Virtual reality is, according to its fiercest proponents, the pinnacle of immersive experience. Put on the headset, block out the surroundings, and all of a sudden, just like EA Sports, you’re in the game. By blocking out your view of all the cables and screens and controllers between you and the game, VR hopes to put you more directly inside it, free from distractions and able to fully inhabit the virtual world.

In an era when developers are building more and more detailed settings, it’s a tempting proposition. It’s undoubtedly that temptation that Bethesda shrewdly tapped into when it decided to revisit Fallout 4 and Skyrim for the VR treatment, while Capcom’s choice to add optional PSVR support to Resident Evil 7 was no doubt in the hopes of amping up the immersion central to the success of any horror game.

But there’s a danger here too. Strapping someone into a headset with a couple of screens an inch from their eyes doesn’t guarantee immersion any more than going full Clockwork Orange and pinning their eyes open would. To think otherwise is to confuse immersion, the sense of paying total attention to a game, forgetting about – or even ignoring – any and all distractions, with presence, the feeling that one is within a given world.

The two are naturally linked, and are often found hand-in-hand. A first-person game like Resident Evil 7 in VR gives the player the sense that they are within the decrepit Baker household, and this might help them reach the immersive state where they can play for hours, ignoring the real world around them.

“Sink a few minutes into Tetris and you’ll find it balloon into hours, the world consumed by falling blocks and cascading lines.”

But that’s not the only route to immersion. One of the most immersive games I’ve ever played was one with no element of presence at all – sink a few minutes into Tetris and you’ll find it balloon into hours, the world consumed by falling blocks and cascading lines. Or look ahead a little to Nintendo’s upcoming Labo sets – they make no effort to put you inside a game world, but it’s easy to imagine that reeling in a cardboard fishing line or strapping into a paper robot suit could be among 2018’s most immersive highlights.

The pendulum swings both ways of course. Take last year’s Tacoma – a lavish attempt to recreate the structure of an immersive theatre experience within the virtual setting of the Tacoma space station. The vivid, detailed locale feels real, lived in, going a long way towards placing the player directly in the game’s world. Unfortunately, at the same time Tacoma’s attempts to ‘gamify’ the format, allowing players to endlessly replay the holographic messages at its heart to ‘complete’ the experience (in gaming, too often shorthand for winning) serve as a barrier to immersion. Tacoma has presence in spades, even without VR support, but that’s not enough to fully immerse the player in its experience.

That push-and-pull between game mechanics and immersion is one that the creators of Punchdrunk – the immersive theatre company openly acknowledged as a heavy influence on Tacoma – are well aware of. Artistic director Felix Barrett discussed the challenges of fusing games and theatre with Eurogamer in 2014, admitting that, “We started putting game mechanics into it, putting a square peg into a round hole, and it didn’t quite fit.” It’s not that mechanics and immersion can’t go hand-in-hand, as if that needs saying, but rather that mechanics and narrative must work in harmony, each reinforcing the other to further the immersive element.

In the case of Tacoma, as Rose Biggin notes in her book Immersive Theatre and Audience Experience, “Not being able to see everything becomes an integral part of experiencing” Punchdrunk’s most successful shows, ensuring that the created world is bigger than any individual’s experience of it. Tacoma’s, by contrast, feels small, but more problematically the player’s urge to follow every conversation branch, and scour every nook and cranny of the ship, stands in contrast to the player-character’s motivations.

While Tacoma’s plot isn’t quite one driven by urgency – you play a tech sent to the space station to retrieve its A.I. core – there’s equally a sense that you’re a woman on a mission. Each time you start dicking about replaying a recording for the umpteenth time to make sure you’ve caught every second of every character’s arc, your behaviour becomes more and more at odds with the narrative – in turn threatening your immersion. Of course that’s hardly a problem unique to Tacoma, and in a sense it’s a mild expression of it – you’re not stopping to find your 149th collectible vase when you’re supposed to be saving the world or anything – but for a game that strains so hard to draw the player into the world, it can still be a jarring of the gameyness of it all.

“It took a fake steering wheel and a plastic headset strapped to my face, but for a few minutes I was driving a fucking Mustang round a race track.”

