Virtual Intimacy

The arrival of relatively affordable virtual reality solutions has the potential to allow us to explore narrative and characterisation in all-new ways — and I’m especially excited to see what Japan comes up with. 

An oft-cited strength of narrative-centric Japanese interactive entertainment is the sense of “intimacy” it engenders between the player, the protagonist and the core cast. Visual novels in particular are noteworthy for their in-depth explorations of characters and in allowing the player to “ride along” inside the protagonist’s head as they encounter various situations.

So what might virtual reality bring to this kind of experience? It’s an interesting question to ponder, and an exciting prospect to imagine.

Can you imagine getting a headpat from Millie in VR? Imagine it!

It’s eminently possible to create compelling and enjoyable experiences with no player agency whatsoever.

In particular, VR offers the potential to enjoy this kind of experience with a much greater sense of presence and physicality than the typically rather abstract presentation of most visual novels.

There’s no reason that they necessarily have to be any more “interactive” than they are at present — as my recent features on Grisaia and Ne no Kami have hopefully shown, it’s eminently possible to create enormously compelling and enjoyable experiences with no player agency whatsoever — but it will present some interesting new challenges for creators.

How do you handle “narration”, for example? One of the most distinctive things about visual novels as a means of storytelling is the fact that the protagonist can describe their thoughts to the player, in some cases even “conversing” with them. And some titles – Nitroplus’ Deus Machina Demonbane is a particularly good example – even switch perspectives between characters or between first- and third-person narration over the course of their complete stories.

Deus Machina Demonbane’s multifaceted, perspective-shifting narrative would be an interesting challenge to adapt to VR.

Storytellers will be able to start exploring the use of non-verbal mannerisms, facial expressions and body language; the difference between reading a play and seeing it acted out on stage.

When placed into a quasi-physical space using VR, however, it’s not unreasonable to assume that many players will expect to see things depicted more literally in front of their eyes rather than abstractly through narration and stimuli for the imagination such as static character artwork. This will naturally place greater demands on developers to produce detailed 3D models of their work’s cast members and the environments they inhabit – but it also brings the benefit that these characters will seem much more “alive”, and storytellers can start to explore the use of things like non-explicit, non-verbal mannerisms, facial expressions and body language in their work. The difference between reading a play and seeing it acted out on stage, to draw a comparison with more traditional art forms.

There’s nothing to say that some conventional, well-established visual novel techniques can’t be used, though. Since VR uses stereoscopic 3D, many games make it appear that the game interface is mounted on the player’s head, following their vision as they look around while the characters and environments appear in the background. There’s no reason why a similar approach couldn’t be used for a floating text box or thought bubble, allowing the player to read narration or “hear” the protagonist’s thoughts much like we do in traditionally presented 2D visual novels.

Indeed, there’s nothing really saying that a VR visual novel has to reflect its world in a realistic manner at all – 2D visual novels remain popular despite their abstract, unnatural and stylised ways of presenting their narratives, after all, even as bigger budget games constantly improve their technology and realism in the never-ending pursuit of “the interactive movie”.

Summer Lesson is probably the closest thing we have to a VR visual novel right now.

An alternative approach would be to make titles fully voiced, thereby negating the need for reading — though this would have a significant impact on the possibility of non-English titles being localised.

An alternative method of presentation I can very much see working is simply making the existing approach more immersive: make the backdrops into 360-degree wraparound images rather than flat pictures; overlay 2D characters using stereoscopic 3D to give a sense of “depth” to the scene; and provide the player with a floating, “head-mounted” interface. With all that, you’d have what I’d argue could be an intriguing, natural evolution for the medium without forcing creators to completely and fundamentally reinvent the way they do things.

Of course, there are technical considerations to take into account, most notably the fact that all the currently available VR headsets at the time of writing have relatively low resolution, and consequently can make reading text something of an eye-straining chore. This isn’t an insurmountable problem by any means – developers would just have to ensure that their text was presented in a clearly legible font of a suitable size and appropriately positioned in the player’s field of view to prevent unnecessary eye strain – with the somewhat blurry extremities of most current headsets’ respective fields of vision, it’s not just a case of tucking interface elements off to the side as you can do with a 2D display.

Another alternative approach would be to make titles fully voiced, including the narration, and thereby negate the need for reading — though this would arguably make the experience something other than a “visual novel” in the traditional sense and, perhaps more importantly, have a significant impact on the possibility of non-English titles being localised. Due to the sheer amount of dialogue in your average visual novel — particularly high-profile, lengthy ones such as Grisaia — it’s exceedingly rare for non-English titles to get a dub, and many fans tend to prefer the experience of hearing the audio in the original Japanese with subtitles anyway. The upcoming Asia English release of Summer Lesson for PlayStation VR will hopefully provide us with a better idea of how practical it will be to experience something like this with subtitles.

Custom Maid 3D 2’s 3D erotic interactions provide a tantalising glimpse into the possibilities of virtual intimacy. There’s even a VR patch available if you want to take your experience to the next level.

It’s a running joke that porn constantly drives new technology forward, but given that many enthusiasts find eroge to be a safe means of exploring fantasies, it’s only natural to ponder sexual interactions in VR.

There are challenges to be overcome in all this, sure, but the possibilities for virtual intimacy and empathy offered by virtual reality narrative experiences are myriad, and we can already start to see some traditionally presented 2D titles hinting at what creators might be able to explore further in VR.

