With a surge of experiences and improving hardware, virtual reality games are on track to break out of their niche status and become more mainstream.
While many of these titles have excellent gameplay elements, audience retention remains a core problem. A player will try a game, but often abandon it less than halfway through the experience.
The variable in this equation is usually the story, specifically, the performance components that bring the story to life: acting, direction, and other narrative design elements.
By following three simple narrative techniques, you can elevate your story and performances to create a compelling experience that will keep players engaged.
There is an old TV/film writing adage that is applicable in the age of VR: “show, don’t tell.”
VR games often tell the player how to do everything before introducing them to the story. With an experience that is already disorienting, this tutorial-based approach can prevent the player from establishing an emotional interest in the game.
Instead, you should attempt to make your narrative reactive.
Example: I’m at a crime scene. I see police tape and other police walking around. I’m within the police tape line, and no one has said anything to me, so I can only assume that I am supposed to be here: I must be a cop.
Once I have engaged with the narrative, there can be a trigger moment where I find a clue, and it prompts dialogue that contextualizes my involvement; that I’ve been hunting this serial killer for weeks — that I knew the victim.
This prevents unnecessary exposition and gives the player a sense of agency and larger world involvement without immediately bogging them down with details.
“Discoverability” increases the level of emotional gratification that comes from figuring out how to operate in the virtual world and using that knowledge to advance through the game.
2. STRENGTHEN YOUR WEAKEST LINK
Performance in video games is a what I would call, “a weak link asset,” to the game’s overall narrative experience. Meaning, the overall story is judged not by the best performance, but rather your weakest — if that happens to be based around a sole character or protagonist, it can ruin the entire narrative flow of the game.
To avoid this risk, compartmentalize the narrative load.
If your game is designed with one narrative voice, consider breaking it up into different roles. The more characters your experience has, the more latitude you will have to mask an occasional weak performance.
There’s an added bonus to expanding your cast: more opportunity to use these characters to make your world feel immersive. Being over-reliant on a few voices can lead to monologuing and flat exposition — an engagement buzzkill.
3. HONOR YOUR EMOTIONAL GOAL
What is the core emotional response you want the player to experience during gameplay? JUMP SCARE — Are aliens leaping at your face? UNDERLYING DREAD — Are you worried about what’s around the corner? MORTAL URGENCY — Are there a series of puzzles that must be solved?
This intended gameplay response should be complimented through dialogue and the character performance.
These two narrative elements should not just be informational, they are meant to remind the player WHY: WHY its important for them to kill the face attacking alien, WHY its important to go around that dark and scary corner, or WHY they need to solve puzzles faster (because if they don’t, the bomb is going to be set off, obviously).
Keeping a player’s interest is one of the hardest tasks, but if done right, it can pay off all that hard work with a highly successful and rewarding VR experience.
Bennett Smith is a Writer, Producer, and Performance Director of video games and VR who has worked on over 30 titles. He has written a novel, God Pharm, and has produced many episodes of television. You can follow him on twitter: @cbennettsmith