I’ve spent the past few months in and out of VR, waving my hands around in the hastily cleared space of our lounge with the Vive on my head, shooting zombies, carrying out spy missions, or pulling a good old fashioned bank heist. Before I was gifted a Vive however, my VR experience was limited to a handful of hours using PSVR’s belonging to a couple of close friends. One of the first of these was playing a demo of “Until Dawn: Rush of Blood”; if you’re not familiar it is an almost literal “rail shooter” with the player being placed in the seat of a demonic ghost train and wheeled around in VR, guns in hands, blasting murderous clowns (iirc). The experience was suitably impressive in terms of immersion for one of first times I’d donned a VR hat and worked as a concept, but one of the things that really stuck in my mind about it was that I had a virtual ingame body. Sure, it was just a static model sat in the seat of the ghost train that you sort of had to awkwardly align yourself to, but once I had that figured out, being able to see a virtual body with outstretched arms holding the guns really added to the sense of immersion.
Record scratch back to the present day and with all my Vive hours what I’ve really begun to miss is having arms and an ingame body. Almost all the games I’ve played so far have reduced my physical form to a pair of floating hands, or digital recreations on the motion controllers. This past week I’ve been thinking about why that is? and I’ve roamed Steam purposefully looking for games where the player is given an ingame body. It turns out that I’m not alone in this weird wondering and I found a few forum topics from various corners of the internet that were discussing the same thing; from these investigations I tried three different games that show you more than just the ground below when you look down.
Sparc: Sparc is a self-proclaimed V-sport which resembles the product of putting squash, dodgeball, and TRON in a blender. It’s a one-on-one duel where players must ultimately try to throw an energy ball down a court to hit the opposing player (if you want a better idea then take a look at the trailer) it’s also noteworthy for being cross-platform with players using PSVR, Vive, and Oculus all competing on the same servers. Sadly, despite really enjoying the concept and having a few good matches, it is one of the very very few games that I requested a Steam refund after finding out that the number of concurrent players rarely nudges above 5 and that the developers have halted support; during my time I only found players on the North American servers so I can’t in good conscience recommend it.
Sparc gives the player a healthy choice in character customisation and you can dance around in front of a virtual mirror as much as you want as you apply different gender, hairstyles, clothing colours, gloves, and facewear to your blank canvas (Wii fit instructor style) of an avatar. The inclusion of a body here is ultimately a game necessity as the player has to dodge incoming energy balls and it helps if they’re at least nominally aware of where their virtual body is in the ingame space. The torso feels as though it’s in the correct position from the player’s perspective and moves with a satisfying dampened lag behind the player’s head movement as though everyone is just gently grooving out to some smooth tunes. The game does take a few practical steps however when it comes to this ingame presence; from the player’s perspective there are no arms and the body fades out just below the waist making it more of a levitating torso than an actual ingame body.
Sparc does a great job of ducking out of a few of the big problems whilst also giving the player a functional virtual presence. Arguably the biggest reason that most VR experiences boil down to a pair of floating hands is because of the different body proportions of the VR users themselves. Arms are a prime example, as soon as the player has a set of ingame arms they also have a pre-defined limit to ingame reach.
Properioception is the sense of knowing where your limbs are. Close your eyes and touch your nose with a finger, now your ear, see? Properioception is the reason you were able to do that without being able to see where your hand was.
As a player it can be immersion breaking if you’re aware that when holding your arms outstretched your physical and virtual perceptions don’t line up; or to put it simply you’re aware that your hands are actually much further infront of you than your virtual body shows. There are similar issues with player height which Sparc again conveniently dodges by removing the player’s legs; without legs it’s less obvious if the avatar’s frame and stature are in proportion.
VRChat: VRChat is freely available through the Vive store and reminds me of my very brief encounter years ago with ‘Second Life’; to quote Master Ken-obi “You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy”. Despite the repeated loading screen warnings about conduct, actually being in a room with other users was almost unbearable consisting of a constant stream of yelling and profanity emerging from ingame avatars that were almost exclusively within razor thin distance of the limits of the acceptable levels of taste and decency. Luckily for me VRChat features your own private home area where I could play about in my new virtual skin that I carefully selected from one of the user created free repositories.
As you can see, I went for one of the repository’s more ‘bouncy’ offerings; Tigger. Being Tigger felt pretty good; my paws & tail were all in the right place and I think my orange fuzzy body had been rescaled to my height to make everything feel more or less right. The arm length problem is a little immersion breaking as my real arms are a little longer than Tigger’s so reaching forward precipitated a set of ghostly hand controllers out of my ingame paws allowing me to use my full physical reach.
Setting aside the chat part of VRChat, the experience did give as pretty good virtual body experience. At a cursory glance down it was reassuring to see that I did indeed have a virtual presence that was more than some disembodied gloves. Unlike Sparc this presence included legs which for screenshots looks much better, but from a user perspective has its own problems.
Most home VR setups only have three points of tracking; head, left hand, right hand. The exact position of that orange furry ball of mischief only has there three points of reference to position itself. The arms work pretty well; from knowing where the head and hands are positioned the arms can at least be sensibly inferred based on the typical range of motion of a normal shoulder and elbow joint. Sure the virtual arms aren’t always in exactly the same position as the player’s own physical ones, but they’re always sensible and I rarely found it immersion breaking. Legs don’t work nearly as well because the VR system doesn’t know where your feet are so Tigger was always standing uncomfortably upright despite what my real life posture was doing or how I’d distributed my weight.
Apparently VRChat does allow for body tracking if you have that sort of setup. The Vive itself can (again apparently) be extended to include waist and feet trackers which would give a much more accurate virtual body.
Ancient Amuletor VR: I’m going to be honest here; I have no idea what an Amuletor is, I’m guessing someone who owns an Amulet?
This VR tower defence game is good simple fun although the base game only has four levels and three playable classes. Essentially waves of enemies try to destroy your crystals and you have to stop them.
Once again this game gives the player a full virtual body which, like VRChat, seems to be rescaled to the player via the use of a brief opening calibration to gauge the user’s arm length. The character models themselves are pretty detailed and in my opinion really add to the sense of immersion within the game setting. In the interests of full disclosure I played mostly using the archer class but haven’t included any screenshots from her point of view here because I’m pretty sure, no matter where you’re sitting in the world, you’d feel a radiating heat coming from the direction of the UK from my blushing given the amount of cleavage on display. I’m no stranger to the world of boobs in game, but added in to the deal the archer body has some some thorough, yet mildly disturbing, jiggle physics coupled with her voluminous bust.
The player can teleport between vantage points and, as there is little physical walking around, the mismatch between real and virtual feet didn’t seem to be such a problem. Aside from that the body positioning feels pretty much spot on, although there is sometimes a bit of “body-lag” when turning
I guess overall the problems of player proportions and limited tracking force most developers to use the floating hands model of VR virtual presence and I kind of think that’s a shame. With all three of these games I instantly felt more ‘comfortable’ being in the virtual world. Likewise, character customisation is a fun part of playing a game and without being able to see your character, picking out that bizarre new outfit doesn’t carry the same appeal. For story driven games I also think it’s a loss that more don’t give you a virtual presence as ‘getting in to character’ is one of the best parts of gaming. Even in these few examples I found myself adapting my movements and play to the implied personalities of the vehicle I was driving. I guess I looked absurd in real life trying to fire arrows as an elegant and elf-like shapely archer, but from my own perspective it only served to enhance how connected I felt to the scenario. It’s one aspect of the VR experience that I hope developers continue to work at.
What do you think? Is it weird that I want a virtual body?