Illusory Intimacy: A Review of Virtual Reality Companionship

Rule number one? No porn.

I’ve been curious for a while about the state of the art of emotional intimacy in virtual reality. How well can VR, right now, simulate the immediate feeling of being known by someone who’s present, right there, in front of you? “Presence” might sound familiar already - it describes the sensory effect of believable VR immersion. Under ideal settings, it flips some primal switch inside our lizard brains that causes us to believe, at least in some subconscious capacity, that we exist inside the world, and the structures our eyes see are physically there. What about other people, though? What does it take to simulate not only the perception of another character’s “presence”, but a meaningful — and even intimate — connection with them?

Second rule: Obviously, the game has to be in VR.

Outside of VR, there’s no shortage of “dating sims”, and no shortage of games where the characters form emotional relationships with the player, or player character. The kind of immersion brain-trick that allows us to feel connected to these fictional, screen-bound characters requires significantly more disbelief to remain suspended to bridge the physical distance between ourselves and the world. Games such as Emily is Away simulate human connection through a medium appropriate to the computer it’s played on, requiring less suspension to believe in the connection — but there’s a distance baked into those text-only interactions, and, at least for Emily is Away in particular, that seems to be the point.

Wow! I’m sitting at a computer, typing, just like the protagonist!

I started with a third rule: whatever games I chose had to be dating sims.

I quickly realized this was a mistake.

As of October 2020, using Steam’s tag search, the results for “VR Supported” and “Dating Sim” return twenty-three results. Nearly all of them are embarrassingly trashy, sex-doll-stiff, barrel-bottom-scrapingly-bland porn games. No judgment, of course. Sifting through the detritus, however, we find exactly two games that fit — the only two games in this video where any kind of actual dating takes place. I decided I’d have to expand my criteria, and found a few other games that seemed to evoke adjacent feelings of companionship.

The detritus, fresh-scraped from the barrel-bottom. Not what we’re here for.

Now, before we get going, I need to make a few things clear:

I realized pretty quickly that anyone playing these looking for the full effect needs to consciously play along. By that, I mean you’ll have to play like a good actor and follow the script of the game, so to speak. The problem of programming a virtual character to react like a believable human being to a wide range of possible interactions at any given time is the domain of a general artificial intelligence, not a video game. Award-winning attempts, such as the legendary interactive fiction game Façade, easily fall into absurdist comedy when prodded. The barometer of quality here isn’t whether or not the characters react to whatever I do; they probably won’t. Rather, I want to judge how they react to the things I’m supposed to do. I played all of these with the intention of giving the experience a fair shot, to honestly sit with them and see how I feel.

It’s also worth mentioning that, on average, these games took an hour and a half or less to roll credits, and most of them require serious repetition to finish. Some can claim replayability, for different reasons that I’ll get into.

And finally — if you haven’t realized already — This may get creepy.

*crick* *crack*

I don’t have the cultural knowledge to pass honest judgement about exactly why some (read: all) of these virtual people look like anime school girl Barbie dolls, and I don’t know how deep into the rabbit hole you specifically go — but for me, even trying to sincerely engage with some of these, half the time I felt like Hank Hill locked in a strip club. I don’t care what kind of stuff people indulge in private, whatever kinda weird stuff you’re into, so long as it’s not affecting other real human beings — I’m into weird stuff! I get it!

But a lot of these games put the player in a position of power over a school-age girl, and for a lot of western audiences, that might color the experience.

Together VR describes itself as a “virtual reality experience that allows players to experience everyday life with Hoshihara Mei in their own private den.” It allegedly offers “couple-like interaction”, but reveals itself as a frustrating, insipid minigame collection that pits players against a bubbly young woman whose animations and voice lines become animatronically repetitive. The game’s progression forces you to bash your head against stiff controls while hearing the same set of voice lines cycled through to the point of unintentional memorization. The joyful menu music does little to prepare the player for the horror of the game’s stilted design. Trapped inside a nicely-rendered apartment straight out of a Target print ad, the player progresses through a series of domestic time loops, and escape from each requires several victories over your off-puttingly cheery virtual wife. It’s cute, at first, to watch her playful responses to your successes and failures, and the motion capture suffices, although — particularly in the agonizing rock-paper-scissors minigame, which I struggled through for a good fifteen minutes — it stopped being cute.

Have you ever played rock-paper-scissors for fifteen minutes straight? It’s horrifying. It felt an hour. It didn’t help that, if I actually played along with the kiss-reward for winning, I would often clip inside Mei’s face.

