The joy of VR ‘desk’ games

One of the nice things about virtual reality is that nobody knows how to do it yet. Over the fifty-odd years that videogames have been on this planet, we’ve learned a lot about how to make them, and in the process we’ve acquired a vast weight of conventions and best practices which we sometimes find it hard to look past. VR games, on the other hand, are a bit of a mess, with very few well-established rules for how they should work. They are not merely pre-recharging-health; they are pre-health-bar, pre-health.

That was the point made by Kimberly Voll, a cognitive scientist working on Fantastic Contraption, in a talk at the 2016 Game Developers Conference. “There’s certain universal patterns that are starting to fall out, that if we’re clever and if we’re paying attention we can leverage,” she said. “But I think it’s too early to even really know what those patterns are. There’s so much undiscovered potential.”

Some of those patterns are already cohering into generic forms. There’s the low-interaction promenade designed to show off the headset’s fidelity (think theBlu or Everest). There’s the endless-wave Horde mode arena defense shooter, transferred fairly straightforwardly from the console FPS (as represented by Space Pirate Trainer, Raw Data, and Arizona Sunshine). There’s the driving game in which VR gives you extra control of the camera (as in Bank Limit, Battlezone, and Euro Truck Simulator 2). But there is another genre taking shape which I haven’t seen discussed much, which feels like it belongs much more closely than these others to VR as a medium. It involves, to put it simply, the pleasure of having a desk.

If you’ve been paying much attention to VR (if you haven’t, I don’t blame you), you’ll know by now that those two letters cover a multitude of sins – and at least three distinct control systems. In some you simply look around in order to move yourself; a simple, low-impact solution. In others you manipulate the gameworld using wand-like motion controllers such as those provided with the HTC Vive. And where these aren’t available, the player often controls their avatar via a traditional gamepad or even keyboard while using the headset to look around.

But this third type has a problem. On the one hand the game’s viewpoint is tracking your own head movement in something like a 1:1 correspondence to reality – the easy, instant “realism” which makes VR so exciting to so many people. On the other hand – actually, in both your hands – you are negotiating a relationship of entirely different scale, in which the movement of your thumbs is being translated at a much wider ratio to the movement of your player character. So you’re simultaneously operating two different spatial metaphors, which for me feels uncomfortably close to patting your head while rubbing your tummy.

Doubtless most people will get used to it. But developers may only have five minutes to get newcomers on board. Moreover, this system nullifies one of the more interesting selling points of VR: that anyone who knows how to turn their head or wave their hand can pick it up and play. Non-gamers find multi-button control pads difficult enough without having to operate them without being able to look.   

By contrast, motion-based games, after getting past the not-insurmountable barrier of “you want me to put that thing on my FACE?”, are able to capitalize on the close physical correspondence between input and output. The instinctive translation from controller to character which veteran gamers acquire over months or years of their childhood is here picked up in the space of a few minutes. (This is one reason why I think the most successful high-end VR set will be the one which does this best at the lowest price.) But by sacrificing abstraction, this method also severely restricts the effective size of the gameworld, because it’s not workable to create a 1:1 connection between a player in their living room and, for example, an athlete running a 1,000-meter sprint. 

The increasingly common solution to this dilemma is to surround the player with a ‘workspace’, consisting of various objects whose relations to each other are gratifying and internally consistent. In some games, such as Hover Junkers, this means cockpits or control panels which link you  to the wider world ‘outside’ the workspace. But sometimes the desk in itself is the game – because actually there is a special pleasure in just having your own little space to arrange as you wish.

Take, for instance, Job Simulator, a justly lauded satire of wage labour in 2016 as imagined from the year 2050. Each of its workplaces puts the player at a centre of various devices, repositories, levers and buttons. In VR there is great pleasure in simply operating this machinery, in stabbing the controls and throwing the clutter around the place. But much of the humor derives from the way it either disrupts or surreally confirms the logic of real-world workplaces. For instance, it makes perfect sense that you should be able to pick up and eat donuts, and that your dustbin should be full of old moldy ones. But it also makes sense that when you eat a moldy donut you should emit a stream of vomit which you can freely direct onto the rest of your office equipment.

Likewise, why wouldn’t the photocopier – from the perspective of a logical alien who hasn’t quite grasped how one works – be able to copy those donuts, or any other object which will fit under its lid? So of course you lean down and photocopy your own head, only to produce a weird plasticky brain which you can throw around like a football. Here, it’s not only the workspace but the relationships between different objects in the workspace which enchant the player. The workspace is a kind of switchboard for surprising connections and unexpected consistencies.

