A trailer for Blood & Truth from Sony’s London Studio, like a preview Oculus showed earlier this month for an upcoming war title from Titanfall creator Respawn Entertainment, makes it clear that Sony and Facebook are financially supporting what its executives think gamers want to play in VR. The goal: drive the sale of more headsets by giving the likeliest consumers more reasons to buy.
But are investments in bloody shooters by the industry’s largest companies really necessary? I argue no. Shooting games like Pavlov VR and Onward are already being made by independent developers who are quickly responding to the requests of their earliest buyers. Both those games are early access titles that are shaped in a tight feedback loop with buyers. Something only gets added to those games if buyers want it and developers decide it’s a good idea to add. In contrast, Facebook and Sony are farming out projects to trusted teams and insulating these creators from community feedback. Without that community feedback they risk making mistakes in their choice of narratives, emotional impact and gameplay that could fall flat or worse — drive creative developers and curious buyers away from VR headsets.
Blood & Truth is an upcoming PlayStation VR title that includes the aggressive use of guns to shoot virtual humans, from intimidating someone with a gunshot to rampaging through a nightclub in slow-motion, blood spurting everywhere. Sony isn’t alone here. We don’t know much about Respawn’s upcoming VR title, but a tease shown at the Oculus Connect 4 developer’s conference a few weeks ago included the developers delivering the following comments about their vision:
“Combat experience in VR really gives you the chance to experience life closer to what a soldier would experience in real combat. It gives you more of that feeling of paranoia, and the tension.
“Fear and adrenaline and anger.”
“It’s more visceral, it’s more terrifying.”
“Right now we’re just getting started.”
When Respawn’s game hits Facebook headsets sometime in 2019 we will still just be getting started with VR. That’s why such care should be taken with the tone and emotional impact of these earliest virtual worlds. It sets the precedent for decades to come. Is visceral anger really the emotion Mark Zuckerberg hopes people feel when visiting a virtual world?
Skip this paragraph if you don’t want to read a minor spoiler for The Last Of Us. The 2013 game from Naughty Dog was widely regarded as game of the year, and one of the best examples of storytelling ever achieved through video games. The player travels on this emotional journey with the game’s protagonists and by its end you empathize with them so much you are forced to come to grips with your own reactions to their plight. At the end of the game most players will feel almost visceral anger and then act accordingly.
The Last Of Us is a story told from a flat screen as the player inserts themselves into that world with analog sticks and buttons. The gap is enormous between that and feeling like you are actually in a virtual world with a gun in your hand and seeing your buddy’s head blown apart, as might be the case in a war game. The power of presence and agency in a virtual world is what sets VR far apart from what came before — the proponents of VR headsets make this case all the time. It took the games industry more than 30 years to get to the level of immersion and storytelling where something like The Last of Us is possible. Attempting to replicate those emotional reactions with VR, gun in hand, could leave a lasting impression upon the player far beyond what we’ve known before.
Many of the developers building the first VR shooters were cognizant of the risk, difficulty and tone-deaf appearance of shooting virtual humans, and chose instead to focus on enemies that are zombies, robots or aliens. And to be clear, many of the earliest VR games didn’t use guns at all. Some of the most creative VR developers, like the creators of Fantastic Contraption and Job Simulator, have seen millions in sales focusing on things like creativity and realistic physics instead of gunfire.
VR is a new medium and it is true that most of the projects getting funding from Facebook and Sony are not realistic shooters. Nevertheless, Sony and Facebook are risking significant backlash should the games they fund, and what people do inside of them, cross a line into moral ambiguity in the vein of something like The Last Of Us. It is fairly defensible to say that your platform is open to the sale of many types of content, but it is different when you actually fund violent VR content where you kill virtual humans. A single viral news story rocketing through news outlets highlighting how Facebook or Sony paid to make a VR game that simulates bloody gun deaths resembling real world events is all it would take to drive away the creators (and potential headset buyers) who don’t want to be associated with companies supporting that kind of simulated violence.
Mass shootings are a recurring part of the modern world and war is certainly a theme throughout humanity’s history. It would be naive to think VR won’t simulate those aspects of the real world. But I’ve talked to a large number of creators who were drawn to VR because they viewed it as a fresh start — where creativity and exploration could shine over the more violent aspects of society. Should VR shooters become dominant it could drive away these creators, especially if it seems like platform companies like Facebook, Microsoft, Google or Sony champion that sort of content.
There aren’t enough VR headsets on the market for many parents to note their teenagers carefully aligning headshots in their living rooms, but it is only a matter of time as headset sales continue and guns play an ongoing part in the endless news cycle. Platform companies should distance themselves from funding that type of game, making clear in the process their position as neutral marketplace. VR as a medium accessible to millions is only a few years old and there is so much creativity and exploration within reach. Simultaneously, too little is known about narrative design and the long-lasting impact of experiences in a virtual world. It is too early and too risky for platform companies to be actively funding VR shooters where you need to kill virtual humans.