A menu? You couldn’t… use the buttons on the controller? That’s strapped to my hand?

The most cathartic part of it all, at the end, tasks you with blindly throwing books off a shelf — Mei actually reacts if you throw something at her here, but that’s more of an exception than a rule. At the end, she hugs you, and if you haven’t clipped inside her face yet, you probably will here. It’s a shame that the game can’t even get these moments of intimacy right. Awkward pantomimes of lip-pecking for every single rock-paper-scissors victory only highlight how awkward that interaction really is. Sure, there’s potential in realizing that kind of physical interaction in VR, even as one-sided as it is. Ultimately, however, what potential this game had lies under the rubble of its structure — and exceptionally doll-like expressions.

On the other hand, Spice and Wolf VR’s anime style and — likely higher production value — wasn’t nearly as off-putting. The Steam store page description reads like a manifesto: “In order to achieve our dreams of entering the 2nd dimension, we will be making the popular light novel Spice and Wolf into a VR animation! Anime will evolve from something that is “seen” to something that is “experienced”…” To their credit, what they’ve made channels that exact kind of “I want to live inside an anime” escapism into an engrossing, genuinely sweet 20-minute episode. I thought initially that I’d watch from a third-person ghost’s perspective as the two main characters, Lawrence and Holo, enter the hut — but then Laurence sat down right where I sat, and the conversation continued. It’s a subtle way of encouraging the player to feel less like an observer, and more like a character, elevating it to somewhere above an immersive theatre piece — Holo walks around and talks to Laurence/the player while he/you sit and respond. This makes it a lot easier to “play along’’ — I had a good time pretending to play Laurence, but there’s no onus on the player to perform; no dialog choices or action required to continue. The entire piece takes place in a rustic, abandoned fantasy mill, sheltering Holo and Laurence from the elements. The safety and comfort of the setting, I think, makes it significantly easier to get comfortable with the characters, and let your guard down.

Out of all of the titles I selected for this video, Spice and Wolf is the only one that I genuinely wished for more of. In Together VR, there’s a palpable, stiff distance between you and Mei, but here, Holo sits next to you, gets up, walks around, climbs up, argues, laughs, sighs, manifests a mock bread shop for the sake of argument — even if the player specifically isn’t choosing what Laurence says, inhabiting him personalizes the experience. It’s easy to believe, for fun, that you’re saying Laurence’s lines, that you’re a part of the conversation. It’s a perfect conductor for self — insertion — and who wouldn’t want to insert themselves into this world? Combined with a wonderful variety of reactions — including a convincing tail-swipe across the player’s face that caught me off guard — I got quite attached to Holo. In a way, the entirely scripted scenes actually help immersion more than they hurt; adding layers of interactivity exponentially expands the ways in which players could break the experience, or see the matrix, so to speak. The secondary Interaction mode validates this. You can touch fluffy tail, and pantomime headpats, but the tasks you’re given to accomplish — find coins, check off these boxes — reveal an inverse ratio of game-ness to real-ness. Repetition creeps in here, and the novelty wears quickly, but not until after you get to pet the fox lady.

Repetition, unfortunately, remains a central pillar of Fate: Grand Order VR, a short-form Playstation VR experience that, as someone with zero familiarity with the source material, raised a lot of questions, which I’m sure I’m not the first to ask.

Why do these girls call me “Master”?

What’s a servant?

Are we in school?

Why does the English dub still use the word “Senpai”?

Clearly, I’m asking the wrong questions, and that’s honestly okay. It’s easy to handwave all this stuff as “oh, it’s just anime” — and I did go out of my way to figure out the answers afterwards — but it’s goofy as hell. I’ll keep a rhetorical space open for people with a sincere connection to these characters; I love many JRPGs, and I understand how spending a lot of time with even the more strangely or awkwardly written characters can engender an odd fondness.

Even through the goofy translation, Grandia poked at my heart.

Awkward otaku pandering aside, the most effective moments for me were the briefly intimate ones. When the game isn’t laying on innuendo with all the subtlety of a giant sword-laser, there’s a few designed moments that actually got me. After a call to action, the character Mash turns to you and grabs you by the arm, beginning to pull you forward as the screen fades to white. A well-timed, gentle controller rumble sells this animation, providing just enough stimulation to — for a moment — create some simulacrum of touch. My first time through, I actually instinctually looked down for a moment.

