21 Sep We learned a lot about VR, so here is why we are rethinking Among the Sleep
You would think a first person horror game would be perfect for Virtual Reality. We thought so too, but in the last two years we have learned otherwise. Virtual Reality is wonderful, it’s immersive, engaging and powerful. But you really need to design your game for VR from the ground up, not the other way around.
The feel of the game
A huge focus when creating Among the Sleep was to make the player feel like he or she was controlling a small child. To accomplish this we spent a lot of time on camera movement. We wanted to simulate the way children waggle when they walk, their perspective and movement when crawling. We made climbing animations simulating how small children climb, we made the player fall over occasionally when running because, you know, that happens to small children.
All of these techniques are essential to project the feeling of being a child to the player. They make the player feel small, fragile and vulnerable. But unfortunately they don’t work in VR.
One of the first things we learned when experimenting with VR is that the player needs to be in control. All the time. When a player puts on a headset to play your game he is basically placed inside the game. This creates a unique and intense connection between the player and the game, a much more powerful connection than you can accomplish through a regular screen, and it’s a connection that requires trust between the game and the player. The player has to trust that he or she will be in control all the time.
A very common technique in story driven first person games is to take away the players control of the camera when you want to tell some story. You want the player to see the spaceships approaching over the mountain, the skyscraper collapsing over the military troops or the mom feeding you cake. Basically the game grabs hold of your virtual head for a few seconds or minutes, points it in the right direction and tells you to look at this before you can continue playing.
This feels horrible in VR.
If you do this in VR it basically feels like someone is physically grabbing your head and forcing you to watch something. Suddenly your entire body is paralysed and the sense of freedom of perspective and immersion that VR does so well is shattered. It’s a violation of the trust you are building up between your game and the player.
The same goes for all our camera techniques that try to emulate a small child’s movements. When your eyes tell you that you are wobbling along down a corridor but your body is standing still, it’s basically a recipe for motion sickness. Toggling between walking and crawling or climbing is the same, the discrepancy between what you feel and what you see is very uncomfortable.
Good and bad movements
What we have learned about Virtual Reality is that the player is the avatar and the player needs to be in control. When we play Elite Dangerous with Oculus Rift we are inside the cockpit controlling a spacecraft. When we try Sonys scubadiving demo it’s us inside that cage, looking at the shark. The player is basically placed inside the game. This doesn’t work for Among the Sleep.
We can experiment with removing all the camera movements and techniques from the game in VR but this completely destroys the feeling of being a small child. We can adjust or remove other mechanics, but the end result is never satisfying enough.
After a lot of experimentation we have come to the conclusion that Among the Sleep – the story we want to tell and the relationship we want to build between the player and the child – isn’t doable for virtual reality. It requires a lot of compromises that ends up making the VR experience less powerful, less immersive and less satisfying than the original game.
Parts of the game work. When the original Oculus Rift DK1 arrived, it was thrilling to be able to explore the child’s house in VR. The perspective tricked players into thinking they were small kids. The original Oculus-implementation was a software hack and the novelty value was great. However, when exploring the possibilities of recreating the whole game for VR and upgrading to DK2 and other VR-systems we have hit all these stumbling blocks and found that the original experience we wanted the players to experience with our game isn’t really translatable to VR.
Just to remind you, we do have a fully supported DK1 build of Among the Sleep, so please do not think we have not tried.
We are now considering using assets from the game for a smaller and more focused VR-demo. A tight and focused experience tailored for VR. It will be a small part of the game, stand alone from the rest of the story, but a much better VR-experience than the original game forced into virtual reality.
We are humbled and flattered that some of you are still waiting for a full VR-experience of Among the Sleep. But we don’t want to give you a half-assed VR-experience that feels forced and compromised. We’re very sorry to disappoint you.