The Hardest Part of VR: Forgetting Game Logic

If you've been following this blog at all over the last few years, then you'd know that I'm a pretty big fan of VR games. I got my PSVR the day it came out, and have kept up with pretty much all VR related news ever since. The whole thing was just so exciting for me, and it still continues to blow me away with each new game. Sure eventually there's a point where "virtual reality" blends in with "reality" and you start to forget just how different of an experience it really is, but at the same time there's some things you never forget. The fact that you're playing a game and specific rules apply. The thing is, these so called "rules" don't always work out the way you'd expect. And that is the hardest thing to get used to.

The thing about video games is that you pretty much always know how things work. You typically move using an analog stick or keys on your keyboard, you have your right analog stick or mouse to look around, and specific buttons are assigned to do specific things. Maybe X is to jump, or square is to reload your gun. Maybe triangle or Y is to bring up your menu, and you have some sorta cancel button to back up if you've clicked on the wrong thing. This is just how games work and it's something all gamers are used to. Even when games use unique controls it doesn't take long for us to figure them out and adapt. This is just how games work and we are all used to it. But what about when this is all stripped away? It varies from game to game, but you see VR doesn't have to abide by these standards. In fact most games in VR are anything BUT standard. What you expect from a video game gets thrown out the window, and you find yourself facing a new reality. One that is very much closer to our own.

Now I've played most major VR titles released up to this point, and throughout them I've had to learn to adapt to different styles of play constantly. Some games use a normal controller and play exactly the same as most of us are already used to. These games still pull you in thanks to the VR perspective, but it's not anything too out of the ordinary. Heck even when alternate control schemes are brought in such as using the Move Controllers in Skyrim VR, the game of Skyrim itself doesn't actually change. Yes you have the freedom to wave your arm around and slash with a sword, but this isn't anything we haven't seen before with the Wii. Motion control back then helped us accept this type of control scheme, and mechanic wise the game is still reading these actions basically the same as it always did. Weapon hits enemy, enemy takes damage, and then eventually enemy dies. The control method might be different, but the game is not. This is the major difference between games updated for VR support and those that were made with it in mind. While Skyrim continues to use the same world we are already familiar with, games like Blood and Truth are different. These games are tailored to VR, and the things they do are unlike anything we've experienced before in a game. What do I mean by this? Well let's look at a more recent example. Or rather, a brand new release.

Earlier this week Half Life Alyx finally released. Going into it I knew that it was supposed to be a game that took full advantage of VR, but I guess I didn't understand what that meant. I expected to jump into this world with my knowledge of Half Life there to guide me through it, but instead I was met with constant amazement. And horror.

(I'm sure we've all seen this screenshot by now, but trust me, it's different when you're "in" there.)
Remember what I said about buttons and things just working in games? Yeah, all of that gets thrown out the window, and that's what is so hard to get used to. Imagine this: you're in a dark subway car and a zombie is breaking through the window and climbing through it. What do you do? Taking out your gun and shooting it is the obvious answer, but those of you with zero gun experience in real life -- have you ever actually thought about what goes into that? I mean you just point and click right? Right!? Yeaaaah, no. In a normal game in this situation all you have to do is aim and pull the trigger. Shoot the thing till it is dead, and then hit R or square (or whatever your controller's default is) and you can now reload to continue firing. All there is too it. In VR though? Not that simple! In Half Life taking out a gun is pretty simple however. Unlike in Blood and Truth which has you holster your weapons, here all you need to do is hold in the right analog stick and flick your wrist up to whichever weapon you want to use. That part really hasn't changed much from your standard pressing 1, 2, 3, 4, keys, but that's the only similarity here.

