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3rd person gameplay in VR: That’s not me!

It is said that in 3rd person games, you play as someone else whereas in 1st person games, you play as yourself. To avoid creating a gap between the player and their avatar, it is also preferable for the player character to be mute, their name to be decided by the player and for them to not have much of, or even any, backstory or character of their own. It certainly is true that it is harder to identify if the avatar is distinct from the player.

Still, we usually have no problem identifying with talking, defined characters we see on a screen. Because they become an extension of ourselves, because they move when we intend for them to move. Sticks and buttons become an interface that connects us with these characters. We are on one side of the screen and they are on the other, but it is the same mind that controls either. Hence why in a multiplayer game, if two players chose the same character, they might ask which one is me, or a spectator might ask, which one is you?

It becomes an entirely different story once you play the same game in VR though. Before, you were sitting on this side of the screen, but since your avatar drew all of your attention, you started to forget about your real physical self on the couch. At some point, you cease to be aware of sitting on the couch altogether because you are so immersed in that other world behind the screen. Now in VR, since you suddenly inhabit the same space as your avatar, being able to look around and even away from them, your awareness of your physical self cannot be muted that easily anymore. You become very aware that your avatar is someone different than yourself.

Of course the gameplay has not changed at all. Your avatar is still an extension of yourself. But as you move them about, they change their distance to you, coming nearer or walking away. This dynamic gap cannot be ignored anymore. I came to realize this when I played my first 3rd person game in VR, Herobound. The feeling of presence was amazing, I was in fact inside the game world, more immersed in it than ever before. What was frustrating was that although I was aware of my avatar, they were not aware of me. At least I could physically help them. Instead of just pressing buttons to make them move, I could aim their bow by directing my gaze at where they should fire.

So does this mean that for VR, games have to be 1st person to work in a satisfying manner? I think that all VR games, simply by sake of being VR, automatically become 1st person games even if they are mechanically 3rd person. When you have a 3rd person avatar, you as the player are a second character in the same world that sees it in 1st person. This is in fact an opportunity for new gameplay experiences, if the game designers choose to not ignore this new relationship between player and avatar but instead emphasize it.

Adventure Time: Magic Man’s Head Games does this masterfully. It starts with you observing the characters Finn and Jake from the Adventure Time show. You are a bit of a voyeur at that moment and when they notice you they do call you out for watching them. Then Magic Man shows up and casts a spell on you, making you blow up like a balloon and rising into the air. You get a good view of the gameworld and characters that way, like the camera in a 3rd person game. You become kind of like Lakitu in the 3D Mario games. But you also are like a damsel in distress because now Finn and Jake have to save you and reverse the spell.

Finn and Jake constantly talk about or with you. Jake is inside Finn’s backpack but he frequently stretches and comes very close to you and talks to you directly. This isn’t just funny, it also meaningfully connects you with and grounds you inside the gameworld, even though you are technically floating in it. You control both Finn and his sword and Jake and his shapeshifting abilities but it feels like you and they are a team, working together to save you. And you also help them, when they cannot see where to grab to climb high ledges, you direct Jake’s hand with the aim of your gaze.

Another convincing example of this teamplay between avatar and player is Robots Rescue from The Playroom VR. The game starts with a large group of cute robots getting abducted by baddies. What remains is your Dual Shock 4 controller, which visibly floats in the game world, just the way you are holding it. The tutorial tells you to summon one last robot from the controller by doing a gesture on the controller’s touchpad. Once outside, you can move the robot around as you are accustomed to from other 3rd person games. When you find an abducted robot, your avatar will kick them back into the controller and you catch them with it. When there is a pit that is too far to jump over, you can shoot a hook chain from the controller and attach it to a wall on the other side of the pit. You can then make the robot jump on the rope and have them balance on it, walking to the other side.

The upcoming game Moss has you you control a mouse called Quill. You can interact with her and manipulate the game world to open ways for her to advance. Compared to the above described Adventure Time and Robots Rescue, which were amazing but rather short, Moss is looking to be a longer VR 3rd person adventure, giving you even more time to bond with the game’s heroine. Who communicates with you in sign language since a mouse cannot speak. There really are many ways to establish a connection between avatar and player.

