Image: Midjourney prompted by MIXED
Open your eyes, people: Why are so few studios taking advantage of Playstation VR 2’s greatest strength for new forms of game design and storytelling?
Some of my gaming friends have tasted blood after years of largely disinterest in VR. The reason, of course, is the imminent release of Playstation VR 2.
And a feature that keeps coming up in conversations about Sony’s new VR headset. “In the sequel to Until Dawn: Rush of Blood, some enemies only move when you blink. How cool is that?
PSVR 2’s eye tracking opens up new possibilities for game design
We’re talking horror rollercoaster The Dark Pictures: Switchback VR. Infrared cameras built into the headset record exactly where players are looking. This way, enemies can scare the hell out of players because they only move when the player isn’t looking.
It’s a shame, though, that so few titles are using the new technology for narrative purposes at launch. After all, eye-tracking offers an even more powerful way to create tension in virtual reality that seems to be underutilized in early PSVR 2 games: the magic of eye contact.
A look is worth a thousand words, at least in my ideal vision of a truly immersive VR adventure. Even if it’s just the eyes of an NPC.
Imagine a playable crime thriller where the length of your eye contact makes or breaks your first impression of a crime boss. A single moment literally determines whether he accepts you as a worthy business partner. Depending on your cultural background, he might even be offended. In another scenario, the long eye contact common in Germany (“German Stare”) could be interpreted as rude.
Numerous save points could help prevent accidental mistakes. Or tips from other characters warning about the quirks of a cross-eyed gang leader: “He doesn’t like his squint getting too much attention!” There are so many new ways to turn the adventure genre on its head.
Detroit: Become Even More Human
A VR adventure in the style of David Cage’s Detroit: Become Human would be great, too. I know his studio Quantic Dream is currently busy with the action-adventure Star Wars Eclipse, but we can still dream.
Parent company NetEase could prove that the studio’s vision of “groundbreaking titles” is not an empty PR phrase. Already Detroit, which has sold over eight million copies, offers numerous ramifications and implications for “surviving” characters. I put “surviving” in quotes because the majority of the characters are intelligent androids. Their dignity and role in society becomes an overarching theme in the game.
This detail could also be used creatively in an eye-tracking adventure. In the case of misidentified moods, the writers could blame the gaffe on the clumsiness of the machine creatures. Or they could make a self-deprecating joke.
Many subtleties could influence mood and action: surprised wide-open eyes, embarrassed evasiveness in conversation, or even looking around for an escape route.
In the age of huge production budgets, such experimentation is admittedly a risk. Big adventure games have a much harder time than they did during the boom of a decade ago, when titles like Telltale Games’ cinematic The Walking Dead revitalized the genre and developers focused more on storytelling than puzzles.
Focus on the narrative
Telltale Games went bankrupt and has since been revived in a smaller form. Even former adventure giants like Daedalic (Deponia, DSA) have shifted their genre focus to other types of games. All in all, not exactly rosy prospects for friends of strong narrative games.
But with Sony’s support, visionaries like Cage or Jan Müller-Michaelis (Edna Breaks Out) could use the new platform to take non-linear narrative forms to the next level. If hardware sales are strong, a large user base will have access to eye-tracking for the first time. This could make it easier for developers to use the feature more extensively.
Eye-tracking in VR could open up new audiences who want to participate more actively in the story. After all, immersion means not only moving through another world, but also dynamically influencing it. For good reason, VR worlds are considered most believable when the player can pick up various objects, view them from different perspectives, and literally grasp them.
PSVR 2 launch title Horizon: Call of the Mountain is right up there with Half-Life: Alyx for PC-VR in terms of interactive game world. You can pick up apples, scribble on chalkboards, and do other immersive silliness at every turn. But it would be even more impressive if my presence were manifested by believable NPC reactions to my gaze.
This is planned for Horizon’s VR spin-off. Game characters will actively follow my gaze to deepen the relationship with the characters. My guess is that this feature will not interfere with decisions, so as not to slow down the action and exploration. The game is designed to gently introduce newcomers to the new VR platform, rather than confuse them.
Few PSVR 2 launch titles use eye tracking for gameplay
So far, only a few titles in the PSVR 2 launch lineup are exploring eye-tracking-based gameplay. Skybound Games recently announced a port of the quirky adventure game Before Your Eyes. The blink-based locomotion is reminiscent of the mechanics in The Dark Pictures: Switchback.
The 2D Steam version works with a webcam in front of the monitor, the Playstation VR 2 version uses the VR headset’s eye tracking to track your eye movements. It is still unclear if and how much the controls will be overhauled. Sony’s eye tracking would offer much more possibilities than the original webcam eye tracking.
Eye-tracking will be used extensively in Rez Infinite for PSVR 2, allowing you to track and target enemies with your eyes. Developer Tetsuya Mizuguchi is known for his love of experimentation, and this could give his award-winning VR action game a fresh feel.
The hide-and-seek game Hello Neighbor VR: Search and Rescue has the potential to be the first example of targeted eye contact, like when that annoying neighbor catches you. But I wouldn’t bet on it. After all, the indie adventure will get plenty of VR ports to devices without eye tracking.
Many launch titles are ports that don’t change too much. Others focus on action rather than storytelling. Some of them, however, could at least benefit from avatar eye contact in multiplayer or social lobbies.
Eye tracking in gaming is in its infancy
Perhaps it will take a few more years to develop more sophisticated solutions. For the future, I hope that as many titles as possible take advantage of PSVR 2’s eye tracking, and that developers get really creative.
It’s a shame that VR studio Ready at Dawn is not one of them. The makers of the brilliant VR adventures Lone Echo and Lone Echo 2 would have the best qualifications, but they are now part of Meta’s studio family. Hopefully, they will instead push Meta’s upcoming headsets with creative VR games, even if the Quest 3 will probably not offer eye-tracking.
Thanks to Dynamic Foveated Rendering, Sony even has a technical advantage over many SteamVR headsets. While PC support for Playstation VR 2 is unlikely, its graphical advantages are good news even for console skeptics. Perhaps beautiful PSVR 2 games will lead to more beautiful PC VR ports. They might also inspire the portion of my friends who don’t want to buy a Playstation 5 to try VR.
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