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The RPG Scrollbars: Making the RPG genre work in VR

Are there any good VR RPGs yet?

About a year ago, I bought myself a HTC Vive. Since then, it's gathered a fair bit of dust. I swear, it's not that I'm a VR skeptic, so much as someone without a whole lot of space to play with who prefers being able to go to the toilet at night without tripping over what I'm going to call 'a Maplin' of expensive cabling. Of late though, I've been feeling the urge to go back in, largely I must say inspired by stuff I can't actually play, like the intro to I Expect You To Die (Vive version is coming, I can't be arsed with Revive) and watching the new Psychonauts and Arkham VR experiences from the PSVR.

So, I did. And I had some fun playing around with some new stuff.

My RPG based dreams though feel further away than ever.

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Honestly, at the moment they seem to sit squarely with Fallout 4 VR, which is problematic because I don't actually like Fallout 4 as a game and really wish Bethesda was upgrading Skyrim instead, minus the giant spiders obviously. I don't want to be too down on the Steam games that are trying to be RPGs, not least because a) most of them are indie efforts, b) most are experiments, and c) making an RPG is a veritable crap-ton of work even when you're not trying to invent a whole new experience from the ground up. Something like, say, Vanishing Realms deserves its positive reviews for what it accomplishes, and it's unfair to expect that to be some glorious AAA experience. It's pretty cool, and easy to get lost in while it lasts.

The catch for me is more that the solutions to problems are only feeling more tenuous and jarring rather than starting to feel natural. If you've not played a 'room scale' game, the solution to the fact that most of us don't have a dungeon sized playfield to walk around is to allow more or less free movement within whatever space you do have, with getting from A to B done by pointing your controller at a patch of ground away from it and hitting a button to teleport there. It can be a bit stomach churning if done in overly quick-succession, but a definite improvement on moving with the controller (producing a motion sickness effect due to your eyes telling you you're moving while your body doesn't), or every game having to find some excuse to strap you into a chair or stand still for the duration. In practice, recent stats show that a full quarter of SteamVR users are stuck using a standing only set up, with just about everyone else stuck with a tiny amount of space squeezed between bookcases and sofas and whatever.

But while it works, in the sense that it's a familiar interaction method that everyone uses, it's still a complete stop-gap measure that takes you out of most experiences every time you tap the button. Something like Google Earth VR, fine. If you're specifically playing a wizard, fine. Anything else and it's a magic power that goes so far beyond the bounds of suspension of disbelief as to be crazy, like playing a Call of Duty game where your guy just happens to be able to fly. And rather than the industry go 'we're working on something better', the current path is just to keep doing it until it finally somehow seems normal. That's a hell of a lie to swallow when in most cases the solution nobody wants to accept is 'just don't make games that expect players to walk around huge playfields because the technology isn't up to that'.

The second problem is the same one that Nintendo demonstrated with the Wii - a lack of feedback. To VR's credit, interacting with the space can be a shockingly tactile experience even with a little rumble and psychological cues. Valve's own The Lab for instance features poking and prodding with the controllers that feel close enough to using your hands. When combat rears its head though, there's just no way to pretend you're actually in a sword-fight or taking hits from enemies. By making the scene more realistic, it feels fake. Oh yeah, and with RPGs though, there's the additional problem that much of what you're fighting is likely going to be fucking disgusting. It's bad enough to have rabid rats leaping for your throat on a screen without them trying to do it in quasi-real-life, to say nothing of bloatflies and radscorpions big and solid enough for you to reach out and touch them when Fallout 4 comes along. Brrr.

"Wait!" you say, possibly preparing that Jackie Chan 'head explosion' GIF, "Are you really complaining that things are too realistic for you and yet not realistic enough?" Well, yes. But crucially, different things and for different reasons. Hold that thought.

The third problem of course is the length of time it's comfortable to use the gear. My Vive headset gets overly warm and sweaty in a manner of minutes, and eyes sore after an hour or so. Not exactly conducive to having a great quest.

I realise this sounds like I just don't like VR, but that's not true. What I tend to think works better though are shorter experiences built with it and its limitations in mind, and those limitations just aren't great news for RPGs. To give an example of something I think works well - there's a Star Wars demo called Trials on Tatooine which is only about five minutes long, but offers the best 'actually play with a lightsaber' sequence I've ever played. It replaces a controller, hums in your hand, cuts through the ground, etc. The genius of the sequence though is that the designer clearly accepted that fighting a Sith Lord wasn't going to work, so instead the simulation is something that actually can - lots of Stormtroopers popping up and shooting, with you returning their shots. It feels pretty much perfect, and as bad as an ass can be without actively joining the Hell's Angels as a hard-driving pair of buttocks with nothing to lose.

The same goes for most of the seated experiences, and most of the best games I've tried on the system - Serious Sam VR, Cloudlands, Valkyrie, Holopoint, Audioshield, etc - are primarily marked by their simplicity. There's exceptions like Elite Dangerous, and goodness, is that a gorgeous looking chunk of space, but they're rare exceptions. It's not hard to imagine how fantasy games in general could work, like spell-slinging wizard battle games or more exploratory affairs like Obduction. But would those be RPGs?

I'm not saying any of this is an insurmountable problem, just that I don't think it's one on the way to being fixed yet, at least for what I think we all see as the traditional VR paradigm of being a first-person hero kicking arse for gold and glory. I'd love to be proven wrong, because I get the dream. Honest. I remember it from before Legend Quest was a thing, and when magazines were desperately trying to say that Doom VR was perfect except for the part about having the rocket launcher sticking out of your face. I'd love to be proven wrong because I want to have that experience as well.

However, as it stands it feels like the best path for RPGs in VR is the one that nobody really wants to admit is probably the only one that's going to work. Give up on that dream for now, and like the best games, figure out what VR can do well rather than what we all want it to do well. For something like a shooter, obviously, that's classic first-person immersion. For RPGs though, it's to stick with the third person, taking inspiration from the likes of Mass Effect and Dragon Age rather than Skyrim and Fallout 4. Interactive alien banging optional. No, wait. The other thing. Mandatory.

Far from being defeatist, this actually solves most of the problems in one fell swoop. The haptic issue is no longer a problem because you're not the one clashing swords with anything. You still get the scope for being surrounded by gorgeous worlds in all their 3D glory and the ability to explore them at will - perhaps limited to a circle around your party. The teleportation has a focus, which helps cut down on the motion sickness of just beaming here there and everywhere and constantly changing action. And in a third-person setting, it feels more natural to be able to hit the pause button for some of those things that RPG players generally like, such as 'tactics' and 'battlefield awareness' and 'not just swinging wildly until someone dies'. There's even scope to occasionally go into the first person for the occasional cool thing, like archery, or perspective changes like the start of Batman: Arkham Knight. If there are icky monsters, you can also walk away, content in the knowledge that they're not going to come after you personally, since you're not technically there.

Or in a pinch, I guess you can close your eyes.

The sweaty headset and eye-strain problem? Those are hardware issues for another time, along with other annoyances like the screen-door effect (the gaps between pixels, reduced the higher the resolution becomes). A ten hour session in third person isn't going to be any more comfortable than in the first person. It is though likely to be more satisfying while it lasts, and more satisfying than Lucky's Tale. Both good starting points if you ask me. Which you didn't. But never mind, we're all done now.

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