The hardware has caught up with the ideal, but the design tenets have yet to do so. Should we look at theatre for inspiration?
After decades of not-so-stellar films and special Star Trek episodes, we appear to be catching up with our science fiction aspirations. The not-too distant release of the consumer Oculus Rift, together with the Morpheus, GameFace and various other Head Mounted Displays, means that we could well be enjoying a new paradigm of gaming within the year. However, there are as of yet very few dedicated games in development, and it won’t be a simple case of adding Rift integration to existing types of games.
Since the very first cutscene in a video game (Pac-Man in 1980), video games have closely emulated the visual language of film. As film was the most accomplished, popular and dynamic way of storytelling thus far, this was completely understandable. Since then, video games have consistently drawn from and were transformed by these design tenets. We are rarely disturbed by editorial jump-cuts in our games, multiple camera viewpoints do not alarm us and non-diegetic storytelling techniques such as voice-over narration never make us wonder where this disembodied voice is coming from.
However, in most forms of virtual reality, we are the player. We’re not controlling the actions of the player character, the player character is us. It moves as you do, and therefore it is you. The games we play will feel much closer to home, as we don’t have a screen to look away from. We are in there (something that will undoubtedly spawn a horde of horror games). Jump-cuts will become jarring and disorienting, as would any jump-cut in real life. Multiple camera viewpoints will be problematic. Interior voices might still work but in VR they will have to come from somewhere. Many of these film techniques will have to be revised, or even completely abandoned.
Daniël Ernst, creator of the popular Shoebox Diorama virtual reality experiences, has given quite a bit of thought to this. Virtual reality, he says, is just a step above what we know, something he terms an ‘omni-composition’. “Film in turn was inspired by illusionists and artists who in turn descend from painted walls in caves. The core remains unchanged but virtual reality offers far more freedom than earlier media. For example, I like to integrate the illusion into the story and the interaction. In my diorama Der Grosse Gottlieb, an acrobat attempts to reach the stars by stacking an enormous tower of chairs. Whenever the player looks down while climbing, he will hear a live audio stream of his surroundings. When he looks up, towards the stars, this stream fades away, enhancing the effect of searching for ultimate peace among the stars.”
“The stars, would be two-dimensional in most game engines, but here, I made them three-dimensional, and very tiny. They have a palpable presence this way and compel the player to reach out and try to grab them, in which he can never succeed, which again feeds back into the core concept of the diorama, that of trying to reach something that is impossible to reach.”
His creations represent some of the more advanced steps being taken in the medium. On altered design specifics generated by the unique characteristics of the medium, he adds: “Walking up some stairs is a mundane action in a normal, screen-based FPS, something you don’t think twice about. In VR, however, the stairs become a thing with mass and height, and walking up becomes exciting. Another example: Running past a cluttered desk in a game rarely piques your interest – barring Gone Home and maybe Rage, but in VR, the clutter becomes a thing of wonder that you can inspect very closely.”
Virtual Reality seems ideally suited to be tackled with nothing less than theatrical techniques. Consider location-based theatre, which often features unframed performances that the audience has to physically follow to experience. Spactators are invited to wander through this theatrical space. Sounds familiar. For some years British theatre company Punchdrunk has staged the play ‘Sleep no More’ in, among others, New York and London. ‘Sleep no More’ is usually set in a large hotel, where audiences are locked up but free to wander, to discover various tableaus, encounters and setpieces around the hotel. They are free to interact with the actors and join in, always influencing the play itself, becoming part of it. This is what video games do, or ought to do, and with the advent of Virtual Reality, this relationship becomes even more necessary. Virtual reality needs real-time, immersive experiences, and theatre by nature is a real-time, immersive experience, far more so than film has ever been.
Before we descend into a full-blown theatrical cesspool, however, there are as of yet, some limiting factors to this ideal. Unsurprisingly, hardware considerations is one of them. The Rift and its cousins are hooked up to your computer with a thick cable, which somewhat limits your freedom of movement. Also, excepting enormous contraptions like the Virtuix Omni for the moment, there really is no way of moving around virtual space except through a controller, which again breaks the immersion. Oculus VR themselves have acknowledged this problem, and have announced they will, for the moment, focus on ‘seated experiences’, best exemplified in EVE Valkyrie: The space combat simulator already has you in a chair in virtual space, which makes immersion easy as you will probably play the game sitting in a similar chair.
Though the prospect of designing games where you sit in chairs a lot may seem limited in scope, it may be precisely this limitation that will coax designers into considering virtual space in new and interesting ways. Daniël Ernst weighs in, adding “All my dioramas and games are seated experiences. Walkabout VR games make me nauseous. Half-Life 2 made me go cross-eyed. Also, the seated experience affords greater control over the composition and a more relaxed environment for the audience to absorb the experience. Decades-old Point & Click adventures are still far more immersive to me than any current triple-A blockbuster game. They allow you the time to comfortable settle into the experience and suspend your disbelief, which usually happens after five minutes. Around that time, most people won’t even notice the low-resolution of the Oculus Rift DK1.”
Lastly, the superior immersion of VR may lead to some tricky questions about morality. Video games, after all, are a medium in which we spend a disproportionate amount of time murdering a lot of things. While this may all be fine and dandy with the dissociating barrier of a screen between the us in the here and the us in the screen, virtual reality may bring these practices uncomfortably close. We will be the ones doing the killing. Daniël Ernst: “The army uses shooters as marketing tools, but not as training implements. VR simulations are used for that. If walking up stairs can be a realistic and exciting experience, imagine what a horror game or an ultraviolent game can do to a person. A classmate of mine graduated with a VR simulation designed to desensitize butchers against the shooting of cows. I’m not saying the responsibility for this type of consideration lies with Oculus or the developers. That’s what parents and people themselves are for. But it is nonetheless an interesting problem that should be discussed and dealt with in a rational and neutral fashion. From a design perspective as well. VR may be an era where wonderment could outsell extreme violence, and I hope people will choose the former.” •