Stop me if this sounds familiar, because I’m sure I’ve written it before: the thing that makes gaming in Virtual Reality fundamentally different from playing on a regular screen is that it removes a layer of abstraction. You don’t look around by moving the mouse, pressing a stick in a certain direction or pressing a button: you look around by looking around. It sounds like a small difference, but it feels entirely different whether you look up at an enormous, ominous gate covered with runes glowing red by moving the hand holding the mouse a few centimetres away from you or whether you lean your head back. You perceive size and scale entirely differently, and as a result things feel more intimate, more real, for want of a better word. Present-day VR aims at reducing abstraction even more by means of room-scale solutions (the virtual space is represented by the actual space, so you can walk around in-game by walking around in the available space – until you bump into the nearest wall or trip over the cat) and of controllers that replicate hand and finger movement, so you grab things in virtual space not by pushing a button but by using your actual hands.
One of the things that is still almost entirely abstract in games, whether VR or not, is talking. We talk to our virtual assistants, whether they’re called Siri, Alexa or Cortana, but we don’t really talk to the characters we meet. At best, we pick an option from a list of responses – if the game even gives us options. It’s a necessary abstraction at this point in time; voice recognition might be up to the task by now, but it would nonetheless be immensely costly to implement game-specific solutions that let you talk to the monsters and non-player characters the way you might talk to Siri (“You there with the scaly skin and the toothy vertical mouth in your chest, where’s the nearest well-reviewed Indian restaurant?”) and have them understand you and talk back, not to mention that those solutions would still be so flawed that they’d regularly break immersion.
Recently, I’ve been spending much of my weekly VR time playing the role-playing game Skyrim in conjunction with a program called Natural Locomotion – and a fan-made modification called Dragonborn Speaks Naturally. Yes, the name is somewhat embarrassing, but bear with me for a moment. DSN does something that may sound a bit silly at first: it allows you to look at the list of dialogue lines available to your character when talking to others and speak out loud the line of dialogue you want to choose. In other words, while you don’t speak freely but follow a mediocre fantasy-style script instead, you still speak… well… by speaking.
Again, the difference may sound minor. Being able to speak freely to in-game characters and getting a credible response: now that would be an amazing feat. Speaking one of several pre-defined lines? That’s bad amateur dramatics. Again, though, in practice it feels very different, in particular because of the responses. You speak to the orc in front of you, asking him not to chew off your face, and the orc speaks in response as if you’re having an actual conversation. Flirt with the elven barmaid and she tells you sweetly where you can put that tankard you’re waving at her. You may be playacting, using lines prepared for you – but anyone who’s done amateur drama will know that speaking lines written by someone else can still be immensely immersive. Doubly so if the person you’re talking to is voiced by old Antonius Block himself, Max von Sydow. (Sadly you can’t challenge him to a game of chess, but he teaches you some nifty spells.)
If a fan-made mod can make this work reasonably well, I wonder why it isn’t implemented as an official option in more games, at least the kind where you choose what your character is like. Speaking your own lines can make you feel more in tune with the character you’re playing, not to mention getting an immediate response to something you’ve said. At the same time, it may be that I’m enjoying this as much as I am because VR headsets don’t just blind you to the outside world: they also muffle its sounds, as you’re wearing headphones. If I actually heard myself better while speaking the less-than-Shakespearean dialogue of Skyrim, I might uninstall Dragonborn Speaks Naturally in less time than it takes to say “Fare thee well, gentle maiden.” Then again, let’s be as realistic as we can while talking about video-game power fantasies: we can’t all be Sir Ian McKellen. You shall not pass – until you’ve told me how to get to the nearest well-reviewed Indian restaurant.