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'You can feel their pulse fading': How  Reaping Rewards  tells an emotional story in VR

'You can feel their pulse fading': How Reaping Rewards tells an emotional story in VR

September 22, 2017 | By Alex Wawro

September 22, 2017 | By Alex Wawro
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More: VR, Design, VRDC

Limitless’ Reaping Rewards is an interesting piece of VR development, released for free this summer as an “interactive VR short film” that asks players to make “emotional choices” to advance the story.

In a recent chat with Gamasutra, Limitless founder Tom Sanocki explained how his past work at places like Bungie and Pixar influenced his approach to designing Reaping Rewards. Today, in a brief talk delivered at VRDC Fall 2017, he followed up on that by explaining what he’d learned about the art of making immersive, affecting VR experiences -- and how fellow VR devs could do the same.

Before Reaping Rewards, Limitless was best known for its work on Gary the Gull, the free (and mostly comedic) interactive VR short film released last year across multiple platforms.

Sanocki explained that Reaping Rewards was meant to follow after Gary by trying to set a more thoughtful tone, asking players to step into the role of a young Grim Reaper-in-training and make decisions about when and how to take lives.

He added that the team took a lot of inspiration from Telltale Games’ games, and in particular the way they are designed seemingly with the understanding that players don’t always want to control the story so much as they want to make emotional, meaningful choices.

For Sanocki, the impact of this type of game design can be much stronger once a player puts on a headset and actually immerses themselves in your story.

“In something as new as VR and AR, we really need to be exploring and pushing the boundaries more,” he said. Notably, he called out Telltale Games’ predilection for allowing players to give no response (“...”) and suggested VR devs should do the same if they want their worlds to feel real.

"The real world doesn't wait for us to respond"

“The real world doesn’t wait for us to respond,” he said. “It will move on without us.”

Reaping Rewards was born as a script for a more traditional short film, but was translated into VR by making relatively simple (at least in concept) tweaks like moving from a third-person to a first-person perspective, and designing interactions that will have emotional impact on the player.

Unlike with Gary the Gull, which mostly focused on motion and voice, Sanocki says Reaping Rewards was designed to focus on touch because it’s “visceral and emotional.” It’s also very instinctual -- so often, the first thing people do in VR is reach out, touch something, and pick it up to look at it. In Reaping Rewards, one of the first things a player can touch is the hand of a dying patient.

“If you reach out and touch the patient’s hand, if you can feel their pulse fading, through haptics, it affects you, as a human,” Sanocki added. “In a way you can’t get with any other medium.”

Comparing Reaping Rewards to a stereotypical “shoot the alien” game, Sanocki encouraged fellow devs to think about the fact that while both were about death, the way they were designed significantly changed their emotional impact on the player.

Sanocki said Limitless save a lot of time during development by designing VR environments in VR -- their Limitless Creative Environment toolset let them do explore, scale, and modify a scene’s composition while wearing a VR headset.

This allowed the team to quickly try moving things around and make mistakes before they got too far in development, which Sanocki says was critical because it allowed the team to rapidly design and iterate the scenes of Reaping Rewards

Being able to make mistakes quickly is, as usual, incredibly valuable -- if you can swing it

“Being able to make mistakes quickly is one of the things that we believe is really important in VR,” said Sanooki.

So for example, with something as simple as placing the Grim Reaper in the hospital room with the player, the team quickly realized that the most intuitive thing to do -- put the big Grim Reaper across the patient’s bed from the player, ensuring that the player sees both patient and Reaper when they enter the room -- wasn’t ideal.

It seemed too pat; the team was afraid that if they put the Reaper off to the side players would get confused, but that confusion proved to be very temporary -- and emotionally affecting.

“By putting him to the side, we found that people now had that feeling of confusion we wanted; people would go ‘oh no, I don’t know what to do. I need help.’” Sanooki said. However, they would almost always find him right away, by looking around the room -- and would feel more alone, since the Reaper would basically be standing off to the side and giving the player the cold shoulder.  

“That was affecting,” said Sanooki. “And it was something we were able to find much quicker by just being able to try it out in VR right away.”

As he was wrapping up, Sanocki acknowledged that both Gary the Gull and Reaping Rewards were early, clunky attempts to tell meaningful, emotional stories in VR -- that's part of the reason why they're pitched as free, promotional products.

But he also seemed convinced that they're worth studying, and iterating on, and learning from as developers around the industry continue to push the boundaries of what can be done in VR.

“I’m the first to say that it’s not perfect, that it hits in some cases and isses in others, but there was still something to it that we don’t feel when watching it on a flat screen,” said Sanooki. “It’s a good jumping-off point for where VR storytelling goes in the future.”

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