It’s there that the focus for VR has to lie: not in creating beautiful, believable, lived-in worlds, but in making you forget that it’s all in service of yet another videogame. The spur for this article in part was getting the chance to play Gran Turismo Sport in PSVR using an embarrassingly expensive steering wheel setup. As someone who is decidedly Not Into racing games and has historically steered (heh) clear of the uber-accurate sim end of the genre, this was a bit of a revelation. Yes, it took a fake steering wheel worth more than some cars and a plastic headset strapped to my face, but for a few minutes I was driving a fucking Mustang round a race track. The game elements dropped out almost entirely – I was just there, braking and steering and skidding and eventually actually turning proper corners like a proper driver and everything.

Candid photo of the author hard at work

“The immersion comes shattering down every time you realise you can’t actually do anything.”

This stood in stark contrast to one of my other early PSVR experiences, the simplistic cage dive simulator Ocean Descent that’s part of the VR Worlds bundle. Now, to be fair to Ocean Descent, it never really aspired to be much more than a simple, mostly passive simulator, a chance to see some fish swim around you and then get scared a bit by a shark. But it still feels significant that this is a computer generated, seemingly game-like experience, and not just a VR film – because as successfully as Ocean Descent creates a sense of presence underwater, the immersion comes shattering down every time you realise you can’t actually do anything. Whenever you want to reply to one of the voices coming in over the radio, back away from the edge of the cage, or even swat out at the shark, you just can’t. As simple as the game’s mechanics are – worlds away from the challenging complexity of Gran Turismo – they’re enough to jar me out of the experience. Once again mechanics – or in this case, the lack thereof – jostle uncomfortably with the narrative, and immersion is the victim. No number of lavishly detailed clownfish can save Ocean Descent, make it feel any more real, draw the player in any further – the issues lies with the basic mechanics of the game, not the otherwise immaculate virtual world.

The contrast is drawn even more sharply in a more recent release, The Inpatient, a prequel spin-off to the mostly excellent choose-your-own-horror PS4 title Until Dawn. It’s a telling example in part because structurally the two games share a lot – their ‘butterfly effect’ storytelling mechanic, common geographical setting, and use of frequently clunky motion controls – but despite being a PSVR exclusive, The Inpatient isn’t any more immersive – and at times in fact feels less so.

Until Dawn has its flaws, but it almost perfectly captures the tone and feel of the slasher film, with mechanics built around the frantic decision making and desperate improvisation survivors rely on.. Not only does The Inpatient less comfortably fit a genre – part trippy nightmare, part reality questioning, part monster movie – but the VR gameplay mechanics sit at odds with the genre. You’re being chased by terrifying monsters, and there’s a desperate rush to get where you need to be, so you’d better run! – except running in VR makes people feel sick, so you can’t run, you can only stroll through this decrepit, overrun mental asylum as you feel the horror drain away. Throw in voice inputs that only sometimes work and janky motion controls that somehow only feel jankier in VR, and it’s hard not to feel that The Inpatient would have been far more immersive if it had left the headset at home.

It probably bears repeating that I’m well aware these aren’t new problems. Ever since games started trying to tell serious stories, they’ve stood at odds with their own mechanics in uncomfortable ways. The Tomb Raider reboot nearly undid it’s rise-of-a-hero narrative with the mountain of bodies she left in her wake, and who hasn’t played an RPG where they’ve put off saving the world to close up a couple side quests and grind some mobs first? In fact it’s vital to remember that these problems are old, and deep-seated, and maybe fundamental to the nature of games – because that’s precisely why virtual reality won’t do a damn thing to solve them.

Putting Skyrim into VR could help the player feel a part of that world, help them imagine swinging that sword and climbing those mountains. But the moment they stop exploring to start repetitively crafting armour to up their stats, the fact that they’re wearing a silly headset won’t do anything to keep them in that world.

And besides all that, more VR devs could do with remembering that immersion isn’t the be-all and end-all for games. Not every game could – or should – deliver it, and sometimes it’s okay that a game doesn’t try to draw you headfirst into it. Maybe some games work better at arm’s length anyway, even if the screens are an awful lot closer.