After going through her ten-minute experience three times, a new one unlocks, with a different character. She still calls you “Master”, and she’s just as confused about the game’s contrivances as you, though before the Goofy Stuff really gets going, she sits next to you on the bed to show you something — and sits just far away enough that you have to lean over slightly to see it well. It physically engages you in a way that makes logical sense and brings you closer to her, but you’re in no danger of clipping into her face. When you get closer, you can read the map she’s holding, but you also notice new detail — the painted fingernails of her hand, the texture on the map coming into relief.

When we’re close to people, we notice things that we didn’t notice before, and those details stay with us, inextricably impressed in a moment of sense memory. Even in the context of this absurd fan service for a series I have no connection to, as strange as it sounds, I still remember her painted fingernails, and the sound of the wind.

It doesn’t hurt that the screen actually fades out if you *do* clip into her face.

The other Playstation VR title I chose stands as a flagship for the device, at least overseas. Summer Lesson comprises a series of simulation games where you, a private tutor, alternate between two locations: a peaceful empty cafe by the sea, where you answer text messages and plan lessons, and sessions with your students, where you have to guess the correct options to maximize your lesson’s potential. Each game contains a week’s worth of lessons with a different similarly-aged student, and the only one I could reasonably get my hands on (the combo pack is >100$ USD from PlayAsia!!) was the Hikari Miyamoto version.

Is this what teachers see when they’re in class?

As a character, she’s pretty standard — run down the list of adults-writing-a-high-schooler-tropes — but graphically, Hikari remains the most realistic human I’ve seen in these games so far. In nearly all of the others, the scale seems off somehow, like these people have shrunk, slightly — which doesn’t help the creepy-doll feeling. Hikari doesn’t feel like a doll, although there’s other facets of the experience that might raise red flags for some people. Your first meeting with her is a surprise — for her. She doesn’t know you’re in her room, and gets scared when she sees you. She warms up to you quickly, of course. Some of the things you can ask her about later seem way over the line, and off topic. Optional “Lucky” items can trigger intimate, interactive situations, some wholesome, some less so.

You know, normal things to ask a high schooler under your tutelage. None of these make sense in context, either.

I don’t mean to get too puritanical about all of this, so I’ll quit it with the hand-wringing.

Clearly, a wider overseas audience exists for this, and like I said earlier, it doesn’t really hurt anyone. The moral / sociological stuff here isn’t what I’m specifically digging into — I’m mainly focusing on the design here. I only bring it up because it might put some people off. For now, back to the game.

If I had to describe Summer Lesson purely through comparisons to other media, I’d call it a “Groundhog Day Pygmalion Simulator” — tasked with teaching this girl, you mold her stats through your choices to pass a test at the end of the week, after which you can start again from day one. If you don’t get seriously lucky, you’ll fail your first time through, and have to endure a pretty depressing series of phone calls with her and your supervisor. It’s hard not to feel like you’ve somehow failed her, even though the systems of the game itself conspire against you. This, I suppose, is the hook — your own skill at teaching increases with each lesson you give, and these stats carry over into each new week of lessons, along with your knowledge about which arbitrary choice provides the best results.

In fact, emotions lay thick over many conversations — an honest, therapeutic emotional core hums quietly at the bottom of this game, even through its questionable thematic bent. You can feel it in the choice-based text conversations between you and your student, which give shape to their personality — and, thus, humanity — between relatively repetitive sessions. You can see it in the meditative fireworks scene, triggered by a “lucky” item, where you light sparklers together before quietly sitting with Hikari, watching the fireworks in the distance, across the bay.

The final, and most mechanically inventive, game on the list, FOCUS on YOU gives players a meaningful creative tool to bond with its virtual human. The player character, a senior in high school, meets Yua, a junior, who reveals her interest in modeling for your photos after a chance encounter in a park. In between visual-novel-style scenes with basic dialogue choices selected via pointer-menu or limited voice input, you get to take pictures of her. These scenes — relative to the rest of the games I’ve covered — came off tastefully. The thoughtfully composed and beautifully lit locations provide plenty of opportunities to take creative license, and Yua even accepts some limited direction from the player. Evoking creativity is a shortcut to imagination, and coaxing out that imagination in a wholesome romantic context puts the player at ease, further bridging the mental gap of believability. I particularly enjoyed the idea of getting to choose which of these photos I would frame as a gift — even though I knew it definitely didn’t matter. Giving creative control creates opportunities to develop personal attachment, even if it’s ultimately up to the player to take those opportunities seriously.

Look at how the light cascades over the lockers! Oh man.

