Intimate Distance: Initial thoughts on VR and the Oculus Rift

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It is important for a player to feel invested in the outcome of a game. Whether they identify with a defined protagonist or project onto a blank protagonist, the player needs to have a reason to move forward and to complete the objectives in a game. The player doesn’t have to agree with a protagonist’s motives or understand them (initially) to give the player motivation to play. Consider how Dragon Age: Inquisition begins the game with the character creation and then drops the player into an intense cutscene before setting them up to learn about the current state of the world with an interrogation scene. Whether the player knows the Dragon Age franchise or not, they are given a chance to immediately state what type of character they are playing through the choices given to them on the dialogue wheel: are they going to be a sympathetic, clever, or aggressive hero? Even if the player doesn’t immediately identify with a pre-defined protagonist (think Joel from The Last of Us), they can still find a reason to move on with the story by forming an attachment to the supporting characters. In the case of Dragon Age: Inquisition, that would mean Leliana and Cassandra. Even if the player never played Dragon Age: Origins or Dragon Age 2, they are still given information about both characters to help them find a reason to move on with the plot, whether it be to prove their character’s innocence or to try to discover what caused the destruction of the Conclave.

In “traditional” video games, there is a distinct divide between the player and the protagonist, whether it’s a third-person barrier or even the facelessness of being in a first-person perspective. There is a screen between the player and the character, clearly defining what is and what isn’t. This divide changes however when VR is applied to video games. Recently I had the opportunity to try out a Robo Recall (Note: this is unsponsored), which will potentially be one of the case studies I research for my thesis. While focusing on my thesis topic, looking at Narratology and Ludology in games, I became distracted while I was immersed in the world of Robo Recall and I began to wonder how different my perception of the protagonist was in contrast to when I play normal FPS games.

Like most FPS games, the only part of the player character I could see were hands, which had been warped by the VR. Instead of my usual hands, I saw what could have been gloved or robotic hands, which I could use to reach out and grab things in front of me: a worn coffee mug on the desk, a book, which could be turned over to peer at the spine but couldn’t be opened, and a decommissioned robot which I was invited to rip apart. There was no real, physical resistance when I grabbed onto the robot’s arm and tugged, but mentally, through the game’s visual queues, I felt like there was weight behind the motion. It wasn’t just an empty gesture–it was brutal, strong motion that felt merciless and inhuman. In this game, I was dropped into a world where I was told through a news broadcast that robots were going rogue and then through a disembodied Glados-like voice that I was no longer me, but a being named Agent 34 whose job it was to hunt down these defective robots–robots which had a voice.

Who was Agent 34? Was I supposed to project onto the otherwise nameless Agent 34? The Oculus’s settings would have told the game that I am 5’4″, but was Agent 34 the same height? Standing in Agent 34’s office, everything seemed to be at height for me to grab; I never felt like Alice–too tall or too small. Who was I though? Agent 34 had no voice, no personality, only voices giving them commands–since I was Agent 34, did that mean I had no voice? The robotic assistant gave Agent 34/me missions, which encouraged me to grab the guns visibly holstered at my hip or to reach over to my shoulders to grab my shotguns. I was tossed into the streets and told to fight defective robots and given cheerful encouragement by “normal” sounding robots while the robots I fought spoke to me in distorted B1 Battle Droid voices. The play made it feel like a kill or be killed story, but there was a different intensity than most FPS games. It almost felt like there was a wider divide between me and my objective.

After completing the tutorial and first mission, I still knew very little about Agent 34. I only had an objective: kill the defective robots. There were hints of an underlying narrative scattered through the chatter of the news stations and my helper AI, but as a player, I felt confused and disoriented.

This isn’t to say that the game isn’t clear in its objective or isn’t fun to play. I had a great time blasting away at robots, well aware that beyond my mask other patrons in the library’s Workshop were watching my progress and antics with bemused smirks. I was able to get lost in the game though, intent on the “play” of it. The design of the world was amazing and oftentimes I found myself staring up at the buildings or the sky instead of fighting the robots. My desire to feel more connected to the game and VR content itself comes from seeing its potential.

Looking critically at the game though, I have to wonder: what does it mean to be a protagonist in a VR game? My current sample size is small, limited to Robo Recall and Dead and Buried, the only games which were available at the time for me to play, but it makes me question the divide between player and character; co-writer and writer. The games I played leaned heavily towards a theme of play rather than story, leaving character by the wayside. In both games I played, the protagonist (me) was told directly the current state of the world and their place in it (i.e., the objective). In my earlier example of Dragon Age: Inquisition, the state of the world can be inferred through the interrogation scene. To compare Robo Recall to another blank-slate and initially no dialogue protagonist, The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim introduces the character to the current world state through a long, somewhat trudging speech. While the speech can be rather dull, it does set up the current world well and even once the player character is thrust out into the open world setting, there are enough markers to go to in order to start building up a story for the player character and enough interactions with faces. Even FPS games such as Overwatch, which has no story mode, still manage to find ways to make players connect with the heroes they’re playing through dialogue or little character markers such as the way their guns are designed or held.

Playing through the VR was fun, but there was a surprising disconnect given how close I was to the character–in the end, I was the character, but perhaps that was part of the problem. Will games on the VR ever allow for players to experience stories like the ones played out in Skyrim or Dragon Age: Inquisition? How would a dialogue wheel work–or would there even be a wheel? Would a player instead have present dialogue scripts that they can choose to read from themselves, effectively speaking for the character–becoming the character? Given the current cost of VR equipment and its current limitations and requirements, it is difficult to say whether it will be allowed to progress and grow as a form. If it does though, it will be interesting to see how developers continue to tackle problems such as the divide between player and character.

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