Triggering emotions in virtual reality with Frima Studio's Fated

Triggering emotions in virtual reality with Frima Studio's Fated
James Batchelor

By James Batchelor

April 25th 2016 at 11:44AM

Executive producer Vincent Martel tells us how the developer is targeting compassion from its players

Video game storytelling is slowly but surely getting better, with titles like Life is Strange and The Last of Us able to connect with audiences on a far more emotional level than games of the past.

With the immersive nature of virtual reality, developers have the potential to take this even further – something Frima Studios is attempting with Fated, a story steeped in Norse mythology and set during Ragnarok.

We spoke to the game's executive producer Vincent Martel about how the team is trying to evoke emotional reactions from players with this upcoming adventure.

What titles inspired what you’re trying to achieve in Fated?
I would put our inspirations in two categories: the type of experience we wanted to create and the story we wanted to tell.

For the experience, we knew we wanted to build something plot-driven that puts storytelling and emotions in the forefront, so games like Life Is Strange, Gone Home or any Telltale title were obviously sources of inspiration for us. 

But for me, the game that completely changed the way I look at video games was Heavy Rain – more specifically the early scene where you lose Jason in the mall. I had just become a father when I played it for the first time, and it really affected me emotionally. From that moment on, I knew I wanted to explore kinship in a future game. The parental bond and the protective instinct are the groundwork of the players’ journey in Fated.

Even though hearing music while walking in the woods is far from realistic, the brain accepts it. This is great, since everyone knows that music plays a significant role when it comes to conveying emotions.

In terms of the story, Fated is heavily based on Norse mythology, so The Prose Edda – an Icelandic book dating back to the 13th century – was a constant source of information and inspiration. The game draws profusely from it; we tried to stay as true to myth as possible, but we also wanted to give it our own spin.

Very early on, we were inspired by the Attack on Titan manga. Even before we decided to go with the Viking theme, we knew we wanted giants. Giants in VR are awesome, and I sincerely hope that someone will do a VR game about Attack on Titan.

What potential does virtual reality have to provoke an emotional response from players when compared to more traditional games?
We’ve all seen videos of people absolutely terrified while playing horror games in VR, so I think it’s safe to say that VR is a very powerful tool when it comes to triggering emotional responses. However, fear is somewhat easy to provoke compared to more complex emotions like happiness, sadness and compassion. To help us, we enlisted the help of Dr. Erik Geslin, PhD, an authority in the field of emotion induction in video games and VR, who provided us with great insight on the subject.

How can developers provoke this reaction? Where do they start?
Having a good story is obviously a must, but that’s true for every medium. What’s different about VR is the fragility of the sense of presence. When something feels awkward, off or unnatural, it makes everything less believable.

In turn, this makes it very hard to get the emotional response you’re looking for. So it’s really important to understand what works well in VR and what doesn’t, so that the feeling of presence is preserved as much as possible.

People are absolutely terrified while playing horror games in VR. But, fear is somewhat easy to provoke compared to more complex emotions like happiness, sadness and compassion.

What are the most important aspects when building the title expected to provoke an emotional response? Visuals, audio, or a mix of both? Anything else that works with these?
I don’t think that one single aspect is more important than the others. If something is off, it will have a negative impact. However, it was interesting to see that having a more cartoony art style wasn’t just helping with performance; we realised that it was a lot easier to connect with cartoony character than hyper-realistic ones. There’s something awfully unsettling about hyper-realistic character in VR. 

Something else we realised, and I think this is pretty interesting, is that even though hearing music while walking in the woods is far from realistic, the brain accepts it. This is great, since everyone knows that music plays a significant role when it comes to conveying emotions.

Empathy also plays a big part; any emotionally sane person should feel sad when they see someone crying their heart out, or scared when they see someone fleeing in terror, even if they don’t know what made them so scared. We’re wired that way, and this is something you can exploit in VR.

How important is the writing when trying to evoke emotions from players? Do you need professional writers from other mediums, or have games writers become skilled enough to accomplish this?
The writing is very important, and I definitely think that game writers are skilled enough to do it. Personally, as a gamer, I’ve bounced through a wide spectrum of emotions: I’ve cried, I’ve laughed, I’ve been angry, and so on. But that doesn’t require a game writer; even more so with VR.

I think that what gives video game writers an edge over other writers is the fact that they understand the limits and possibilities of the medium. However, VR is a whole new beast for everyone, so this isn’t necessarily the case anymore. We’re talking about a whole new playground to explore, with new limitations and possibilities. It might even be easier for writers with a background that has nothing to do with video games to adapt to this new medium.

It was a lot easier to connect with cartoony character than hyper-realistic ones. There’s something awfully unsettling about hyper-realistic character in VR. 

People react differently to various stories, moments, etc – how do you account for this when trying to create an emotional moment in your game?
We crafted a story that moved us; it might not have the same impact on everyone, but that can be said of pretty much every form of art. Different things will make us cry, different things will make us laugh. However, if the joke is well-built, you might still smile while I roll on the floor laughing, and that’s fine. What we did was try to create an experience that we would have loved to play ourselves.

How do you avoid trying too hard to evoke the reaction you’re looking for? How do you prevent your game from becoming too heavy-handed and keep it natural?
That was one of my worst fears during the entire development. We held lots of playtests, worked closely with Dr. Geslin, and made tons of iterations on the script and the game, but honestly I can’t be sure we’ve succeeded until we release the game and get feedback from the players and the press.

This article is part of our month-long Virtual Reality Special. You can find more VR content here.