Where other titles on the list insist on re-running certain moments in time, FOCUS on YOU contains a meaningful emotional arc, and a logical progression of events from beginning to end, laid out over the hour-plus running time. In the words of the Steam store page, through playing the game, we are to “Recall the memories of your beautiful first love”. I cannot speak for everyone’s first love, and neither can Smilegate Entertainment, the developers of FOCUS on YOU; but I see what they’re getting at. Yua’s character design isn’t as eerie as, say, Mei from Together VR, but still reads like a wide-eyed caricature of a young lover. The emotional arc stays unabashedly adolescent, the troubles our characters face comedic luxuries compared to adult reality. My eyes rolled into the back of my head when, after riding a yacht to a private island during a school trip, Yua cried about transferring to a school an hour away. That was about as long as my commute to work most days for two years.

But I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t feel, at least in some part, the escapist pull of the experience. To so boldly contrive this admittedly shallow nostalgia therapy requires a confidence that I can’t help but admire.

I don’t say that to condescend to these games. I’ve done enough of that.

Maybe I’m taking this stuff too seriously, but I see honest potential in here beyond questionable relationships with paper-thin teenagers. I’m sincerely curious about what makes these things tick, so, after emerging from the rabbit hole, I’ve grasped an idea of what works well, with existing headsets, right now.

Want to create intimate moments? Catch the player off guard.

Get close, but not too close. Little sensory nudges — a haptic controller rumble, an audio-visual poke — work better than protracted moments of touch. Extended contact quickly feels fake; brief surprises leave less room for interpretation, and more fuel for imagination. The sensation of simply being with someone can go a long way — humans can get a lot out of just sitting next to each other and saying nothing, especially in the right environment. It’s no coincidence that all of these games exclusively feature clean, bright, colorful, relaxing settings, as well as appropriate audio ambience: the gust of a sea breeze, the patter of rain on a roof, the percussion of distant fireworks all give the player more of a world to immerse themselves in — and once you’ve got them in the world, you can give them someone to experience it with.

A phone call, text conversation, or other secondary communication helps players perceive the object-permanence of the character’s humanity.

Giving them at least an implied existence outside of the player’s immediate vicinity makes them that much more of a person with their own agency, thoughts, and life outside the player’s time with them. Holding a phone in VR is itself sort of an intimate act — provided it doesn’t become a chore, bringing a character’s voice close to the player, through a device more physically tangible, feels real.

Earlier, I sloppily constructed a point about the inverse scale of “game-ness to real-ness”: the idea being, the more game mechanics you noticeably tie to interactions with characters, the more they feel like part of the game. If you explicitly tie in all these different systems to what the character says and does, players will see the character themselves as a mechanical piece, a feedback device, as opposed to a person with thoughts and feelings.

I’ve made plenty of snide comments about how some of these games are written: charitably, I could call it wish fulfillment.

I could dream verbally about how wonderful it would be to spend time with a more adult character with more depth, in a situation with more gravitas.

I could tell you about the worlds I imagine: sitting around a campfire, bonding with an experienced huntress in the middle of a vast wilderness, an air-taxi driver in a dystopian city conversing with their clients during rides.

I could spend time wondering about the kind of people who these experiences are targeted at, I could make snap judgments about their character. I could look at the Steam reviews and YouTube comments, and point out off-color remarks, or single out the people who claim to find solace in these flimsy pastel distractions as weird, or somehow lesser, for turning to (what will later seem) primitive virtual reality simulations. I didn’t go into these intending to make anyone feel lesser for enjoying them. It doesn’t seem wrong or strange to me that people — especially right now — might turn to these as therapy, or for entertainment, and I don’t see anything like it serving as a complete replacement for meaningful, sincere human connection, so much as a supplement for lack of it.

I’ve been habitually antisocial out of fear for most of my life. I understand the loneliness of living in a mega-city and working a miserable job. I know what it’s like to be trapped by circumstance living with my parents in my twenties, withdrawn into myself out of shame. I’ve spent the last six months of my life sitting in front of a computer, or a television, almost exclusively. Even as lacking as these games might be, I understand the use-case. I want to see what’s possible.

There is no replacement for the feeling of being with someone you love. But for those of us sitting next to no-one, maybe, this can help.

Thank you so much for reading.

I’m committing to posting an essay/video every two weeks from now on.

This piece also appears as a video essay on my YouTube channel here.

You can follow me on Twitter @neuroshmancer.

Writer and designer of virtual worlds, games, and interfaces. (Also a professional voice actor!)

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