Now keep in mind that the zombie is getting closer to you and it's in front of your eyes in it's pure VR glory! So what next? Point and pull the trigger? Well first of all you have to aim the gun, and you have to keep the way your weapon is facing in mind. Line up the shot using the sight, and make sure you don't twist your wrist by mistake -- you'll end up missing. Once you've got things ready though all you do is pull the trigger and... Click. Click, click, click. You've got to load the thing. Hurry up and grab a full mag from your backpack (behind your head), and insert it and get ready to fire! So by now the zombie is right on you but it's okay because you can now fight back! So once again you aim and pull the trigger and... Click. Click click click click click. What's wrong? The thing is right in front of your face now and you have no time to move. This is it, either shoot now or die! So what's wrong? Simple. You didn't load the bullet into the chamber or eject the current empty shell. Yep, just like a real gun you've gotta pull it back and get things ready. NOW you can shoot the thing to death and hopefully not die yourself!

It's cases like these where you realize just how much you take basic things like the reload button for granted. Half Life Alyx isn't afraid to put you in high stress situations such as these, and you have to think quick but remain calm as you get things in order just to protect yourself. Every single weapon has a different method to reloading, and they all function differently as well. You can't just run and gun and reload every chance you get -- these magazines are actual magazines now. If you eject the cartage after only using a couple of shots, you're ejecting your mostly full mag and using another from your reserves. At the same time however you have to consider just how many shots are left with your current weapon, and how many it's going to take to kill your next target. Will you have time to unload the remainder and pull out a new one? Or is it worth just giving up those last few shots? You have to consider this -- something pretty much no other normal game makes you do. It's something you have to remember, and sometimes it can be hard to. Especially after spending years pressing reload without thinking twice. Use a few shots? Instantly reload to keep it full! That's just burned into our brains at this point and it's hard to let go. However this isn't the only thing that can really throw you off. In fact the the entire world's rules have changed.

Having free movement with nearly your entire body presents a much wider verity of opportunities for game developers to include features in their games. In physics games such as Half Life this means they can incorporate even more real world physics into their world. Want to pick up something heavy? You'll need to use two hands to haul it where it needs to go. Want to open a door? You have to physically turn that knob and pull or push the door open. This includes using the back of your hand to continue to slide it open, or even slap it away. These are things that are natural to us in real life, but in a game you don't exactly know how objects will react. One example happened to me today while streaming HLA to another writer here at NGR. I wanted to close a gate so that nothing could enter in behind me, so I simply pushed it "closed" expecting it to go back into it's original position. Yeah, no. It doesn't work that way in real life, nor does it in HLA. That gate swung as fast as I pushed it, and continued past the door way and slammed up against the wall on the other side. I honestly didn't expect that to happen for some reason, it really caught me off guard. I mean, doors in games usually are either open or closed, since when do they have a full range of motion? It's little things like these that just feel weird despite being so natural. And it doesn't stop there.

Another part of the game had me scaring myself for a very stupid reason. I was alone in a dark room knowing that monsters weren't too far from me, but I wanted to search for ammo. I was picking things up and seeing what I could interact with, but when I came across a case I couldn't open I just tossed it aside. Didn't think much of this but a few seconds later I hear the sound of glass exploding by my head, and I couldn't help but jump and twist my body around in the real world to see what kind of horrors awaited me. Yeah, turns out the case I threw had crashed into the window and shattered it. Again, why wouldn't this happen? I just threw something without even looking. If it hit a window of course it would break! But why would I expect that from a game? Sure we've all shot windows in games before, but things like this? Tossing a useless item aside? It's weird, but at the same time it's not.

Although you eventually do immerse yourself in these virtual worlds, it does take some time and a lot of experimentation to actually understand what you can or cannot do. Yes they try to simulate the real world as much as possible, but as games there are always limits. Even heavily physics based games like HLA can only do so much, but what it does do takes time to get used to. Games like Pavlov VR have a large verity of weapons which you must reload and use in a realistic manor, but even then it's mechanics may not always apply to other VR shooting games. So getting used to using weapons in one game may not always carry over to another, and even if they do it doesn't mean it will always feel the same. Or maybe the game will handle it's world differently in general? It's really hard to know until you've started experimenting with the worlds for yourself. This is the reality of VR, and one thing that makes it so much fun. You never know what type of world you're going to jump into, and when you get there it becomes your new reality. You have to play by it's book, and sometimes it can be pretty shocking.
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