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Uncharted Territory #4: How To Get Emotional (In VR Design)

PSA: This article contains spoilers for The Last of Us, Inside, Journey, and Limbo!

If you’ve kept up with all the previous posts in the Uncharted Territory series (if you haven’t, get started here!) you may have noticed a theme: we’re not trying to say one way of VR development is best, but rather share our own learnings, and hopefully whittle them down into useful tools for you to apply to your own VR development. (Or, if you’re a player, you can sound extra-smart in the subreddits!)

In our last post, we taught you a bit about the design principle of diegetic UI. This time, the tool we’re offering for your belt is something a little less tangible, but just as exciting: emotional design.

While many games may strive to deliver emotional experiences to players, the reality is that very few actually succeed. That’s probably because they’re not designing for emotion. They’re designing for another concept altogether: “Fun.”

“Hold up,” you say, “what’s with those quotes?” Surely fun is the ultimate goal of any game, whether emotional or otherwise?

This is often true! A common platitude tossed around game design teams is “find the fun.” This seemingly perfect catch-all principle pushes developers to concept, and prototype, and test test test, until they stumble onto something (maybe a mechanic, maybe an entire game mode) that’s too fun to put down.

This principle is as old as game dev itself! But the medium of games has grown a lot since those early days, and a lot of games nowadays approach something closer to storytelling, visual spectacle, or even art.

A screenshot from the game, The Last of Us, showing the player character Joel holding the unconscious body of his ward, Ellie.

For instance: How would you describe your player experience during the final sequences of The Last of Us, watching Joel make his devastating choice and fighting through the consequences?

How do you feel when you’re facing the first Bloodborne boss, tumbling frantically around the arena while praying your next button press isn’t your last?

A screenshot from the game, Inside, showing a horrific fleshy beast made from human body parts. It stands in a non-descript dark interior with a single spotlight shining on it.

How did you feel at the end of Journey, or Limbo, or Inside, as the avatar you’d grown so attached to undergoes confusing, possibly terrifying changes?

These experiences directly challenge the notion of “fun,” often going out of their way to deliver an objectively negative experience: heartbreak, intense stress, even revulsion or disgust. These are intended impacts on the player. This is, in a nutshell, emotional design.

So, we propose moving beyond just “finding the fun,” and adopting a new approach: Identify and embrace the full range of experiential emotions, including fun, and use that as one’s baseline instead.

(Are you ready for the cool part? Here’s the cool part.)

What took years for video games to take an emotional approach seems almost second nature in VR. As soon as a headset is placed on someone, an emotional response is elicited. They’ve just been transported to another place! This virtual body is just like their body! (Or maybe not like their body at all!) The majority of first-timers are simply in awe.

A screenshot from the virtual reality game, The Blu, showing an awe-inspiring whale as it glides slowly past the underwater camera.

A lot of early VR experiences focused entirely on capturing this emotional response, and it quickly established the “novelty” of VR. The Blu showed us the beauty of passing moments deep underneath the sea, while FORM sought to evoke a mood of mystery and wonder as you travelled through a surreal, ever-changing landscape.

Be careful: even though setting your sights on an emotional response from the player is a great first step, success is always in the execution! Even the most dramatic of game scenes can fall flat if the emotional design isn’t well-executed.

A screenshot from the game Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, showing the infamous funeral scene. The player looks upon a casket at a cemetery memorial service for a fallen soldier; other soldiers stand to the side, next to arrangements of flowers. White and yellow text overlaid reads: "Press F to Pay Respects."

We all know that Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare’s infamous “Press F to pay respects” quick time event was the design choice that launched a thousand memes. Interestingly, the reason it rings so hollow is actually a question of emotional design. The game demands an enormous emotional connection from the player (literally mourning a fallen comrade who sacrificed themselves for the player) but does little to nurture that connection. “F” is a catch-all button with no inherent emotional attachment.

In short, the game has told us that “F” is a general use key for missions and firefights, one we press so often we stop thinking about it, and that’s how we continue see it, even in this “emotional” scene!

So, a question: How can we move past the "novelty" of VR, and be more intentional in the emotional responses we want to evoke in users?

Answer: By working from The Hierarchy of Being in VR.

“Cognition attempts to make sense of the world: emotion assigns value.” Donald A. Norman, The Design of Everyday Things

A screenshot of a presentation given by Isabel Tewes and Yelena Rachitsky at Oculus Connect 5. They gesture to a slide with a multi-coloured pyramid, each layer of the pyramid labeled with "Others" "World" or "Self."

“The Hierarchy of Being in VR” is a talk presented by Isabel Tewes and Yelena Rachitsky at Oculus Connect 5 in 2018. The presentation is excellent: its source material is well-researched and the insights shared are deeply informative, so we’d like to use it as a jumping-off point for our thoughts on emotional design in VR.

If you are familiar with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, Tewes and Rachitsky present a similar concept. Where each layer in the pyramid must be met in order to move up and subsequently travel deeper into the experience you are making. We find this to be a great basis for creating rich, immersive experiences that impact users even after their time in VR is done. By considering the tenets in this hierarchy, it allows us to focus on small intentional design decisions that bring us to that emotional response goal.

Another screenshot from the Hierarchy of Being in VR presentation, focusing on the "self" layer of the pyramid.

Emotional Design Tool #1: Sense of Self

While dreaming, a common technique to enter a lucid dreaming state is to look at your hands: our hands are our anchors to ourselves and our world. It turns out the very same is true for VR. After all, what’s the first thing new VR users usually do in an experience?