Of particular note is the exploration of explicit sexual content, which has long been an important part of the visual novel medium as a whole. It’s a running joke (with more than a hint of truth to it) that porn constantly drives new technology forward, but given that many enthusiasts find eroge (and even nukige) to be a safe, healthy and non-judgemental means of exploring fantasies and coming to understand their sexuality, it’s only natural to ponder the possibilities of sexual interactions in VR. Of course, without rather specialised accessories, you miss out on a certain amount of “physicality” to the act, but there’s little doubt there would be an exciting sense of intimacy to a VR liaison with a well-defined character you’ve spent time getting to know.

And there’s no reason why the player’s perspective has to remain with the protagonist, either. One of the most effective H-scenes in The Labyrinth of Grisaia, for example, unfolds from the perspective of a blindfolded and gagged Amane trying out S&M with protagonist Yuuji. Her narration of this scene emphasises how depriving herself of some senses heightens the others, and the whole scene, while indisputably erotic to the extreme, gives us considerable insight into her character through the way she behaves and the things she feels in this situation.

A scene such as Amane and Yuuji’s attempts at “soft S&M” in The Labyrinth of Grisaia — presented from Amane’s perspective — would be fascinating to explore in VR.

VR could be used to explore more challenging, less pleasant scenarios and help the player to understand and empathise with a character’s trauma.

Now imagine something similar in VR, with the player’s perspective shifting to that of Amane, bound, blindfolded and gagged on the bed. The visual presentation could be approached so as to make it seem like the blindfold was almost, but not quite opaque, affording the player the opportunity to see just a hint of what is happening to the character — or perhaps even abstract imagery representing what she believes she is experiencing. The narration, voice acting and subtitles could emphasise what she is thinking and feeling – and tactile feedback via controllers could even be used in various creative ways to intensify the experience.

In the same way, VR could be used to explore more challenging, less pleasant scenarios and help the player to understand and empathise with a character’s trauma. Imagine the possibility of witnessing a character’s assault, rape or murder through their own eyes, for example – almost certainly a horrifying idea for everyone reading this, but a grimly fascinating prospect from a storytelling perspective.

Indeed, we’ve already seen a few tentative steps in this direction from some developers in non-VR games, perhaps most notably (or notoriously!)  in the castration scene from the Whistleblower DLC for Red Barrels’ Outlast, and in the various death scenes from Team GrisGris’ Corpse Party, both of which provide terrifyingly immersive, horrific experiences within the limitations of their respective technology. It remains to be seen which developers, if any, will have the courage to explore this side of things further and push the boundaries using VR, but given the breadth of subject matter already present in current visual novels, my money’s on Japan leading the charge in this regard.

While Corpse Party features some horrifying visuals, its most gruesome, terrifying moments are achieved through immersive use of 3D sound.

It’s possible to create material that is both highly arousing and repulsive at the same time, and it can be valuable to do so.

Of course, a common argument against this type of content, particularly in an age where attempts to be “politically correct” are increasingly high profile (and irritatingly, predictably frequent in the mainstream games press) is that some people will engage with this sort of content in ways other than the creator might have intended — to put it more crudely, some people might get off on the idea of experiencing a “rape fantasy” in VR and, rather than empathising with the victim of a horrible crime, find themselves enjoying it, perhaps even seeking out more, similar experiences.

An important question that needs to be asked here is: does this actually matter? People all over the world have different tastes and fetishes, some of which they keep very quiet indeed. Virtual reality, much like eroge and nukige, provides the opportunity to experience things that you are unable to do in reality — surely the safest way possible to live out any kind of “deviant” fantasy, regardless of whether or not the author of the work intended you to “enjoy” the experience? If you want to understand these kinds of feelings, it’s certainly better to do so in a safe, virtual environment you can easily “escape” from rather than finding yourself in potentially dangerous situations in reality.

This discussion also raises a point that some visual novels already explore with their erotic content: it’s possible to create material that is both highly arousing and repulsive at the same time, and it can be valuable to do so. In crafting this type of content, you create a powerful sense of emotional engagement in the player’s mind by triggering conflicting reactions and forcing them to ask themselves difficult questions about what they are seeing, thinking and feeling.

Saya no Uta is extremely effective at what it does, by combining base human desires with a sense of “wrongness”.

Deus Machina Demonbane and Saya no Uta feature scenes designed to simultaneously titillate and disgust; the added immersion of VR could produce even more powerful reactions.

The aforementioned Nitroplus is the arguable master of this craft, with both Deus Machina Demonbane and horror masterpiece Saya no Uta featuring scenes designed to simultaneously titillate and disgust in a variety of different ways; the added immersion offered by VR could produce even more powerful reactions to this kind of experience, demanding players think critically about their virtual ordeals and what, if anything, they might be able to take away from them.

Virtual reality most certainly has a great deal to offer those composing interactive fiction, then, but we’re still at the very dawn of what is effectively a whole new means of consuming content and it’s going to take a while for people to figure out what the “best” approaches are. Not only that, while the arrival of the PlayStation VR has made VR a lot more affordable for many people, it’s still a prohibitively expensive prospect for many gamers, which will doubtless make many developers shy away from exploring it in earnest until there’s a more significant userbase out there.

Unlike past attempts to bring VR to the masses, however, this time around we’re seeing a lot more interest from early adopters and content creators alike — as well as mobile devices coupled with solutions such as Google Cardboard offering a low-cost means to get a taste of VR before committing to one of the more expensive offerings from HTC, Oculus or Sony. As VR devices become more common sights in living rooms, we’ll start to see more and more interesting and creative uses of the technology for all manner of things — interactive storytelling being just one of them.

If I can ever get my hands on an Asia English copy of Summer Lesson, expect some more detailed thoughts.

I’m certainly excited about the prospect — but it may be a while before we see this new medium start to truly realise its potential. When it does, though, one can only imagine what you’ll be able to get up to with your waifu…

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