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VR vs. Cartoons

Here’s a question: does virtual reality (VR) have to be based on, well, reality? Not necessarily in the context of its story, settings and characters, but in an artistic sense? This is a technology that is striving to make everything as real as possible. We want accurate head-tracking, crisp displays and low latency, all in an attempt to make us feel like we really are standing in the environment that we’re looking at. Does all of that simply disappear if we achieve anything other than the most realistic graphics?

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It’s an interesting thought, and one that few developers are yet to try and tackle. Can VR stand with experiences that use more imaginative art styles and visual flairs? Cel-shading has led to some of the most colourful, visually creative videogames of the past decade and beyond, but their aims are usually different to that of the hyper-realistic titles that try and fully immerse a player as if they really were the character they were controlling. It would certainly be a shame to miss out on this fantastically vibrant art style because it conflicts with a core principal of VR. Titles like The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker and Jet Set Radio still hold up even today with these art styles, but can they work with an Oculus Rift or Project Morpheus?

There may not be many case studies for this topic, but what is there is encouraging. Developer Nick Pittom of Red of Paw has certainly made a strong case for VR and animation with his lovingly-crafted Studio Ghibli tribute projects. Of course, Studio Ghibli itself helped break ground with cel-shaded visuals on PlayStation 3 with Ni No Kuni: The Wrath of the White Witch. The first of Pittom’s projects, based on the iconic Spirited Away, is available to download and try out for free. The title successfully recreates the boiler room scene from the beloved anime film, created in unity. In his development blog, Pittom noted challenges in converting the 2D art style to a fully 3D environment, revealing that he had literally painted on 3D objects in photoshop. This was to ensure that the title retained a painted look in VR as opposed to some simple shaders. Pittom’s next work, a recreation of the bus stop scene from My Neighbour Totoro, also looks to set to make a case for cartoons in VR.

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Another upcoming cel-shaded title looks to prove that VR and animation can go hand-in-hand. The Jet Set Radio-inspired Hover: Revolt of Gamers is not only looking to combine the two but is proving that people are excited by the idea, with the project wildly surpassing its Kickstarter campaign goal of $38,000 USD, currently sitting at over $80,000 raised with over 2 weeks to go. The title looks offer a refreshing spectrum of colours, with players zig-zagging about the environment performing tricks and stunts. Admittedly it isn’t exclusive to the Oculus Rift and we’re yet to definitively prove that its VR inclusion is worthwhile, but it’s encouraging nonetheless.

It all points to cel-shaded and cartoon visual styles continuing to thrive with VR. So if you’re worried about that platform become nothing but a breeding ground for the hyper-realistic, gritty experiences that we’re all used to already then, quite simply, don’t be. VR is set to offer as unique and diverse of range of visual styles that we already see explored throughout the videogame industry.

‘VR vs’ is VRFocus’ weekly feature that takes an issue currently challenging the VR industry and discusses how to fix it. Looking at everything from the videogames in development to the strength of the technology, we highlight the problems and try to come up with the best solutions.