Spa­tial aware­ness

How the cre­ator of XTODIE: Rag­narok is ex­plor­ing the chal­lenges of stand-up VR


XTODIE: Rag­narok is a VR hor­ror game that wants you to stand up

The for­ma­tive ex­per­i­ments in mod­ern VR gam­ing have es­tab­lished one rule of thumb: it’s much less dis­ori­ent­ing to nav­i­gate a vir­tual world when your avatar is sit­ting down. Elite: Dan­ger­ous and EVE: Valkyrie en­sconce you in a cock­pit and thus avoid the dis­con­nect between what your body is do­ing and what your eyes are see­ing, but if Ocu­lus Rift and Sony’s Project Mor­pheus are to suc­ceed, they can’t be bound to flight sticks and steer­ing wheels. Yet first­per­son ac­tion games in VR raise ques­tions: how will your brain han­dle mo­tion when your body is cer­tain it’s sta­tion­ary? Should VR ad­ven­tures be played sit­ting down? And if not, how do you avoid ac­ci­dents when a player is mo­bile but ef­fec­tively blinded in their own liv­ing room?

XTODIE: Rag­narok is a hor­ror game based on Norse mythol­ogy in which play­ers are hunted by fan­tas­tic crea­tures in a stark, snowy wilder­ness. At shows and on­stage, cre­ator Julie Heyde in­sists it be played stand­ing up for im­mer­sion’s sake, but also as part of an on­go­ing ex­per­i­ment meant to bet­ter un­der­stand VR gam­ing.

“I would be sit­ting down and play­ing with the Rift, and it didn’t ac­tu­ally feel real, so I de­cided to do a stand-up VR game,” she says. “The first time [play­ers] try XTODIE with Rift, you see how much of a dif­fer­ence it is to them. When you just play it as a desk­top game, there’s a snow gi­ant com­ing to­wards you, and you get scared. But sud­denly, when you’re in a 3D en­vi­ron­ment, you can’t get away, you’re scared and run­ning for your life, and it’s a whole other ex­pe­ri­ence.”

Heyde calls XTODIE an ac­tive VR game. There are no stick-bound con­trols for turn­ing, only for go­ing for­ward (side-step­ping is un­der con­sid­er­a­tion, pend­ing mo­tion-sick­ness ex­per­i­ments), so play­ers must move on the spot to ex­plore the space around them. At July’s De­velop con­fer­ence, one player dur­ing Heyde’s pre­sen­ta­tion be­gan inch­ing his way for­ward to­wards the edge of the stage, im­mersed in the VR space and un­aware of the dan­ger. It proved the point of Heyde’s talk: the chal­lenge of de­vel­op­ing a phys­i­cal VR game with­out play­ers get­ting in­jured.

“I like hor­ror games. I like scar­ing peo­ple and I like get­ting scared my­self,” Heyde says. “But it’s a whole other thing de­sign­ing [hor­ror] when you don’t want peo­ple to get so scared they ac­tu­ally fall over. Early on, when it was just the cave level, peo­ple were run­ning around like crazy; they’d scream and so on. I’d just throw peo­ple straight in to the VR ex­pe­ri­ence and they’d [be un­steady]. When I added the pre­ced­ing level, the ice land­scape of Jo­tun­heim, it was a chance for peo­ple to find their feet.”

The first level acts as a tu­to­rial, with a more open space and flat­ter path; Heyde found hills and bumps made play­ers more in­clined to move on the spot, and pur­suits through tight cav­erns saw them mov­ing by dan­ger­ous amounts. One player was so in­clined to­wards drift­ing that Heyde was forced to grip him by the shoul­ders through­out the demo.

“Peo­ple need to get used to VR at their own pace,” she ex­plains. “Maybe when peo­ple are more [VR lit­er­ate], we’ll be able to drop them in faster, but for now we need that open space they can take at their own pace be­fore throw­ing

“It’s a whole other thing de­sign­ing hor­ror when you don’t want peo­ple to get so scared they fall over”

them into the cave. Peo­ple seem to be aware that there is still a phys­i­cal space around them, but un­less you in­tro­duce VR slowly, they tend to lean and trem­ble enough to be in dan­ger.” The sim­ple con­trols, very sim­i­lar to

Res­i­dent Evil’s clas­sic ‘tank’ con­trols, have dra­mat­i­cally re­duced in­ci­dents of mo­tion sick­ness, Heyde says, at the ex­pense of mak­ing es­capes from pur­su­ing gi­ants more chal­leng­ing and more ter­ri­fy­ing. Like Res­i­dent Evil and Alone In The Dark, Heyde’s work feels like a pro­to­type – the first steps to­wards some­thing new.

The XTODIE demo lasts 45 min­utes, a long time in a VR space. “Stand­ing up is phys­i­cally de­mand­ing,” Heyde says, “but that’s why the game has to be ac­tive. Stand­ing is hard, but so long as you’re mov­ing – just on the spot – it’s much eas­ier. The big­gest thing I see af­ter play­ers have been im­mersed for that long is how hard it is to come back to re­al­ity.”

Ocu­lus has an ex­ten­sive list of best­prac­tice guide­lines for VR devel­op­ment, but cre­atives such as Heyde are just scratch­ing the sur­face of what will and won’t work in the real world. With limited re­sources, their tri­als pale in com­par­i­son to the us­abil­ity test­ing pos­si­ble at Sony, Ocu­lus and large stu­dios, but in a way they are also freer to push at VR’s lim­its.

“Triple-A de­vel­op­ers [are mostly] work­ing with sit-down games, it seems,” Heyde says. “I guess it’s a li­a­bil­ity is­sue as well as a de­sign one, but I was so happy when I saw Sony’s Mor­pheus at GDC for the first time, and that you were ac­tu­ally stand­ing up and play­ing it with two Move con­trollers. But then, of course, if you’re play­ing at home how do you make sure you don’t keep hit­ting peo­ple with your Move con­trollers? We have a lot of work to do.”

Julie Heyde, XTODIE cre­ator and hacker

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