Story is difficult. Writing is difficult. Game writing is very difficult, in a different sense from novels or screenwriting, as it has to account for player's own pacing and narrative understanding. What might be convenient for the narrative might not be convenient for the player, and how the narrative plays out might not match how the player plays out the narrative. Game writing in first person perspective with inner monologue in virtual reality is even more difficult, as you have to avoid all the pitfalls that could break immersion: first-person pronouns, emotional reactions that do not align with the player's reactions, etc. These issues became more and more apparent as more playtesters came in; one comment we got was "[he] felt brainwashed by the game, with little player agency."
This was something we struggled with. We had neither an experienced writer nor the time to dedicate our resources to writing, and thus, it suffered from inconsistency in both tone and style, in addition to offering very few branching paths. However, we were extremely mindful of these issues that came up over and over again, which is why the writing went through the most revisions throughout the whole project. Frankly, it could have been worked on more, and the game could really benefit from an experienced writer.
However, the conclusion we garnered from this project is that hypertext narrative in VR is doable; it's just really, really hard due to numerous narrative design problems virtual reality brings to the table.
Embedded in this project is defining different methods (animation, timing, placement, size, etc.) for displaying and presenting text in VR to maximize legibility, comprehension, and narrative engagement. Here’s what we learned:
#1: Interactive elements need attention-grabbing effects (sound, animation), especially during the exposition of the game
Early on, players expect to interact with real-life objects, not text. They might not also pay much attention to text. We decided to direct users’ attention to text by using directional sound or animations (such as changing color, slight movement). To make it clear that the text is interactive, we further animated the text when the user is looking at it. Finally, to train users to understand this, we began the game with a pseudo-tutorial which started the story.
#2: Exploit objects with high info density to deliver lots of information (either graphical or text-based)
A story is told by delivering information to the player, either through objects in the environment changing visually, or through text. Since our game primarily uses text to deliver information, and dense blocks of text lose interest quickly, we needed to find engaging ways to display text. We decided to use objects that naturally deliver large amounts of information in the real-world: TVs, computers, phones, radios, picture frames, etc, but replacing any images with text that describes the image.
#3: Manipulate text density for different effects
The amount of on-screen text can be controlled to create different effects on the player. Lots of scattered text throughout the scene caused confusion and built tension, while minimal text captured attention.
#4: Build in forced pauses to evoke player reflection
In normal hypertext fiction or even text adventure games, people tend to skim the text and click random links in order to proceed. The same holds for this VR game. This can be detrimental to storytelling. Subtle yet important story details might be overlooked, and players don’t leave time for themselves to react. To combat this, we built in forced pauses to make players reflect on what is happening. This improved our players’ understanding of the story, and also had a side benefit of adding comedic timing to the experience.
#5: Use fonts & sounds to give life to non-visual characters
Dialogue can get stale without a voice, a face, or even a written description of how a character spoke certain words. Because we don’t show characters visually, it was important to convey the identity and personality of our characters through other visual and aural cues, like using expressive fonts and sounds.
#6: Use gaze and clicks for different purposes
The two main input methods in our game were gaze and clicks, which naturally map to different actions in VR. As in real life, gaze is used primarily for information gathering and observing an environment. We used gaze similarly in VR, as a way to reveal information: text would appear when the player looked in specific places. Clicks, like other touch-based interactions in real life, were used to perform actions that affected the environment and advance the story.
#7: Lying to the player is hard in interactive fiction
If your story relies on an unreliable narrator providing inaccurate information, it may be unclear to the user that this is an intended part of the story. The player may think that the game is buggy, instead of concluding that the narrator is unreliable. To combat this, the player must have a way to figure out that the information is inaccurate, either through environmental cues, other information sources, etc.
#8: Don’t tell players what to feel and how to react.
Immersion is VR’s greatest strength, but also very delicate. Spoonfeeding reactions and feelings to players might contradict how they actually react or feel, breaking immersion. Avoid referring to the self (no “I” or “me” statements) when writing the story. Interactive text should be framed as suggestions, and descriptive text should be framed as objective observations.
#9: Give the player options for exploration, but make the core story elements that advances the plot apparent.
Giving players the power to explore an environment at-will is another important component for evoking immersion. Forcing players down a specific path is an easy way to break immersion. At the same time, it is important to leave clues to what needs to be done to advance the story, or else the player may feel lost or unsure of her purpose. Be sure to make game elements that advance the story apparent and easy to find.
#10: There is no “right” way to display text in VR.
Design decisions were always up for debate until actually tested in VR. This includes text placement, styling, animation speed and style, and punctuation. Legibility, comprehension, and engagement will change going from a 2D screen to VR, so always test your game in VR.
In summary, we realized while working on this project that many typographic techniques used in design, literature, and poetry are applicable to creating effective hypertext stories in VR. It is worthwhile to explore how writers use punctuation, proofreading marks, and typographical emphasis to create moods, evoke mental images, and control reader attention. These techniques are effective in print, web, and VR is no exception.
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