Alright, it’s Summer 2020, and just like every year the sun is shining, it’s warm outside and we all have a compelling interest in preventing the international spread of a deadly virus. What a great reason for me to launch into a debate on which platform is more immersive – VR or high definition screens?
And right now, we want to know. No matter where you are in the world, there is a bigger emphasis than ever on staying home and socially distancing – meaning that escaping into the wonderful worlds of video games has never been more acceptable – even in the peak of summer. Which format is better for escaping though?
OK, so I’m going to start by talking about VR because I’m pretty sure that a lot of people reading this article are going to immediately say that ‘because it’s a headset that totally covers your eyes, you are immediately immersed in the game’ to which I say…no.
One critical factor in immersion and engagement in gameplay is the actual game that you are getting immersed in. Recently, there has been a bigger focus on getting major titles onto the VR format, with titles like Resident Evil 7, Half-Life Alyx, and the upcoming Iron Man: VR all being ready to play with a set of VR goggles strapped to your face and the relevant controllers in hand – but just how immersive are these games?
Sure, Resident Evil and Half-Life: Alyx are well-rated games, with interesting gameplay and engaging stories; but how many VR games can we say truly meet all the criteria for a great game? I would say roughly, maybe, one in ten? And that’s being generous and accounting for popular non-VR games that are given a VR repainting after their initial success on launch (looking at you Skyrim).
But why am I making this point? Because, before I dive into some of the more technical aspects of VR, I think it's important to address the fact that in order to become immersed in a game, you have to enjoy it – and that means the games have to be good (for the most part. There are weird people who sink hundreds of hours into terrible titles).
Right now though, VR doesn’t have the catalog of games behind it to match the traditional gaming methods. It's new tech, so we can hardly be surprised, but to expect VR to compete with traditional games right now is insane because the two are so unbalanced when it comes to content.
Is Content The Key To Escapism?
Right, so I’ve talked about how VR hasn’t got that many games going for it right now. It's only fair to mention then that right now, traditional PC and console gaming media has a wealth of games ready to go that have seen billions of collective hours sunk into them alone, due to the high-quality nature of the game itself rather than anything else.
I’m going to throw a name out. World Of Warcraft. Can you think of any other game that serves as a better example of total immersion? A fantasy world populated with other players who are exploring a world foreign to everything, that’s full of rich lore and conflict that has spanned years of content and stories from itself.
World of Warcraft is arguably one of the most immersive games on the planet – and it all started in a time when CRT monitors were widespread. Go and Google what World of Warcraft looked like on launch on a CRT monitor, and try to argue that the overwhelming success of World of Warcraft is due to its graphical or visual superiority. The same can be said of Stardew Valley – single-player, pixel art with a minimalist approach to combat and dialogue options that have still dragged hundreds of hours out of me thanks to its gameplay mechanics and expansive progression options.
My point is this; these games were time sinks even when they were played on the kind of monitors whose main use now is as a prop in the background of Stranger Things, making the content being played on them a key contributing factor to their overall success and level of immersion. We can’t ignore that.
Immersed In 4K
We’ve talked about the kind of content that’s played on these screens, now let's talk about the makeup of a high definition gaming setup itself. I’m not going to call on any specific example, just a general example of someone’s gaming setup in a modern-day environment.
A console gamer for example might be making use of a 4k HDR-ready TV, with a PS4 Pro hooked into it for the best console gaming experience they can get at the time of writing (pre-launch of the next generation of consoles). Let's say that they are home alone, at night, with a headset plugged into their controller and the curtains closed. Sitting back on their chair, there isn’t a thing in their immediate world to take their focus off of whatever game they are playing, is there?
They can sink into a total flow-state, their minds entirely concentrating on the gameplay in front of them, no exterior distractions to take their mind away from what they are doing. We can apply the same logic to a PC gamer as well – if they are sat in front of a dual monitor setup, living alone, with a headset on there isn’t a lot to take them away from whatever they are playing.
