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an ancient-looking box sits on a table in The Room VR: A Dark Matter

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Remembering the time I slapped my own forehead in VR

The Room VR, and the art of getting players unstuck

Image source: Fireproof Games

I slapped my own forehead when I finally solved the puzzle that had kept me stuck for the past hour, and was shocked when my hand smacked into a VR headset, snapping my head backward. It’s really hard to facepalm when a chunk of technology is strapped to your face, it turns out.

I wasn’t even that far in The Room VR: A Dark Matter, the latest in a series of puzzle games that found its most notable successes as premium mobile titles.

Being stuck on a puzzle in a VR game in general presents its own challenges. Unlike with a game played on a standard display, I couldn’t look away from the world to refocus my thoughts. I was there, in that room, trying to open a safe, without knowing what to do next. This is the experience the developers of the game intended for me.

“There is the whole thing about getting stuck — as a designer your instinct is that it’s bad and that you should change the thing that caught the player out and make it easier,” Mark Hamilton, creative director at Fireproof Games, told me. “But getting stuck and unsticking yourself is the most satisfying bit of the game, so we have to be careful not to smooth out too many of the bumps.”

Managing those moments between breakthroughs in VR is a new skill — the game’s design has evolved dramatically from its origins on mobile devices, although this VR sequel still “feels” like a proper release in the series. You can watch a trailer from the very first game below, back when solving eldritch puzzles on a touchscreen device was still a novelty.

A lot has changed since then, but the design lessons learned still apply in VR.

What changes when you’re in the puzzle

The previous Room games were already designed to be played outside of the home, which made a few things easier. You can’t take out a piece of paper and a pen to make notes in VR, for instance, but the designers of The Room games never wanted to create any puzzles that required doing so. Keeping the player inside the world was always a priority, even when those players were looking at the game’s world through a small screen during their commute.

“We had to assume you were playing the game on the train or somewhere else where note taking would be inconvenient, so we try to avoid puzzles where you had to memorize too much information,” Hamilton explained. “We would never want someone to feel the need to step out of the game.”

So that’s the good news about bringing The Room to VR. The hard part is just about everything else.

The original games were ostensibly shown through the eyes of the player themselves, as they manipulated arcane objects that quickly revealed themselves to be downright magical, both literally and figuratively. But on a phone, the developers can move the player’s view however they’d like, at any moment.

Doing the same thing in VR, however, can literally make the player sick. There is no “camera” showing what’s going on — just the player’s eyes. And the player always has to be in control of where they are looking.

“We used to be able to take control of the camera away from the player to turn it and show them what the switch they just flicked actually did,” Hamilton said. “In VR, the player’s head is the camera and they get really unhappy (nauseous) if you try to take control, if they aren’t looking in the right direction, they will have no clue what the switch did!”

How do you solve this problem? Welcome to the challenges of making a sequel to games players already love, in a format with very different rules.

“We had to do so much work on just leading the [player’s] eye, and making them want to look in a certain direction, so they knew what was going on,” Hamilton said. The solution to the problem involves everything from sound design to lighting effects to ... well, I don’t want to give anything away. But I’m quickly learning that The Room VR requires me to think about everything from physical space to relative size in some very interesting ways.

The team at Fireproof also quickly learned that the game needed to be bigger, and each puzzle had to take place in a larger “physical” space. Despite being called The Room, many of the series’ original puzzles were focused around a single object, like a puzzle box. But that approach was a poor fit for VR.

“Small puzzles don’t work — we were used to cramming a whole bunch of puzzles onto a small box and then just zooming the camera in until they fill the screen you are playing on, this doesn’t work when your face is the camera, everything is a certain size and there is nothing we can do about it,” Hamilton said. “We had to scale things up a bit to make them feel good to manipulate. And that meant that we couldn’t fit loads of puzzles into individual objects, they had to be spread out a bit more.”

There are clues as well, although you need to wait for the timer to run out before accessing the next one — it’s important to at least try to solve each puzzle for yourself, after all — and those clues are designed not to just to keep people moving, but also to teach them the logic of the game.

“When people are stuck, when they don’t know what to do next, there are two possible reasons: they haven’t figured something out, or we haven’t communicated their objective clearly enough,” Hamilton said. “We try to make sure it’s the former, so that if they have to resort to a hint they don’t feel like we cheated them, by asking them to do something they would never have figured out on their own.”

Instead, the hope is that players will get a sense of what to look for, or at least what to look at, with each clue. And then they may spend more time working on possible solutions before turning to the game itself for advice.

The importance of slowing down, of allowing the player to be stuck, is also why Fireproof doesn’t like to watch people when the game is being play-tested.

“We try to get it in front of as many people as possible, but we tend to not observe them playing as people don’t play properly when they know they are being watched,” Hamilton told Polygon. “It makes them rush through the game rather than take their time and they get stuck more than they would if left to their own devices.”

The answer is always right there, somewhere, even if you can’t see it at first. The rooms are bigger, you’re inside the puzzles instead of looking at them through a screen, and there are more places to find clues. But it’s all there if you’re willing to slow down, give yourself the time, and really think about what you have to do next.

Which is why I nearly slapped the Oculus Quest off my own head when I finally saw what I had originally missed. I’m not going to ruin it for you, but I was overthinking in the most ridiculous way possible a very basic “code” in the opening hour of the game, and everything clicked into place when I took another pass at the area that was stumping me. I had gotten so wrapped up in exploring the room and digging for ciphers that didn’t exist. It had always been right there, however. I just had to look with better eyes.

I learned a little bit about patience, and about how to be present in a virtual environment until I understood its own skewed sense of logic and pacing.

That has always been the magic of The Room, and I felt like I had finally gotten my ultimate wish for the series. I was no longer just playing a new Room game; I was inside one. And that’s exactly where I had always wanted to be. The only change I had to make was learning to slow down.

The Room VR: A Dark Matter will be released March 26 on PlayStation VR, Oculus Quest, Oculus Rift, Oculus Rift S, Valve Index, Vive Cosmos, HTC Vive, and Windows Mixed Reality headsets.

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