VR helped me grasp the life of a transgender wheelchair user

'The Circle' uses VR's strengths and weaknesses to help you be someone else.

Playing The Circle is quite literally a transformative experience. Designed by Manos Agianniotakis, a student at the National Film and Television School (NFTS) in Buckinghamshire, England, it's a game that uses the Oculus Rift and Touch controllers to put you in the body of a wheelchair user suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

In The Circle, you play as a Alex, a transgender woman who is attacked and ends up in a wheelchair. The game picks up Alex's story around a month after the incident. She's out of the hospital, but traumatized and unable to leave her apartment. Isolated and withdrawn, her relationships with friends and family, many of whom are unaware of the transphobic nature of the attack, are strained. She begins reading her father's diaries, and becomes obsessed with a subject he was fascinated with toward the end of his life: Toynbee Tiles, mysterious plaques that are placed around North America.

Almost all of the game takes place in Alex's apartment, viewed from a first-person perspective. You'll spend much of your time at her desk, where you can interact with all the surrounding objects -- chief among them a computer. You use this computer to investigate the aforementioned tiles, digging into the conspiracy theories that surround them. But it's around the fringes of this "central" plot that the real meat of this game lies, where you'll be able to dig into Alex's condition and rebuild relationships with Alex's loved ones.

What you do with your time inside Alex's body is up to you. Agianniotakis describes The Circle as "the smallest narrative sandbox." The game runs the course of a year, during which the narrative unfolds organically. Alex is a fully shaped character, so you can't exactly dictate what she does, but many interactions are optional. You can't decide, for example, how exactly to respond to an email from Alex's mother, but you can choose whether or not to respond to it -- or even whether you want to read the email in the first place.

How you choose to spend your time in the game will dictate how well you understand Alex and her troubles. You can pursue the Toynbee Tile mystery resolutely, ignoring the realities of PTSD and hiding from your family as best you can; you can reach out to your concerned loved ones and try to repair those broken bonds; or anything in between.

As interesting as the narrative sandbox is, it isn't what made the game special for me. Instead, it's the way Agianniotakis uses VR's strengths and weaknesses to help you embody Alex, and understand her frustrations and feelings. One example in the demo I played at the EGX game show was a phone call Alex received.

Or rather, didn't receive. You play the game seated, and at one point a phone begins to ring. Using 3D audio effects, it's easy to locate the phone: on the floor, just to your right. Retrieving the handset is impossible, though. It's carefully positioned to be just out of your grasp, no matter how hard you try to lean and reach, and the call goes to voicemail. Alex's mother's voice plays. She's worried.

Another, more subtle, tactic employs one of VR's long-perceived weaknesses: inducing motion sickness. The game is punctuated by dream sequences, panic attacks and memories, in which Alex moves on a guided path through abstract vignettes related to her trauma. One such scene tackles her ongoing gender dysphoria. Shown from a third-person perspective, it sees Alex walk past silhouettes in a public bathroom -- often a fraught place for a trans person to be.

During the sequence, I felt lightheaded, and a little uneasy. It wasn't just from the challenging narrative, Agianniotakis explained: "I'm using the discomfort that virtual reality can cause with movement to force the player to almost feel a discomfort with their own body," he said. The scene isn't noticeably jerky, it's just ... different. And the choice is deliberate. "It doesn't make you sick, but I want people to have a slight physical side effect when they play through it, without making it extremely uncomfortable, of course, to create the notion that you're almost not part of your own body," he added.

I've felt sick during VR sessions before -- especially in the early days of bootstrapped development kits -- and this wasn't that. At no point did I feel compelled to take off the headset, nor did I actually worry about vomiting. Whether it was playing at a different framerate or something to do with movement speed, it led to a gentle feeling of disquiet that made for a more poignant experience.

Agianniotakis is clearly working hard to build The Circle as a carefully considered, almost educational experience. But he has no first-hand knowledge of being either transgender or a wheelchair user. Instead, he, writer Jess O'Kane and producer Ser En Low have relied on extensive research, both passively through reading studies and other material, and actively by getting feedback from trans people and people living with disability.

"The trans people I've been able to speak to are not gamers, and have difficulty giving feedback about it as a game," Agianniotakis explained, "but they were able to speak to the representation as a whole and explain some of the feelings that come with gender dysphoria."

Through one of the game's public showings, he met a small group of trans people from Manchester, England, who are ardent gamers. He hopes to convene with them again to further develop and hone the experience. The response from wheelchair users has also been positive, Agianniotakis said, but one of the strongest reactions actually came from the adolescent sibling of a wheelchair user, who found it enlightening to experience life, however briefly, from something closer to his brother's perspective.

Exploring mental health is not a new topic for Agianniotakis. He previously produced the interactive story An Interview, a reimagining of the play Fake It 'Til You Make It, which focuses on male clinical depression. "My father suffered from depression and anxiety throughout his life," he explained. "Investigating certain conditions helped me understand better the world he lived in. ... Mental health is an everyday, often misrepresented, reality for way too many people to be ignored." Taking priority over game development is Agianniotakis' MA dissertation at NFTS on the depiction of mental health in video games.

The 15-minute slice of The Circle I played was powerful and left me wanting more. I felt hints of transference (in this context, the feeling that you are someone else). I've experienced transference before through VR, but that was through a psychological experiment that essentially tricked multiple senses in a way that you just can't do with a regular Oculus Rift or HTC Vive setup. I can see myself, in a quiet room at home, enthralled for the hour or so it'll take to play through one of its many paths.

That's why The Circle excites me. Its primary goal is to make you lose yourself; to help you understand what it feels like to be wheelchair bound; to be traumatized or to suffer from gender dysphoria. And even in a busy, noisy demo area, full of shouting gamers and announcements, even with just 15 minutes, I started to understand, and to empathize. There can be no stronger praise.

Agianniotakis hopes The Circle will be ready by fall 2017, but will be demoing the game at various game shows in the meantime. The next public event scheduled is Develop:VR on Nov. 24th in London.