on your screen may be an active effort, but understanding and contextualizing them is a subconscious skill developed over many years. Similarly, watching a movie or TV show requires your brain to ignore that they are fictional and meaningless and focus on the values and imagery it tries to depict instead. Removing abstraction makes things feel weightier and tangible, as your brain has to go through fewer mental gymnastics to understand and feel the message the piece of media delivered. It’s why we’ve been chasing photorealism, surround sound audio, and flawless character animation since forever.
Which one feels more angry?
In most mediums where the world is static, and the consumer is an outside viewer looking in, immersion is much easier to maintain. But games pose the unique challenge of requiring the player to be an active participant in the world and for the world to react back, meaning that the world must be dynamic while maintaining visual, auditory, and narrative continuity. Simulating everything is a technological impossibility, so developers have to cheat the process. By limiting the scope of possible actions, developers can hone the responses to feel as natural as possible. They boil down moves like shooting a gun or running to button presses, limit dialogue trees to five or four choices, and scale down environments and enemy movement. In a gunfight, either the player shoots the enemy, and they die, or the enemy shoots them, and the player dies. There is no option to try to talk it out, threaten their families, or disable them to knock them out for the fight. Just shoot and dodge, both of which developers can make feel punchy and visceral with enough time and effort. Thankfully, our brains are pretty good at skipping steps, and this process is second nature to gamers. Instead of thinking about pressing the necessary buttons to press while playing, games manage to convince players to think about the actions the button represents instead. If those actions feel good enough, then most people won’t worry about the infinity of other options that they are missing out on. By getting your mind off the controller or keyboard and the fundamentally limited move set, games successfully plunge you deeper into immersion.
Omni One Promotional Video by Virtuix.
The Omni One seeks to close a massive gap in abstraction that has long existed in movement. Walking and running is something that everyone has done and has clear expectations of how it should feel, making it difficult to translate into a game. Pressing the W key or pushing up on a joystick should feel like nothing noteworthy at best, almost secondary to the actual action — like how walking is second nature in the real world. Walking simulators, which use character and camera movement as their primary gameplay loops, are derided for this fact. It’s not too much of an engaging experience to hold down a button as the only form of interaction, even if the music and visuals are beautiful. A joystick or keyboard is arguably too many levels of abstraction deep to create the sense of realism necessary for such a simple gameplay loop to work. With the Omni One though, this new level of visceral feedback, of being physically grounded in the game world, could potentially make up for the inherent lack of gameplay.
But whether it can work for video games as a whole is questionable. Suppose somebody tries to create a VR shooter on a scale of what we currently expect from our games. If somebody wanted to be Max Payne or Nathan Drake, what would it take to get there? Environment design, responsive dialogue, movement, and shooting, yes. But will there be a vest in the future that simulates gunshot wounds? A gun with real kickback? Would the game force players to walk slowly and awkwardly when their character gets shot? Probably not, because most people don’t want to feel like war soldiers. What most people want is to abstract the experience down to the parts that are fun — popping heads, smooth movement, power fantasies — while leaving the rest out for the unconscious brain to square away. Nobody wants to actually be trapped in a deep, dark tomb or chased by ghosts of people long dead. We want to take the exciting emotions of our games while leaving out the dirty details and experience.
If you’ve ever had the pleasure or displeasure of attending a 4D film, you can understand what being overdone feels like. Spraying people with water and shifting around their seats is much more of a novelty than storytelling device, much less a positive contribution to the experience. Source.
To be entirely transposed into another reality, even for a short moment, is something most people would probably never want to feel. But this level of separation is also essential to maintaining immersion in general. Our brains are very good at adjusting themselves to meet whatever they encounter, both auditory and visual. But when two contrasting elements, often unrealistic and realistic, juxtapose themselves against each other, the player can experience a disconnect. Anything that doesn’t mirror reality perfectly — touch, sense, smell, sight — will stand out even more against everything that does. The closer we get to total immersion, the easier it is to break that illusion and remind players of reality. Some level of separation is necessary so the brain can successfully abstract and draw out the feelings the piece of media wanted to deliver and preserve the fragility of immersion.
Doesn’t exactly feel comfortable looking at Salvador Dali’s work, does it? Juxtaposition of confusing and contrasting elements is at the heart of surrealism, but doesn’t always work for when the purpose of the art piece is something other than trying to mess with the viewer’s mind. Source: Tribute to Salvador Dali by Martin Grohs.
Thus as we are about to enter a new generation of video games, it’s likely that gameplay depth will scale back rather than advance. Rather than forcing what works for controllers and keyboards onto a medium unprepared for high action games, savvy developers will scale back their ambitions to fit the quirks of VR. Walking simulators are perfect for the fledgling stages we are about to enter, especially paired with the Omni-Treadmill. Games like Everyone Has Gone to the Rapture, Gone Home, and Death Stranding are practically spiritual predecessors to the device. The visual strength that VR brings will bolster the atmospheric qualities these games pride themselves on while also making up for the lack of an engaging primary gameplay loop.
Mýrdalssandur, Iceland, is a game where you walk around and take nice photos— no enemies to fight, no princess to rescue, nothing — only hauntingly good music, the world, and you. Is this even a game? Not really. It’s more of an advanced tech demo. But it demonstrates the strengths and drawbacks of VR and how developers should play around them accordingly. Source: Alpha Beta Gamer.
Horror games, which have always been the odd one out, could also work with VR quite nicely. The nature of games, which is for players to be active participants, doesn’t always line up well with how horror works. Subtlety and atmosphere are in direct contradiction to players who can do any number of things to disrupt them accidentally. Maintaining immersion through all of the unpredictable actions of players is a near impossibility, and many games fail to find the right balance of player contribution to the gameplay. By reducing your input into the game and pumping up the visual and auditory aspects, players will naturally feel a heightened sense of realism that plunges them deeper into immersion.
Games like Firewatch and Gone Home have done a lot to change the term “walking simulator” from a derogatory nickname into a respectable and established genre. Now, as VR grows increasingly mainstream, a wave of atmospheric rather than action-focused games is sure to follow. Source: Firewatch by Campo Santo.
For many, this shift to a more visual and audio focused production rather than on engaging gameplay can feel like blasphemy. It’s the very same mindset that has led us to the current state of triple-A, where pretty but unsubstantial games get pumped out of the system. But until we can reconcile this fundamental discrepancy between reality and art, the only real way forward for VR games is to abandon traditional values and trailblaze a new path. Perhaps they will remain a niche hobby, neither appealing to film or video game audiences because of the fundamental failure to merge game design philosophy with lower levels of abstraction. Perhaps somebody will manage to take advantage of VR as a medium, creating an entirely new movement and style in the process. Whatever the solution is, it’ll be exciting to discover for the first time and watch the birth of an entirely new discipline of media.