For anyone who has done some research on gaming with VR systems, Beat Saber is a title that is almost impossible to miss. Officially released in 2019, the rhythm game has since accumulated great popularity, with its Steam version currently sitting at an overwhelmingly positive review with a whooping 60,924 total reviews count (as of 15th Jan 2023). Being a huge fan of all kinds of rhythm games myself, I too have tried it out myself and quickly became addicted to it too. In the following passage, I will try to explain what made Beat Saber a successful VR experience and maybe convince you to try it too.
So, what is Beat Saber?
Just as most rhythm games go, Beat Saber requires the player to follow the rhythm of a chosen piece of song, and react to the beats by swinging an imaginary lightsaber. Once the game starts and a song is selected to be played, the player is immediately immersed in a futuristic neon-lit setting. As the music starts blasting, notes represented by glowing blocks will approach the player from the front, requiring the player to swing the controller in a designated direction just as the notes reach the player. Depending on the difficulty chosen, players may also need to squat down to avoid obstacles or maintain various poses.
Adapting the pros of traditional rhythm games into virtual reality
In the world of rhythm games, a deciding factor that determines the satisfaction a player gets is the feedback provided after hitting a correct note. This feedback can appear in various forms depending on the platform of the game, and it is particularly important as it serves to ‘reward’ the player for hitting a right note. Such interactions usually happen through simulating the sense of sight and hearing, but sometimes the sense of touch is involved too. For example in the popular pc rhythm game osu!, notes glow brightly when hit at the right timing and produce a loud ‘cluck’ sound. Notes hit outside of the perfect timing window (aka a good instead of a perfect) will produce a lighter glow as well as a duller sound compared to that of a perfect hit. In the arcade rhythm game Taiko no Tatsujin, the motion of the drum stick bouncing off the drum is in itself a form of feedback through the sense of touch to the player as well.
Compared to the above titles, Beat Saber has done an equally extraordinary job in interacting with the players to provide such positive feedback. When a player hits a note at the correct timing, the glowing block will be sliced swiftly into two halves and subsequently fly over the player’s shoulders. At the same time, a clean cutting sound will be played to indicate the successful hit, further stimulating the release of dopamine. Beat Saber also enables controller vibration when encountering obstacles, which is used to provide negative feedback to the player. Given that Beat Saber is a VR title, all the gameplay happens within the front field of view of the player. Compared to a mobile rhythm game where visual feedback could be blocked by the player’s finger, a note in Beat Saber grows in size as it approaches the player’s player model and eventually takes up a significant portion of the view space. This means that any form of visual stimuli in the game is almost impossible to miss, thus greatly enhancing the intensity of interaction between the game and the player. These interactions are vital in providing positive feedback on the player’s actions and making sure that the players will continue to play the game.
Immersing in the world of music
As a game hosted on VR platforms, Beat Saber also provides a great level of immersion that allows the player to indulge in the world of rhythm and dancing beats. In order to achieve that, Beat Saber implemented a series of outstanding feature that serves to enhance immersion. Firstly, the game places significant emphasis on simplicity and reduces the instances of unnecessary information in most parts of the game. Throughout the duration of a song, the gameplay information displayed on the screen is limited to the models of the sabers, the track the notes travel on, as well as the notes/obstacles. Other than that, the only UI elements shown are the combo multiplier, the current combo, as well as the current score, and the current hp. In terms of representational fidelity, Beat Saber is highly iconic and all representations used in game are very intuitive to the player. By minimizing distractions, the player is encouraged to focus on the notes themselves while dancing to the rhythm.
Beat Saber also makes use of carefully crafted background scenes during gameplay that further enhance the level of immersion experienced by the players. Compared to the bright glowing colors of the notes and the saber, the background usually takes on a darker hue and seemingly lacks in detail. However, throughout the duration of the song, the background will also pulsate and change in color, all in sync with the tempo of the music. Even if it is just a subconscious part of the player’s view space, the background ‘breathes’ with the music and is continuously engaging with the player as well.
Areas for future improvement
As much as I would like to spend multiple hours daily on this amazing VR title, there are quite a few areas that need further improvement. Firstly, Beat Saber on higher difficulties can get very physically intensive, and it can be quite a torture to play in VR headsets that doesn’t come with in-built fans. On top of that, given the headset’s limited battery life, attaching an additional power bank is often needed in order to support longer play duration. All these add up to a decent weight that needs to be carried on the player’s head, and this can be very immersion-breaking when the player begins to experience discomfort from wearing the headset for extended durations.
Beat Saber also sets great limitations on the kind of headphones/earpiece that can be used. Bluetooth earpieces, while convenient, are horrible options due to the unbearable delay they can cause. Beat Saber’s timing window for hitting a note is speculated to be around 44ms, and Bluetooth earpiece has a much longer delay than that. While wired headsets do not have that issue, it is much more cumbersome to wear, and the wire management can get messy if not done properly. A possible improvement to this would be to add a function to detect Bluetooth delay and adjust gameplay accordingly.
Another issue with the game in its current stage is its lack of content, specifically the choices of songs. While the game regularly releases DLC packs with new songs every few months, the songs are largely limited to western pops and rocks, which is a shame for fans of J-pop and K-pop. While modding support is available, it is more troublesome to set up and maintain, and modded songs also come in varying qualities.
Overall, Beat Saber is an absolute must-get for fans of other rhythm games, as it provides a totally new and immersive experience that is different from all existing rhythm games on the market. Even for those who never played rhythm games before, Beat Saber is still worth a try as one of the best-rated VR games available. Just slide on a VR headset, and enjoy the sensory feast while dancing to the beats!
: “Beat saber on steam,” Beat Saber on Steam. [Online]. Available: https://store.steampowered.com/app/620980/Beat_Saber/. [Accessed: 17-Jan-2023].
: “Timing adjustment :: Beat saber feedback & suggestions,” Steam Community. [Online]. Available: https://steamcommunity.com/app/620980/discussions/1/1696046342863490923/?l=japanese&tscn=1553186699. [Accessed: 17-Jan-2023].