When you consider the main characteristics of virtual reality games, you will most likely think of physical action and movement. Surround a zombie and cross an obstacle, or take cover and shoot an enemy soldier. Because you’re engaging in physical activity, it’s the fight, not the storytelling, that’s usually the focus of head-mounted experiences, even when the goal isn’t dominance.
As a relatively young and brave medium – tied to an existing and very successful industry – virtual reality is naturally going to rely on adapting what works. And action games, in general, work. As of 2022, the library is dominated by familiar, sometimes brilliant revisions of existing games and properties like Skyrim VR, Resident Evil 4 VR, or LA Noire: The VR Case Files.
Beyond the hearty remakes, however, there are more arcade shooters and fancy prototypes than anything else. For a risky, booming form, that makes good business sense, but after spending so much time in VR over the years, I’ve found that she’s at her best when trying something something deep, rather than wallowing in concentration, blood tests. pumping safety.
Yes, there are plenty of brilliant VR action games out there, but one of the pitfalls of the medium is that it ranks itself by focusing on previously established gameplay methods rather than embracing the medium’s unique immersive qualities. Players are contained inside the virtual reality game space, which means the developer has a greater ability to hold our attention. So why is it rare to find a good story?
Back to City 17
One game that is undoubtedly a good story is the medium’s flagship app, Half-Life: Alyx. Valve’s coveted follow-up (nearly 13 years after Half-Life 2: Episode Two) was helmed by narrative maestros Campo Santo (of Firewatch fame). Alyx’s mastery of the green field of VR feels like the paradigm shift Valve needed to justify a new Half-Life story. A meaty 12-hour tome, it manages to tell a prestige tale in a whole new dimension, with supporting characters in your literal ears as exemplary environmental storytelling feasts your eyes.
The combat is thrilling, but the way Alyx conjures up the atmosphere and fights the emotions of players is its USP. Not to mention the wonderfully comfortable motion controls, which clearly required years of painstaking iteration, all in order for Valve to deliver this special story to as many gamers as possible.
“I thought Alyx was amazing, and there’s so much about this world and how you can tell a story that makes me feel different,” said Episode 2 and Portal writer Chet Faliszek. “For me, when we did the first demo with the Atlas (Aperture Robot Repair) teardown, it was shocking…I had spent so much time with these characters, I felt like I was seeing a old friend and it’s the special ‘reality’ and immersion that only VR can bring,” he continued. “I think we’re still in the very early days with technology going into overdrive. under your feet of… what feels right to you and what just doesn’t…”
Even looking into the past, virtual reality has the potential to add new levels of depth to memorable stories. Source Team VR Mod Half Life 2: VR Mod (opens in a new tab) is a full-scale redesign of Half-Life 2 for VR headsets that launched earlier this year. It’s an amazing achievement of years in the making from an immensely talented group of modders, pulling even more nuance from a chilling classic.
The game’s legendary opener, with its ghostly G-Man taunting Gordon to wake up as impossible scenes flood his chest, looks even more unsettling and prophetic in VR. In the train station that follows, I tended to listen and integrate the voice lines of the worried residents of City 17, projecting their anxieties onto me as they peered into my soul. For all intents and purposes… I was one of them.
“Creating emotions is primarily a consequence of good storytelling, regardless of the medium,” said “cabalistic” Holger Frydrych of the Source VR Mod team. “VR offers a new way to bring game worlds to life, and it can definitely enhance the experience. Valve has spent a lot of time immersing the player in the world of Half-Life 2 and making them feel like to actually be Gordon Freeman, from the highly interactive game world to the subtle details like the eyes of the NPCs looking at the player,” they continued. “With virtual reality, you get a new sense of presence in the world, and all these little details are improved.”
In many areas of the mod, VR can enhance game storytelling, even by accident. “I love the line Kleiner says right after getting the HEV suit back; “I see your HEV suit still fits you like a glove, or at least the parts of the glove fit you!” said Owen “HigherFlyer” Silva. “It fits perfectly with the fact that in our VR mod, the player is just a pair of gloves with no body.” Naturally, the terror of Ravenholm is amped up through all nine, while the more open levels take on an air of melancholy and contemplation. “I never paid much attention to the echo of voices and sounds [in the coastal levels] but actually, standing there, I realized how big and open the places I was in were,” Silva continued.
Beating the beats in VR
Beyond Half-Life, some of the greatest VR experiences can stir up deep emotions and stories by heading in a non-linear narrative direction. One of my favorite VR games is Tetris Effect, by Tetsuya Mizuguchi (Rez, Lumines) and the team at Enhance EXP. Spoiler alert: You play Tetris, but you do so inside stunning dioramas that expand based on the tetrominos you twist, the booming soundtrack reacting with the carefully tuned haptic motors in your palms.
One level, Deserted, manages to weave a moving story about human ingenuity, moving from camel tracks in the desert to a rover mapping the surface of the moon. There are no words, just an orchestra and a series of visual stimuli to accompany you in solving its soothing puzzle. In about five minutes, it delivers a blast of virtual synesthesia and a story that feels unique to each player. This is a payout tier that can take some games 20 hours to clear. What’s this Mizuguchi calls it “a new kind of emotional chemistry”, that mixes physical sensations with software.
Paper Beast, a VR game from the mind of Eric Chahi of Another World, shares this DNA. In this thoughtful adventure, you come face to face with a curious digital “fauna” made up of forgotten algorithms in an Internet ecosystem. Your relationships develop rapidly and the origami code bundles become endearing animals as you observe their charming behavior and solve puzzles to protect them. With simple, combat-free controls, it makes you think about your role in the physical biosphere and culminates in an existential journey to the dark side of the Moon that imparts unforgettable chills.
Games like Beat Saber achieve similar levels of emotional storytelling by pushing virtual reality’s affinity for intense combat in a musical direction. Instead of tapping buttons on a plastic guitar, you smash your way through an onslaught of blocks on your way to audio-visual euphoria. When you catch yourself in the starry abyss during the bridge of a beloved song, your connection to the source material is deepened and the thrill is never too far. That’s why you can get lost dancing in digital arenas like @SlyVR5’s Secret Sky Stadium or VR Chat discos like Loner Online and Tube – these community outfits, alongside the deeper experiences of VR, are truly the harbingers of a new wave of virtual emotional connectivity.
Most of your tools in action games are sticks,” Metal Gear Solid creator Hideo Kojima said in a post. 2016 interview with IGN. He was thinking about a short story he had read in high school by the Japanese writer Kobo Abe (translated here by industry legend Tim Rogers).
‘Nawa’ examines the implications of mankind’s earliest tools. First, the Stick, to ward off danger, before the invention of the Rope, to bring people together and forge meaningful bonds. “You hit or you shoot or you kick. Communication always goes through these ‘sticks’,” Kojima continued, regarding the state of modern action games. “In [Death Stranding]I want people to be connected not by sticks, but by what would be the equivalent of ropes…”
I think what Kojima means here is something VR developers need to consider as the medium enters its teenage years. VR can be a great tool for simulating intense action sequences – Half-Life: Alyx is definitely the most visceral shooter I’ve played, headset or not – but Valve hasn’t used the ability immersive experience of VR for the sole purpose of defining combat, they also wanted to use it to tell a story. And that’s why Alyx is considered one of the greatest games of all time, rather than just its medium’s best effort. Shouldn’t all future VR games aim for the same thing?