Earlier this week, Bethesda Softworks gave fans two big virtual reality announcements: VR versions of beloved RPGs Fallout 4 and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. You could argue that these kinds of big, open-world titles are the perfect application for VR — the medium needs games that can keep players entertained for more than a few hours, and people want to feel like they're really living in their favorite world.
I think, however, that you’d be wrong. Because so far, the little I’ve seen of both titles suggests that most of the great parts of present-day open-world games don’t translate well into a headset, and that the perfect VR open world won’t look anything like what we’re used to.
Fallout 4 in VR has gotten a lot better since it appeared last year as a proof of concept. Bethesda has reworked the interface so it feels more intuitively three-dimensional — if you search a body, for example, the inventory box seems to pop over it. You can now move with the analog stick as well as teleportation, which means you can walk around without thinking quite so hard about where you want to go. And the quasi-turn-based V.A.T.S. option has been turned into something more like bullet time, where the world slows to a crawl and enemies’ body parts will light up when you point at them for better targeting.
Bethesda says the game was fully playable at E3, and I believe it, although I only had time to go through a couple of sorties with ghouls and raiders. But the game doesn’t feel finished. The most obvious problem is that Fallout 4’s dusty brown-and-green environments are difficult to parse on a grainy headset screen, making it tougher to spot enemies. My demo had minor frame rate issues, and the visuals had jagged edges similar to those of Resident Evil 7’s VR mode. Things like the frame rate could be fixed by the game’s launch later this year. But that won’t solve the bigger issue, which is that Fallout’s huge spaces aren’t as much fun to explore in VR.
Much to Bethesda’s credit, I didn’t get sick while walking around with a stick in Fallout 4 on the HTC Vive. But it’s still not like the flatscreen version, where moving is something you can do without even thinking about it. When you feel more like you’re actually wandering around, you start realizing just how big everything is, and how much motion it takes to get between objectives. That makes things more realistic, but Fallout isn’t designed to work realistically — in order to keep finding interesting things, you’re meant to travel distances that no human being could manage at such a fast pace.
This is even worse in the Skyrim demo, which is in a much earlier stage of production. It’s still using a teleportation system that doesn’t let you move very far, and exploring the world in fully immersive VR just makes you realize how empty it looks. Its aging, relatively simple graphics give you plateaus of snow and stone that look fine on a small screen, but unnaturally sparse when they’re life-sized. It’s hard to say too much about how the rest of the game will work, because you can’t do much more than shoot fire at enemies from one hand and clumsily hack at them with a sword in the other.
I’ve written before about the need for dense games in VR — spaces where movement isn’t treated like a free action, you’re never more than a few steps away from something interesting, and you don’t have to walk right up to an item to see whether it’s worth investigating. That’s something that Fallout 4 and Skyrim in VR simply can’t deliver, no matter how smooth their interfaces get. They’re designed to feel expansive by being geographically big, forcing you to trek long distances between settlements.
That doesn’t mean that virtual reality games can’t be long and complex. There are great Fallout and Elder Scrolls games waiting to be made for the medium, possibly even ones that would be good both inside and outside VR. But they’d need to get away from the idea that walking is synonymous with exploration or progress, something that’s deeply ingrained in role-playing games. And the creators would be taking a risk by messing with a formula that works just fine on a flat screen, playing to an audience that’s still tiny — and may not grow quickly over the next couple of years.
Putting games like Fallout 4 and Skyrim into VR is a good practice run for Bethesda, so, the downside is minimal. Bethesda is also working on a VR-only expansion of Doom that really does seem tailored for the format. But it’s a sobering reminder of how far we are from reaching a point where VR will feel like a medium in its own right, and not — at least for E3’s biggest games — an afterthought.