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Writing presence: How good storytelling helps a VR game feel real

Writing presence: How good storytelling helps a VR game feel real Exclusive

March 3, 2015 | By Alex Wawro




The business of virtual reality design is booming, but the tools are still a bit clunky and untested. It's hard enough to make a VR game that's comfortable and satisfying to play for extended periods of time; how do you tell a good story in the process -- and why should you bother?

"NPC behavior, protagonist characterization and plotting...these things play as big a role as visuals in creating a sense of presence.” said Rob Morgan, a narrative designer with credits on virtual and augmented reality games like Wonderbook: Book of Spells and Gunner, during a talk at GDC today on the practical challenges of storytelling in VR games. 

According to Morgan, if you don’t focus enough resources on narrative design “you can spend as much you like as the visuals, and your game won’t be any more immersive.”

After working on original games and experiences for the Oculus Rift, the Samsung Gear VR and Sony’s Project Morpheus headset, Morgan says “VR isn’t entirely a new beast in storytelling; the 2D screen isn’t broken, and VR isn’t a fix for it." 

But it does require thinking about storytelling in some new ways, and developing a fresh batch of VR-specific narrative techniques.

Making your weird VR characters feel human

“If you watch a player encounter their first virtual reality NPC, the first thing they do — every time! — is get right up in their grill,” said Morgan. In games, proximity is a form of control — players can use it to cause things to happen in-game, and that behavior carries over to VR in a unique way.

“When you see someone who looks like a person, you want to know if they’re a person,” said Morgan. “If you see a player encounter an NPC in VR, you’ll see them get right up in their face, maybe check out their bum…and as soon as they see they don’t react as they expect, they treat the NPC as inhuman.”

That’s not necessarily a bad thing (maybe everone in your game is an alien) but it’s a behavior that VR game makers need to focus on accounting for because the implicit goal of the technology is "presence" — that feeling 

“Presence is most powerful when it’s social,” said Morgan. Not in a social networking sense, of course, but rather those feelings we get when we're in the room with another person.

“You have to teach the players certain social rules, rules that feel human,” said Morgan, suggesting that VR game makers design NPCs to establish social rules by saying things like “Is there something on my face?” or “This is getting…weird” when a player gets too close.

Making this work with NPCs, says Morgan, relies on developers finding a few unique edge cases to create reactions for — looking at an NPC’s butt or getting right up in their face are two standout examples. Doing so might make your world feel remarkably more real and more human at a comparatively minor development cost. 

“If you’re going to ram into an NPC, having them get annoyed with you or say something is way more effective than any kind of force feedback we can engineer,” said Morgan. “Create [opportunities for] emotional engagement with your world.”

VR is about feeling yourself in a different world, after all, and Morgan suggests that game makers focus on using that virtual world as a tool for telling stories.

As an example, Morgan points to a moment in Deus Ex: Human Revolution when the main character, Adam Jensen returns to his apartment after undergoing life-altering (and life-saving) surgery. 

When the player explores the environment, there are several environmental clues — smashed mirrors, snide emails from building management — that give players “a look around the back of the character” by characterizing him without explicit narrative.

A similar example is the moment in Portal when a player happens to look at themselves through a trans-dimensional portal — and discovers a woman named Chell.

“If you can achieve immersion, you achieve role-playing,” said Morgan. 

“It takes a bit of a leap to put yourselves in the shoes of a character who’s strongly characterized, but it’s much more of a leap to play as someone you barely know or understand,” said Morgan. “It’s much harder to play a shadow than it is to play a person.”

His argument is that players can embody characters without having to pretend they're somebody else.

“Humans are okay at pretending, but they’re even better at picking holes,” said Morgan. “They’re happy to play along, but don’t ever let them start to wonder what they’re doing here.”

Speaking practically, Morgan also suggests that good narrative design in games can reinforce a sense of presence in VR games that would otherwise have to be made up for with more expensive graphics/audio asset production.

“Getting out of the uncanny valley is an expensive business,” said Morgan. For example, “if you’re thinking of making a game with audio diaries or codecs, then those recordings have to be really good.”

Human ears are as good as human eyes when it comes to picking apart weaknesses and spotting fake realities, so getting your actors to embody their characters and deliver strong, compelling pieces of narrative — whether it’s an NPC bark or an audio log — is critical.

Morgan is basing it on his own experience working on The Deep, a shark attack demo for Project Morpheus. During development the team found that cutting back significantly on the game's dialogue (relayed via in-game radio) gave players "quiet space" to immerse themselves in the experience.

“Talking to the player is something you should treat as a thing you can do a lot of — in short bursts,” said Morgan. It’s like level design — you can bombard players with content for a while, but then it behooves you to open things up and give them some quiet time to breathe.

“Right now, our players are going to spend the first five minutes of your game adjusting the headband, getting comfortable, and getting less conscious of the fact they’re wearing a space helmet,” said Morgan. Thus, it behooves VR game makers to ease players into their games with quiet, expansive scenes where they can breathe a bit and explore the space — rather than an over-the-top cold open.

“Story — the art of understanding how humans relate to one another, and the world around them, is going to be one of the most important components of virtual reality,” said Morgan. “I believe story is going to get [VR games] out of the early adopter ghetto. Story is universal — everyone wants to be told a good story."



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