As we move our virtual hands, we understand that they are us, or at least an extension of us. While a similar connection occurs in flat games (who doesn’t immediately button mash to see what their on-screen character does in response?) controllers and keyboards are poor analogues for our hands; this is another way in which VR has a leg up on flat games.

A photograph of an amputee holding out their right hand, as well as their left forearm, where their left hand has been amputated. A carefully positioned mirror "reflects" back the right hand in the place where the amputated left hand would appear.

Thanks to studies on phantom limb sensations, including those involving virtual reality itself, we also understand that the cognitive experience can be dramatically influenced by our perception of our own bodies.

Human embodiment is malleable, which provides a powerful tool for emotional impact, and allows us to adapt to different situations. One way VR can impact us emotionally is by playing with our perceptions of the self, and “who” we are.

Key art for the virtual reality game, Caliban Below, showing a frightening statue of a monstrous man looming over the camera. Behind the statue are sprawling underground ruins.

How we build the “self” shapes the way users will feel about themselves, which in turn influences how they will act within your experience. A great example of this is the abbreviated narrative horror game, Caliban Below, where manipulating the player's understanding of who (and what) they are leads directly to one of the most startling twists we've seen in a game!

Unfortunately, playing with this sense also opens new opportunities to miss our targets! Some narrative-based VR games invite the player to immerse themselves in the world, but don’t allow the player to act on their curiosities and impulses, or offer a world that does not respond to said impulses in a satisfying way. Expectations don't align with reality, and disappointment ensues.

Another screenshot from the Hierarchy of Being in VR presentation, focusing on the "world" layer of the pyramid.

Emotional Design Tool #2: The World

“The job of the designer is to use other tools to explain the story, the molding of the space takes the visitor by the hand and takes them through without them realising what is happening.” Dinah Casson, Architecture, Engineering & Interior Design

Our space affects us in more ways than we know! Any architect or interior designer will tell you that spaces can have emotions, and that directing where someone looks, or how they move within a space can have a massive impact on their interior experience. Even simple shapes can elicit interestingly consistent results!

A simple illustration of two black shapes over a white background: the shape on the left is bulbous and round, like a flower or a splatter. The shape on the right is jagged and pointy, like a star or a cartoon explosion.
The Bouba/Kiki effect: Which shape is “Bouba” and which one is “Kiki”?

Consider approaching each space you intend to place the user from an emotional one. What is the emotion you want the space to convey? From there, you can begin to determine what shapes, colours, lights and scale you need to use to execute that emotion.

The connection between player and space also extends to objects. Again, VR excels in this manner, due to the fact that the barrier between the player and the objects they can interact with is extremely thin. Imagine throwing a glass of water at an NPC, or picking up a picture frame that blurs and distorts as you move it through the world.

Giving the user the ability to interact and manipulate objects in the world transforms them from a passive observer to an active participant, thus enriching the impact these objects can have.

Another screenshot from the Hierarchy of Being in VR presentation, focusing on the "others" layer of the pyramid.

Emotional Design Tool #3: Sense of Others

This is the connection and the communication that we have with those within the VR world.

This can mean NPCs, but as social VR experiences such as VRchat and A Township Tale continue to grow in popularity, it just as often means a real person! As humans, a core element of how we connect with others is body language. Unlike verbal language, body language is often deeply intuitive the signals we send and receive in this way are immediate, almost entirely subconscious, and often quite globally consistent.

VR is unique in its ability to capture and communicate this particular type of hyper-intuitive information. If you meet someone in VR that you know in real life, you may be able to recognize that person just by the way they use their hands or hold their head. Even if these movements are mapped to abstract shapes!

A screenshot from the virtual reality experience, VRchat, showing four players in astronaut suits posing in front of the virtual camera, as if taking a selfie.

There doesn’t always have to be a sentient being on the other side of the avatar in order to create a vivid, meaningful experience with an “other” in VR.

Key art for the virtual reality game, Moss, showing the mouse character Quill standing bravely amid a lush, fantastical forest.

In Polyarc’s Moss, the player’s connection to Quill defines the entire experience; not only are we shepherding our tiny mouse friend through a world of fantasy and peril, she is also acknowledging us. All the details packed into her animations, reactions, and movements help enhance this relationship.

A screenshot of the virtual reality game, Chronos, showing the player character creeping through desolate ruins at night. A strange light shines in the distance.

Even when we remove any and all trace of “others,” we are creating a wildly impactful experience for the player. Consider Gunfire's Chronos, where we view our player character through distance third-person, and guide them through an empty world. The result is a deeply lonely, almost eerie game, the type that sticks with us for a long time after putting the headset down.

Given that we are still learning how memories made in VR might be the closest thing to lived experiences, there seems to be enormous potential for VR to help us forge impactful relationships, and build long-lasting memories from those connections.

A screenshot of the virtual reality game, Lone Echo, showing an astronaut floating in a complex spaceship interior. The astronaut looks at the camera, and the player character's robotic arm appears outstretched toward her.

In Conclusion...

When it comes to emotional design in VR, these are just a few tools.

A single VR project doesn’t need to leverage all of these elements to achieve an emotional impactful result. But, if you’re feeling like something is missing from your VR experience, then identifying your target emotion, and experimenting with the self, the world, and “others” towards that target might raise some interesting questions...

  • How do you want players to feel about themselves?

  • How does the virtual world support or challenge that?

  • How do you want the player to interact with and react to the virtual world?

  • What sort of connections do you want to foster?

  • Who might the player bond with, or experience each other? And how?

As always, we hope this has been a helpful dive into a new design principle for you! If you’re like us, your brain is buzzing with the myriad possibilities that VR offers for emotional experiences if you are, hop over to the Archiact Discord and let us know!


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