The impact on POV in VR games

I grabbed an Oculus Quest towards the end of 2019, attracted by its (relatively) affordable price, its untethered nature and it not needing to be powered by a nearby PC. Spoiler: it’s fantastic. Not least, the lack of faff and required technical know-how makes it a far more social, family affair rather than being an off-putting techie thing stuck next to my PC upstairs.

I wrote a couple of articles on storytelling in games a while back. You can find them here:

and

At the time I’d not experienced VR to any great extent, hence it being conspicious by its absence from those articles.

In terms of storytelling, VR often does as much to hinder it as help it. The ability to physically walk around in a game world is astonishing and engrossing, but is inevitably limited by the constraints of your house. In the UK in a typical house it’s rare to find a room large enough for the recommended 6'x6 which isn’t already crammed with furniture. As such, you’re constantly, incongruously bumping into the boundaries of the real world. Other than the Quest, VR requires you to be tethered by a bunch of irritating cables.

Non-VR games might be more abstracted with their need for a gamepad, but they’re more consistent in their input. Pushing an analogue stick to make a character walk isn’t as immersive as simply walking with your legs, but your brain quickly maps the abstracted control mechanism onto whatever the game is trying to do. VR, on the other hand, feels completely convincing but only in 10 seconds bursts — until you’re inevitably interrupted by cables or the real walls of your room.

One big exception to this is ‘cockpit games’. By which I mean anything which takes place inside a vehicle: driving games, spaceship games, flight sims etc. They automatically by definition limit your physical space to a small area, while still allowing for significant movement courtesy of the vehicle itself. As a player you’re stuck in your cockpit seat, but your vehicle can go anywhere.

Which brings me to two games, which I’ve been able to try out thank to the Oculus Link feature.

No Man’s Sky in VR

No Man’s Sky VR perfectly encapsulates the best and worst aspects of VR. When on foot, it’s an awkward experience, with the massive planets being fiddly and unnatural to explore. Due to the terrain being very uneven, it feels even stranger to walk around the flat floor of your house.

Then I got into my spaceship, and immediately I was there. The spaceship felt tangible and real and physical in a way it never does in the non-VR version. Even standing beside it, the ship is huge and powerful, and once you’re inside the cockpit detailing brings it to life, like when you get into a new car for the first time. Shifting into an accurate human scale makes all the difference.

Unfortunately, NMS runs terribly on my PC via Oculus Link, I think due to my PC’s spec being too low for intensive VR games. I’ll need to upgrade before I can properly check it out.

House of the Dying Sun in VR

There are no performance issues with House of the Dying Sun, a minimalist, indie space combat game. There are few frills to the game: you fly around shooting at other ships, build up a fleet that fights alongside you, all while Battlestar Galactica-style music drums away in the background. It’s excellent.

I’d never played it in VR before and the experience was revelatory. Again, you’re sat in a cockpit, the ship feeling large and palpable around you. The key difference is that in VR you can easily look all around the cockpit and out of the canopy. Your ship can be going in one direction while you’re looking in another. This is theoretically possible when not in VR but is extremely fiddly — in VR it is a natural part of the tech.

The moment when this really clicked for me is when an enemy ship flew towards me then tilted up and flew above. In the non-VR version I’d have had to rotate my ship to keep the enemy in sight. In VR, I simply looked up, through the roof of the cockpit canopy, still tracking where the enemy ship was while I started to move my own in pursuit.

It was a moment of pure immersion, unlike anything I’d experienced in a game. A small moment, subtle really in terms of what I was actually doing. The game accomplished a level of space fantasy fulfilment beyond anything a movie could manage — that brief few seconds in House of the Dying Sun was more thrilling and exciting than any of the space sequences in something like Rise of Skywalker. In that moment the game surpassed the space battles of my childhood in films like Return of the Jedi and Babylon 5.

Find out more about my writing at simonkjones.com. Thanks for reading!

Writer & tutor. Serialised fiction author. Producer of the Writing Life podcast at the National Centre for Writing. http://simonkjones.com

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