It’s a common setup to enjoy – and it led to the always popular joke that sitting down for one quick game can lead to an all-night session, something I have definitely never done and can only comment on theoretically. Don’t look up any of my Gamertags.
Want to know another great thing about the traditional flat-screen approach to gaming? It's so easy. All you have to do in order to get into your favorite game is turn on your screen, get your system going, and jump in. For PC gamers it might even be quicker than that thanks to SSDs and their coveted boot times – but the point stands. Within a matter of minutes, you can be in a game, collapsed on the couch, or slumped into your high price gaming chair. Whichever.
And that’s another key area that traditional screen-based gaming has over VR when it comes to impressiveness – the ease of use. Say I want to jump into a game of Halo MCC, I can do that easily with a few clicks of my controller or mouse. But to get into Half-Life: Alyx? You have to first make sure that you have a room big enough to play, then clear the floor and general gaming area, and then navigate in-game.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t have a dedicated holo-deck in my house. Most of my rooms have tables, beds, or chairs to deal with – and at the end of a long day rearranging the furniture just to get in-game is the last thing I want to be doing, and that alone can ruin my immersion.
VR’s Place In The Wider World
I’ve opened the can of worms, so get ready for some of my other gripes with VR that can have a lasting effect on my personal immersion in a game.
The first of these is exactly what I just mentioned. If I have the goggles on after clearing a huge space in a room so that I’m not going to accidentally destroy my shins mid-game, then one of the things haunting me throughout the time that I play is putting the room back together once I’ve finished. A small thing to be thinking about, sure, but I’m the kind of person that color co-ordinated the order of my coasters, so personally VR isn’t great for my immersion in that regard.
But…that can go away. I’ve been harping on about Half-Life Alyx, and that’s because when a narrative or gameplay grabs you, it can really take you in. You do genuinely feel like you are a more imminent part of the game's world, with a much closer attachment to what’s happening and the environment you are in – until you walk into a wall, or stumble, or have a dog come and jump on you.
There is always going to be that little thought in the back of your mind when you have the goggles on that’s saying ‘you're near a wall’ or ‘I bet you're going to trip over a cable in a moment’. Or, in a real-world example, I can give you, I was playing Resident Evil 7 at a friend's house, and it was great – but I was subtly aware the whole time that they were recording me for a reaction when I got scared.
What I'm trying to explain is that full immersion in a VR game is totally possible – it's just that being removed from the wider world as you play can throw up all kinds of mental roadblocks and restrictions in the way if you let them get to you.
Gaming Immersion In The Future
VR though is a new technology. We haven’t figured out all of the lumps and bumps in the road, and there is a lot left to be developed in the way of motion controlling in-game movement, and the minimalization of the possibility of motion sickness. This sounds like a lot, but think about some of the first mass-produced video games you could buy for at-home use- Frogger, Duck Hunt, Pac-Man – all of these have been totally eclipsed by the likes of modern-day games – even games released in 2000, or even 2010 have been blown out of the water when it comes to modern standards.
Apply that level of progression to VR, and I think its totally reasonable for us to assume that down the line VR won't be beaten when it comes to total immersion in a game. For the longest time developers and respected critics alike have been saying that it’s the future of gaming, and perhaps when the headsets, goggles and all the other bits of gear you have to strap on to enjoy VR are streamlined and perfected, we will see a way for us to totally enter a game world and not feel like a third person watching a player in a game, but rather as the player themselves.
No dangers of tripping, no motion sickness, decent narratives and photo-realistic graphics – all of these lie in the future for VR and combined they are going to make the platform unbeatable when it comes to immersive and engaging gameplay.
Right now though…all of these things can be found on a flat screen, controller, or mouse in hand. You can enjoy immersive gameplay this Summer without digging deep into your wallet by clicking on your PC or console, and booting up something like Assassins Creed Odyssey, with its expansive Greek islands to explore, or The Witcher 3 and its diverse cast of characters and creatures – games that feature a level of interactivity and engagement that simply isn’t present in VR games.