With VR blurring the lines between playing “as” the protagonist and “being” the protagonist, immersiveness in VR games is now more important than ever. However, for game developers, this is easier said than done. From a design point of view, how do you create a game that fits every player? We talked to Mike Wilson, Narrative Director on “The Gallery” to find out how Cloudhead Games dealt with this challenge
Mammoth Gamers: Hi Mike, I recently played the first episode of The Gallery and it was a great experience and I felt like myself interacting with the world you build. But how about my Mom? How did you guys make sure she would get the same experience as I would?
Mike Wilson: Originally we planned to create a gender neutral Protagonist. We knew that we could include assets later on for a customizable avatar, but that dialog/cinematics would be almost impossible to fix in the future. All dialog was written without gender specific pronouns (he, she, his, hers) and I can tell you, that process was the opposite of a good time. The sex of the Protagonist has no bearing on the storyline or themes that we are choosing to explore, and that too is not an accident.
MG: What was the motivator for putting in all this extra work?
MW: Traditionally, when you play an adventure game you take on the role of the Protagonist. You become Lara Croft. You become Nathan Drake. You become (usually) a handsome white dude with an effortlessly cool haircut. This isn’t a problem if you are a roguishly handsome Caucasian male, like myself, but most do not fall within that trope.
In VR, you want the Protagonist to become the Player.
You want your virtual hands to become your own, and you want to believe that the characters in game are talking to you — not a proxy. You want to be fooled by the illusion.
When an NPC declares you to be a different sex than what you are, there is a moment where you are kicked out of that illusion.
MG: The so called “presence”
MW: Presence is a term you hear thrown around a lot these days when talking about the magic of VR. I’m not going to get into what creates the feeling of “being” in a virtual world, but only that we THINK that a small part of that magic formula might be having to deal as few layers between the experience and the Player as possible.
We have to deal with both the layers “These are my hands, and not just a pair of controllers that I’m holding on to” and “These are my hands, even though they are manly hands, and are white.”
Is an alternate identity really important in VR? If I can’t see who I am and see the specifics of the Protagonist, what does it really add to include details that lock down that Player’s identity? Really, what is the difference between you being an older brother, or an older sister? What is the difference between being a black kid in an 80’s adventure, and a white kid, if the Protagonist can’t speak?
This is the birth of a new medium, so let’s get it right and make everyone feel wanted. There is something to be said about experiencing the lives of others, but if every experience– again — becomes the same “stunningly handsome white dude” song and dance, then we aren’t offering escapism for everyone.
MG: I bet reviewers went crazy over this and praised was heaped upon you for this effort?
MW: Nope! And that’s a great sign. It is a non-issue for everything that it might have been an issue with in the first place. I try to squash the natural inclination for a reviewer to call the Protagonist a dude, but I can’t blame them for it considering that our stock hands do look moderately masculine.
Now, we are adding in the option to make the Protagonist’s skin color a switchable option. We now have both male and female hands, in both bare and gloved states, each with multiple skin colors to choose from. We used the Fitzpatrick scale as a starting point for deciding which skin colors to develop the same scale used as the basis for Unicode emoji with selectable skin colors.
We will always wish to do more to accommodate the Player, but as a small indie studio, this is what we reasonably accomplish at this time. That being said, there is a reason that you have not yet seen your twin sister in game.
MG: Floating hands seem to be a staple in most of the upcoming VR games. Any advice for developers working on a title right now?
MW: If developers don’t have time or resources to create multiple skin tones for their game they can employ a few options;
1) Put gloves on your damn hands. BRRR, it’s cold! Everyone is wearing gloves. This is a totally legitimate and low scope way to solve this issue.
2) Make your hands purple, so nobody feels ownership over them. Oh? You don’t want purple hands? It looks and feels weird? Exactly.