How can we create immersion within fantasy settings?

All breakthrough technologies need to find their niche. If an innovation offers nothing new, it’s unlikely to succeed.

With virtual reality, immersion is key, and it’s something I find myself returning to whenever I consider where we’re heading.

During a recent Skyrim session, I found myself wondering how fantasy games would fare as virtual worlds. It strikes me that standard treatments of the genre on more conventional platforms wouldn’t work well if directly ported across.

Of course, graphics have come a long way. The latest generation of consoles and gaming PCs are capable of producing characters believable enough to fool many of us, at least at a glance. But there are still a number of issues which would detract from the experience.

For one, in-view text windows might well destroy immersion. Having had years of it on our screens, perhaps it’s something we’ll tolerate, but I think that once we’re inside these three-dimensional spaces, elements like this will become less acceptable.

dialogue

Can in-game text ruin a virtual environment?

Picture it: You’re sitting in your living room, hacking apart on-screen trolls on your Xbox One, then someone opens the door and you glance over to see who it is. Immediately you’re out of the game.

Now imagine the same encounter, standing in a rig and VR headset, holding a weighted controller in-hand. Same environment, same trolls, but now you’re within the world. Someone opens the door and, when you glance to your left, all you can see is the digital landscape around you.

While the opening door might serve as a distraction, you’re still immersed in the game world. You look back and take a final swipe at the slavering creature, dropping it to the ground, where a text box pops up offering you the option to search its corpse.

In a modern or futuristic setting, it’s possible to deal with this by using some kind of narrative device like augmented reality goggles or a heads-up display. Your VR headset would even provide the feeling of actually wearing them. But in a fantasy setting, there’s no ideal work-around.

HUD.png

HUDs will be fine in modern or futuristic environments settings, but what about fantasy?

And no matter the environment, is there a viable alternative for selecting conversation strands from an on-screen list? When dealing with other players, dialogue should be relatively straightforward, but what about non-player characters?

We have voice recognition, and that will address part of the issue, but just how flexible can we make our content, and how much open-endedness will artificial intelligence allow? If we really want a true sandbox environment, these are issues begging for consideration.

Then there are the surroundings themselves. On-screen, we’ll happily pop open an inventory and equip new items. Kill a creature, plunder its body and you can pick and choose from a list of loot. But in VR, wouldn’t it be much more satisfying to actually unsling a backpack and inspect its contents?

For every solution, a new problem will doubtless present itself, but if we wish to strive for a truly captivating experience we need to start thinking in more than three dimensions.

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