Tim Johnson’s Sluggy’s Fruit Emporium takes a similar concept into less familiar contexts. It’s a kind of cross between Cart Life and Octodad in which you play an alien selling inscrutable fruit to other aliens. None of you speak the same language so you have to wave the fruit in their faces and see how you react; your shop depends on a suite of unfamiliar but eventually intuitive machinery. The time pressure is much more severe than in Job Simulator, and there is a real challenge in making enough money, so your success comes to depend on your familiarity with your till, your vegetable dispenser, and the other objects in your workspace. The more command you have of this environment, the quicker and more confident you get, and the more you feel like the owner of your fruit stand instead of merely its confused purple operator.

Or look at Giant Cop, a game where you literally play a giant cop: although there is no workspace as such, it effectively makes the town a workspace by miniaturising it and asking you to arrange it as if it were a set of shelves. Once again, it makes unexpected sense that you can pluck a tennis racket from a roof and use it to bat cars into helicopters, or that a giant model donut from a donut shop can be rolled down the street. It makes “cleaning up the town” very literal.

This approach even works where the subject matter is more traditionally violent. One segment of the PSVR game London Heist asks you to ride shotgun in a getaway van while men on motorbikes and in SUVs chase you down the motorway. Of course it’s fun to shoot them with your Uzi and especially fun to have to reload the thing by hand (something other games should long since have looted from the unjustly forgotten indie shooter Receiver). But shooting is everywhere in videogames; I’ve shot millions of people before. The really compelling aspect of it is simply the fact that you know and can manipulate the space of the van’s front seat.

For instance, you can open the van door and get a ticking-off from your burly cockney driver. You can turn the radio on and off. You can open the glove compartment. You can pick up the empty coffee cups which litter the cabin and throw them at the cockney’s face. And in the version I played, in a particularly clever touch, you must access your duffel bag of spare ammunition by clearing a drift of rubbish off the top of it. Even when the shooting starts, it is your familiarity with the space and your instinctive feel for its contours which makes physically ducking below the level of the dashboard to take cover so weirdly entertaining; spatial literacy has become your weapon. And perhaps it’s just the shock of the new, but I found it incredibly satisfying to reload my sub-machinegun by actually reaching over without looking to where I knew the ammo-bag was. Too late, I realized you could actually knock enemies off their motorbikes by opening the door in their faces. Another surprising but in retrospect logical connection.

These workspaces have obvious antecedents in games like Surgeon Simulator or Papers Please. The latter made your ability to efficiently juggle multiple tasks and to form effective habits which chain them together a source not only of pride but of financial stability and safety for your family. As it went on, new functions unfolded from underneath old ones and old ones acquired new significance in a similar fashion to Job Simulator. Of course the game also worked constantly to gum up your routine with moral and political considerations, as well as giving you decorative ways to make the space feel your own. Alternatively, flight simulators have long thrived on a sense that you can really get to know your machine, understand its quirks and flaws, by making more visible and explicit the control metaphors between you and the gameworld which are usually packed inside the controller.

But just as the workspace can be an elegant solution to the specific difficulties of VR control systems, it takes on a new satisfaction and immediacy in motion-based VR. Indeed, it offers an easy way to establish some of key elements Kimberly Voll identifies as constituting VR “immersion”. It hooks into our natural sense of extension (reaching out into the world with our hands) and proprioception (know where our body is and what’s immediately around us). It exploits our intuitive knowledge of physics and materials by surrounding us with objects to knock over or bang together. It avoids the heavy acceleration and rotation which are most likely to cause nausea in those players who are susceptible to it. And it makes it very easy to provide new and confused players with a narrative context which can help them interpret the details around them. What am I doing here? What is this thing? Well, you’re sitting at your space desk and that there’s your space dartboard. Get it yet? Altogether, it actives something quite basal which we have all felt at some time or another: the joy of owning a space and putting it in order, of having a tidy domain.

In her talk, Voll also warned developers against “availability bias” – the tendency of the human mind to default to what it already knows about as an answer. Her point was that we shouldn’t try to replicate existing videogame genres in VR merely because we already know how to do them. “What are the things we haven’t even thought of,” she asked, “because we haven’t done enough experimentation?” Virtual reality is still unformed, subject only to the constraints imposed by its hardware. It would be a shame if VR games ended up with control norms just as alienating and intimidating as the gamepad. The simple joys of the workspace are a nice corrective to that.

For Voll, the important thing is for developers to just observe what people want to do in these environments. In the meantime, maybe someone should try just making a child-based VR game where you play with train sets and rubber ducks? It’s a tough job, but somebody’s got to do it. I honestly think it would be quite popular.