Photograph of a gumball machine.

“Treat time” by VO1GXG
is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

After playing a work-in-progress demonstration of a new, fan-made modernization of Cyan’s classic adventure game Riven, Zarf wrote this summary of his core criticism with VR as a game platform. I found it compelling and agreeable, putting into words many of my own heretofore half-formed reservations about VR. In particular, I nod along with the observation that one’s memories of a good immersive game already situate one within the game’s world, raising the question of what a VR setup could add to that. The answer, Zarf argues, is immediacy — albeit often like a lightning strike, a stunning shock that fades very quickly.

An immersive game played through the typical medium of a large, flat screen eases you into its world, he writes. If it succeeds at all in capturing your attention, then the finite rectangle in front of you becomes your sole focus, its borders fuzzing away, and its content the only thing you’ll recall later. (See also: watching a movie.) VR, on the other hand, grabs your head (literally!) and dunks you into its world from the very moment you switch it on. You gasp, bedazzled, as the experience hits you like a bucket of water: wow!

This works wonders on trade show floors, when you might have only a minute or two to try a game or gadget, making instant immersion entirely appropriate. But after that shock of entry wears off, it’s just a video game, and needs to win your attention — and stick in your memory — on its own merits. (This reminds me, too, of how the 3D-ness of every 3D movie I’ve seen seems to follow a similar arc. Gum, losing its flavor.)

To these observations, I would add another: games and other experiences that successfully bring your head and your hands into their world, and not just “you”, make for more meaningful VR interactions that last beyond those first moments. But then those games must at core be all about your head and hands; any game with more on its mind with have a tough time crafting a VR mode with any measure of stickiness.

A favorite example: one of the best games for PSVR is Tumble VR, which has you stack blocks. You stack different blocks under a variety of restrictions and circumstances, challenged to make a tall stack on one level, and then a wide and stable pyramid on the next. I doubt this would make for a compelling experience on a flat screen. But in VR? It feels great. Using the PlayStation’s wand-like Move controllers as hands, you snatch up blocks, and hold them close to your face to examine their weight and material. You gently rub them against other blocks to get a sense of their surface friction, and you make the most fine-tuned motions with the real muscles of your real wrists, trying to nudge the virtual blocks into just the right spaces. That’s the whole game, and I love it — and I remember playing it as an intensely physical experience.

Compare to Obduction, the latest full-sized immersive adventure game from Cyan. I can’t recall how long I waited in between my purchasing it for PS4 and its delayed PSVR support coming down the pipe — it may have taken a most of a year. When it finally did arrive, I felt mainly frustration at the unnatural controls, which relied on the teleport-to-move style employed by many VR games as proof against motion sickness. The most memorable interaction I had involved ringing someone’s doorbell over and over by pulling my right-hand Move controller’s trigger to extend my in-game hand’s index finger, then jabbing it forward repeatedly. Fun — but, alas, not an action central to the experience. I took off the helmet and proceeded to play “flat” Obduction all the way through as originally intended, and had a marvelous time that I today remember fondly.

I’ve already written about Rez in VR, where the helmet turns you into a digital basilisk, destroying targets by looking at them, and how that feels quite perfect. (I maintain that the original Rez was a VR-native game, published 15 years ahead of schedule.) I can also praise two games that make you feel present by playing with extreme scale: the mouse-warrior protagonist of Moss seems like she really is two inches tall and — this is key — six inches away from your face as she tumbles through miniature fantasy play-sets. Conversely, Here They Lie contains some amazing set-pieces involving titanically large figures glaring down at you from a mile away, in ways that caught my breath. The same game also has one of my favorite unexpected single VR moments ever: I came across a mirror and caught a glimpse of the player-character, surprised at the specificity of his appearance, all rumpled suit and receding hairline. I instinctively leaned in close to see better — and, of course, “my” reflection did exactly the same, with the same curious head-tilt too.

In all the cases, the VR games worked with my presence in the game-world as embodied, centering themselves specifically around the position and motion of my eyes and hands in space. In subtle but real ways, this is different from treating the player as a floating camera that can do stuff, the perfectly functional mode for standard game controls and so often a clumsy and distracting rig in VR. That, I think, summarizes the update I’d make to my own earlier article on PSVR. It’s not so much that the best, least gimmicky VR games “have presence”, but that they make you feel startlingly, bodily present — and that’s simply not the right approach for every sort of game. Disappointingly, this may include most games about immersive exploration, ones that primarily want to show you amazing vistas and wondrous machines. A familiar controller and nice big flat screen may remain their best home.

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Julian K. Jarboe

you are both so very good at writing about these things

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