Why VR can (and must) deliver more than amazing first-person experiences

I get the feeling that we’re going to have a VR backlash soon. Not in the strict, teeth-gnashing, torch-wielding sense of the word, but I do think that we’re going to start becoming noticeably more critical. Because soon we’ll reach the point where the gosh-wow, science fiction excitement wears off, and VR becomes just another thing that actually exists in the real world; something that we’re all familiar with, and thusly no longer freak out over. Like if robots began hanging out in the pub, or ghosts started delivering the post.

Post-ghosts, we’d call them. It’d be awesome, but also a slightly sad day. Because while we’d get to hang out with ghosts, familiarity would make the ghosts less cool and special. We’d stop marvelling at their translucent wooiness, and start noticing the mundane little things, like the fact that Jeff the Ghost had terrible B.O., or that Clara the Ghost was always a little too eager to engage you in a slightly intrusive conversation about your day.

And that’s where I think we’re going to get to with VR soon. Sometime toward the end of the year, accelerated by Sony’s proper reveal of its Project Morpheus device, VR will stop being part of the crazy, cyberpunk future, and start to feel more like part of our normal, everyday present. And then we’ll start being more objective about it. And we’ll start voicing niggles and dissent. And key amongst that criticism, I think, is going to be the rallying cry of folk who don’t like first-person games. Because let’s face it, FP experiences are dominating virtual reality right now.

It’s entirely understandable, of course. The whole point of virtual reality is to virtually emulate reality, and unless your name is Bran Stark then you very probably experience reality exclusively through the senses located in your own head. But that stuff really isn’t for everyone. Despite the genre’s ubiquity, plenty of people don’t play FPS, whether for reasons of motion sickness, a penchant for third-person characters, or just a simple preference for other genres. At the moment, VR is probably a slightly suspicious area for those players.

Although Sony is--rightly--talking about its Morpheus VR as much in terms of creating ‘presence’ as in terms of creating games, the fact is that first-person is going to have a great deal to do with that. But crucially, I think that the general concept of presence actually has a much wider remit than we’ve seen so far. There are ways that VR can add different kinds of connection, via highly varied means, to an incredibly wide array of game styles and experiences. And developers really need to start exploring the ways that virtual reality can and should add those meaningful new dimensions, if we really are going to hook everyone into the grand VR dream.

You want examples? Right, let’s think about a genre that’s as far--in terms of both presentation and mechanics--from FPS as it gets. Real-time strategy. On first glance RTS should sit a mile away from VR suitability, but in reality it’s a perfect fit on a whole bunch of levels. Let’s say that your viewpoint is the traditional, floating, ‘eyes in the sky’ set-up. Already, that will give the battlefield an immense sense of scale not experienced before. Having used the Oculus Rift a fair amount by now, you can trust me when I tell you that while the head-tracking will most immediately get your attention, the sheer sense of ‘feelable’ 3D space that the device creates will really blow you away.

Simply, in a VR RTS, you will be in the sky, and that map will feel like an entire, living country going about its business half a mile below. Immediately, all of the required abstraction will fall away, and you’ll feel incredibly, tangibly involved with one of gaming’s traditionally most detached, distancing genres.

But now let’s think about camera control. RTS is famously a genre for the most dextrous of gaming octopi. Between selecting units, giving orders, and scrolling and zooming the map to get the best view of the action, there’s a hell of a lot of juggling to be done. But how about if you just look around? How about if, to get a close view of a particular skirmish, you just lean in? How about you zoom out by simply sitting back in your seat? Unsure as to what the enemy might be up to over that eastern ridge? Just have a quick glance, and then get back to what you were doing.

And beyond control convenience, there’s the sense of--yes--presence afforded by the way VR would add real, narrative purpose to your in-game viewpoint. By tying the game’s display and control to a more physical sense of place and interaction, you’d no longer be an abstract camera, floating inexplicably in the air. You’d actually feel like a physical commander in a flying base-ship, or an omnipotent god, actually existing in the physical space above the game world rather than observing it from outside. If that’s not a meaningful new sense of presence, I don’t know what is.

And these principles, with a bit of careful thought regarding mechanics, atmosphere and characterisation, can absolutely be applied to other genres. How about a stealth game where, despite a staunch third-person viewpoint, VR camera control compounds the tension with a literal sense of looking over your shoulder to keep track of the immediate threat? Functional and subtextual. Or a racing game where that instinct to lean around corners actually helps, by imparting a clearer view of the oncoming track? The possibilities here are vast, and with a bit of imagination, they can touch any kind of game or experience you might prefer.

And it’s going to be important that Sony and Oculus have these sorts of experiences to show off over the next year. Because while those of us who’ve used and loved the Rift or Morpheus currently live by the adage that “the only thing needed to sell VR is 60 seconds’ experience”, the fact is that we’re wrong. A minute of immersion is a beautiful, powerful, giddy, even profound thing to experience, but for many players are going to need more compelling, immediately relatable reasons to integrate VR into their home gaming experience. Whether they find first-person VR overwhelming, or just not suited to their favoured games, plenty of people need it to do more for them personally, by doing ‘less’. And there’s a lot more than it can do in that respect. So let’s see it, shall we?

David Houghton
Long-time GR+ writer Dave has been gaming with immense dedication ever since he failed dismally at some '80s arcade racer on a childhood day at the seaside (due to being too small to reach the controls without help). These days he's an enigmatic blend of beard-stroking narrative discussion and hard-hitting Psycho Crushers.