This wasn't how it was supposed to go. I was standing on a junkyard hovercraft, pointing my revolver at the young lady floating on the adjacent skiff. She was my enemy, but I couldn't pull the trigger. Her hand hovered between us, waving back and forth in the universal sign for "stop." Her gun aimed away from me, its barrel touching her temple. I lowered my weapon. She pulled the trigger anyway. In the world of Hover Junkers, a virtual reality game where scavengers wage war over scrap metal and resources, I was a killer -- that's my role -- but nobody ever said anything about suicide.
"That was not okay," I yelled, perhaps a little too loudly for close-quarter demo rooms at Valve's SteamVR Developer showcase. The incident left me a bit shaken. I was used to facing violent madness in online mulitplayer shooters, not moral quandaries. I heard Alex Knoll, the lead designer at Stress Level Zero and the director of Hover Junkers, laugh from a nearby VR cubical. The face behind the suicide avatar and the game itself was messing with me.
Suicide isn't so much a feature in Hover Junkers as it is an option enabled by the game's virtual reality motion controls. "There isn't any real character animation in the game," Knoll told me later. "It's all driven by an IK [inverse kinematics] system that your body is controlling. You're driving a puppet... but there's still very clearly a human body controlling it," he said. "It has a 'soul.'"
That "soul" was palpable enough to get me to lower my gun and cry out in shock when I saw Knoll's avatar shoot herself. In most games, an avatar is just an empty husk going through the motions of predefined animations. But in Hover Junkers, they mimic a real player's movements. When Knoll pointed a gun at his head and motioned for me to stop, I saw through the game to the person behind it. It still looked like a video game, but it felt real. More real than any multiplayer game I'd ever played.
As I marveled at the power of body language in an online video game, Stress Level Zero's Brandon Laatsch told me that, while the ability to graphically kill yourself in the game was somewhat problematic, keeping it in seemed like a good safety lesson. "We had this moral quandary. If you pull the trigger and nothing happens it sends the wrong message, but, if you pull the trigger and something happens it also sends the wrong message. It's kind of lose / lose." Ultimately, the team decided to stay consistent with the rules posted in the in-game firing range. Specifically, he said, don't point your weapon at anything you don't intend to destroy. Gutting this basic gun-safety rule "seemed like the wrong thing to do," Laatsch explained.
Knoll doesn't normally pull the "suicide trick" on other players, but he says I'm not the first player to be surprised by the game's human element. "We've run into some people who have played it and said, 'Wow, I was uncomfortable with that in, like, a powerful way.' It quickly turns from a game to a real situation." For me, seeing recognizable human body language come through the avatar conveyed a sense of life that fundamentally altered my perception of the game world. It doesn't stop everybody from shooting a sympathetic opponent, but it sure stopped me. I'm not used to thinking about my opponents as human beings, but I think I could get used to it. If video games start feeling this real, I'll happily embrace a little hesitation in my trigger finger.