How VR Has Ruined RPGs

That dream. That one we all had when we first grabbed the Master Sword; when you first jump off that train and get pulled straight into battle; when you first escape captivity and exit that sewer to find the world stretching almost endlessly ahead of you, ready to explore. That dream that asks: what if I was actually there?

Virtually reality (VR) has the ability to do a many number of things, but the first thing each of the major head-mounted display (HMD) manufacturers is concentrating on is entertainment. And within that drive for entertainment videogames are key. No longer marginalised by the stereotype of a nerdy teenage boy playing with 2D sprites in his parent’s basement; the videogames industry has been opened up and is more welcoming than ever before. With that comes experiences that put less emphasis on the who and more on the why. Within VR, the ‘who’ is irrelevant.

Vanishing Realms - Rite of Steel screenshot

When I first receive my sword in Vanishing Realms: Rite of Steel, it’s not ‘who’ is picking up the weapon. I know it’s me: I just reached out and grabbed it. I know it’s dangerous to go it alone, as I have seen the dangers that lie ahead. The videogame itself may have designs on telling me an overarching story, but in this moment it’s me who is experiencing each and every inch of this dungeon crawl.

Though I need a hold a torch to light the way in the beginning of my journey, I’m soon outside surrounded by trees and stony hills. I don’t need a map as I remember where my feet have fallen, as it’s actually my feet that have trodden this ground. I remember every pathway that I have taken through this land: every corner that I’ve passed; where I found my beloved Red Chalices; every foothold I’ve taken and every crate I’ve searched for loot.

Upon venturing further into the wood I find a clearing, in which a large skeletal beast rises from its grave with a means to do me permanent damage. He towers over me, wielding his flail high above my head. I duck and weave with the expectation that one crashing blow will not end in a checkpoint restart, but it will end me. I dispense with my shield and opt to charge in with two broadswords drawn, using the speed of my attacks to gain the advantage. It works, and the beast begins to stumble back in an effort to put space between us. It’s too late for him though, as soon I am victorious, taking the key to a treasure chest hidden below the surface as my reward.

Vanishing Realms - Rite of Steel screenshot

‘Immersion’ is a byword of VR. For over two decades it’s been suggested time-and-again that VR offers depths of presence that no other medium can reach. Role-playing games (RPGs) demand high levels of immersion to sustain their pacing, the ebb-and-flow of combat and quest fulfilment; the belief that it is your adventure, and not one which has simply been laid out for you to join the dots in. Vanishing Realms: Rite of Steel is still in Steam Early Access. It’s a short and often clumsy experience at present, but this is largely irrelevant. For the hour that I’m pursuing the skeleton king, exploring that space and facing-off against enemies toe-to-toe in close combat, it is I who am wielding that weapon.