Does this mean that all 3rd person games need to make a big deal out of this relationship between avatar and player, do all 3rd person games have to have team mechanics? The Herobound games still worked well as games, both as traditional ones and as VR games, and they had decent volume to them. Another example would be Bound, which demonstrates that even a 3rd person not originally designed for VR can not just work but be very much enhanced by being in VR. Bound launched as a regular 3rd person game on PS4 before PSVR was released, but received an update adding VR support later.

In Bound your avatar traverses large surreal environments. Herobound made concessions for being in VR, limiting the environments to moderate room size. To avoid having to scroll, areas are small like in the 1st Zelda game and ‚turn the page‘ to the adjacent area when leaving a room. Bound on the other hand did scroll on screen, otherwise you could never reach doors or ladders in the large areas. To avoid motion sickness, the default (and originally only available) camera option in the VR mode avoids scrolling and instead has to be reset to near the character when they move too far away. This will sometimes be done automatically but the player can catch up manually at any time.

The result is a very strange experience. You control the avatar and make her move, but in effect she is constantly moving away from you. As opposed to Herobound, where the avatar would sometimes come nearer and sometimes grow distant, Bound’s heroine constantly grows distant. The other interaction available to you as player is a means to catch up with the very avatar you make walk away from you. This contradiction really suits the game’s setting and story to the point where I would recommend this camera option even for players who don’t have problems with motion sickness in VR.

The second camera option which was later added to Bound, for experienced VR players, keeps your avatar at a constant fixed distance from yourself. The fixed distance does mute the gap to some degree and more importantly makes the avatar feel like an extension of yourself again. If the avatar is very close to you like in Thumper or Cries of Harvest, the gameplay becomes semi-1st person. There is a 3rd person avatar but what the avatar sees and what you see is largely the same, you’re aligned with them and instead of emphasizing the difference between you and them this approach again tries to make you feel like one unit.

Eating damage in VR can feel intense. Of course you aren’t actually injured by a virtual bullet or sword or feel any actual pain. But you anticipate the impact and your brain thinks you are supposed to feel pain any moment now. So you feel half of it, the anticipation without the actual sensation. This effect lessens over time since you grow accustomed to it, yet since there always is some element of surprise to getting hit, it maintains a feeling of being unpleasant. In Thumper, which defines itself as a rhythm violence game, you will almost be glad that it isn’t you who is getting battered by missing a beat but instead a huge beetle in front of you. Who eventually explodes in an impressive death animation. Of course, you can still empathize and feel with the avatar, as you did when you only saw them on a screen. But not to the degree as when you get hit yourself.

When your avatar is motion controlled like in Cries of Harvest, the connection becomes even stronger and the extension more intuitive. Cries of Harvest actually recreates the 8-bit tile based look and feel of oldschool games but in a 3D VR space. And since you control the bird avatar with your gaze, its movement precisely reflects your own movement. The avatar becomes an extension to yourself that feels more natural than ever before. Yet it maintains the mechanics and aesthetics of oldschool 2D games that were only simulating 3D.

What about 2D games that do not try to be 3D? What about classic 2D gameplay that only uses 3D graphics to create a world where all movement is done on a 2D plane? These work in VR as diorama games. Witchblood is a Metroidvania game in VR that shows one room at a time, like Herobound. But since they are 2D they feel bigger than the rooms in the 3D Herobound. Instead of scrolling, your gaze follows the avatar to the edges of the diorama window. The current playable area is even shown in the context of the larger game map that is drawn on the wall that frames the playfield. GUI interactions are also very intuitive, done on a book below the playfield that opens when you press the options button.

Let’s recap the skillfull applications of VR for 3rd person gameplay I described so far: You can make the spectator role feel interesting as in Bound, or give it utility like in Witchblood. You can try to close the gap and make it semi-1st person as in Cries of Harvest or Thumper. You can have teamplay with player and avatar working together. But you can also do the opposite approach. Instead of using VR for 3rd person gameplay, you can also use 3rd person gameplay as a motion sickness safe way of locomotion for 1st person VR games.

Wayward Sky uses position tracking to give you hands in the VR space. It also constantly switches between 3rd person and 1st person. You solve puzzles and control weaponry with your hands in 1st person, view events unfold in 1st or 3rd person and traverse areas in 3rd person. It provides the best of both worlds and manages to create an impressive VR experience that is also a full fledged, full length game, and doesn’t have to make any concessions for being in VR.

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