Virtual Reality has been on the rise in the past decade, and has arguably started to break into mainstream awareness. We’ve seen space flight sims like Elite: Dangerous, first-person shooters like Space Pirate, grappling-hook platformers like Windlands, and a whole myriad of genres that explore the possibilities of VR.

But rarely do we see a game on the HTC Vive or the Oculus Rift that explores a rich and complex narrative.

“I was always acutely aware of having 100% of the player’s attention. I knew the story needed to resonate, be clear, and move quickly.” Jon Davies, Narrative Designer at Coatsink, had a lot to think about in order to make a cohesive and compelling narrative for Augmented Empire, a neo-noir Tactical RPG for the Samsung Gear VR. “There’s no time for long sections of introspection, no space for chunks of lengthy, expository text… In short, no time to let the player get bored. Every beat had to be engaging and drive the story to a satisfying conclusion.”

Davies feels that this is especially important with VR, a medium that’s all but exhausted its main pull. “To me, every VR game I play feels cool and new when I first put on the headset. Unfortunately ‘newness’ is a very difficult quality to sustain.”

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And with a 12-hour game like Augmented Empire, it’s especially crucial to keep the player invested without relying on this gimmick. “It’s the time investment of a box set, basically. So ‘hooks’ – whether they’re combat upgrades, a gorgeous new environment to explore, or characters that’re just fun to be around – should make seeing that story through to the end all the sweeter.”

As well as consistent player engagement, there were a few other challenges to overcome, especially as an indie studio with limited time and funds. “Building a 3D world is time-consuming and expensive, not least for VR. And with its focus on combat and exploration, we couldn’t have approached anything near the scale of Augmented Empire if every one of its 60+ locations used that traditional VR perspective.”

To combat this, the team behind Augmented Empire elected to give the player a bird’s-eye view, fulfilling the role of an elusive overseer controlling agents on an interactive, augmented reality projection of New Savannah, where the game takes place.

“Newness is a very difficult quality to sustain”

This circumvented the difficulty in scale presented by a traditional VR perspective, but in turn created a number of other problems. “First, it distances the player from the characters and drama. Second, you’re no longer the main agent in the action doing all the exploration and fighting – you’re instrumental, but as director or overseer.

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“And as with many first-person games, it’s difficult to establish a character when they don’t speak and you view the action through their eyes. In short, you can’t see or hear them.” There were a number of decisions that Davies made to make the storytelling fit within these parameters. “to involve the player in the drama, they’re treated as a participant in every conversation… and it seems that every character has an opinion on them. Similarly, while they’re not the protagonist of the story, the player-character’s role is nonetheless vital and their behaviour dictates the story’s resolution.

“Ten years ago, this notion brought movement controls to new demographics, and there’s no reason VR couldn’t do the same”

“And to establish character, while we have Hartman as the player’s mouthpiece and confident throughout the game, their true nature is mainly presented through the lens of other characters. For example, in the opening, there’s a clear affinity between us and the character we’re controlling in the world. Later on, with other characters… there’s a clear suspicion.”

Davies feels that in overcoming these challenges, Augmented Empire has been able to explore narrative ideas that wouldn’t have been possible outside of VR. “there are certain moments that simply wouldn’t work without that sense of really existing in that place. From neat aesthetic changes as Hartman spruces up the room around you, to important story beats as you interact with certain objects to make deals… or save someone’s life.” And the general premise of Augmented Empire that Coatsink hoped to achieve, of “a criminal mastermind in your penthouse suite in front of your holomap, the world outside brought to you through the power of technology.”

 

Augmented Empire works as effectively as it does because of inherent contradictions present in the game: the immersive nature of Virtual Reality and the player character being removed from the world that they interact in go hand-in-hand. “the game’s about control, disconnection and abuse of power. And since the player has unquestioning control over their party, it was interesting to explore whether they genuinely care about them or regarded them as chess pieces they can manipulate and sacrifice.

 

“This question hangs over Augmented Empire from start to end. The main character they control is always suspicious that someone they never see is granted such power. And beyond all the augments and oppression, it’s this underlying dynamic that becomes the real story of Augmented Empire.”

Virtual Reality games are experiencing a stagnation in what they explore, and often the primary goal in many developers’ minds is using VR simply as a tool for greater immersion Davies thinks we should be approaching VR differently. “In my mind, VR’s main strength is best paralleled by Nintendo’s Wii Remote: transposing intent (in this case looking) to action in a way that feels natural, comfortable and more convenient than the status quo.”

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And if this mindset is made popular in the development side of the industry, Davies thinks it has the potential to move Virtual Reality forward, and that Augmented Empire might be one of the ways to do it. “Ten years ago, this notion brought movement controls (and, by extension, video games) to new demographics, and there’s no reason VR couldn’t do the same. Whether that’s ultimately through availability, comfort or content, I guess time will tell, but I think Augmented Empire covers all three.”