It's incredibly easy to trick the brain about your body. Which is why, for me, the most memorable thing about playing Alien Isolation's VR Demo was suddenly finding myself in the body of a tiny woman.
It's due to an effect called Neuroplasticity which is usually associated with fairly major changes in the human body but can create some interesting effects with very little effort:
So, while overall my experiences of playing the game were excellent (it's fantastically atmospheric in VR), my main and overriding memory was putting on the headset, looking down and thinking 'Oh, hey: boobs'.
I've been told to not play on the boobs thing too much in case it reduces the experience of being Amanda Ripley to a set of breasts. I don't mean to degrade or belittle either the character or the game. It's just that as a man I'm used to having fairly unrestricted visual access to my feet and as soon as I glanced down it was hard to miss the new contours.
I was using a Rift with full head tracking as well so every tilt and turn was mirrored perfectly, reinforcing the illusion of my new body. The more I moved around the more what I was looking at became mine. The clever use of the motion tracker only reinforced the idea I was in the body of a petite woman with such fragile looking wrists: in the normal game pressing a bumper pulls the device up into your field of view. In the VR version Amanda simply raises her arm, leaving you to glance down at the tracker in your hand. A hand attached to an arm that, if you follow it along, apparently leads to your shoulder. Again, the head tracking meant that every tilt of my head was matched in game as I analysed this new limb.
I was starting to feel smaller.
The idea of using Oculus Rift to swap bodies isn't new, as this NSFW video from the The Machine To Be Another project shows:
This was my first experience that came close to recreating the illusion and even without any touching, the exact mapping of real world to game motion was enough to get the sense that my body was what I was looking at, not what it was. Until now my time in VR has mainly been in tech demos with a limited physical presence. This, on the other, hand looks lovely. I'd have been impressed even if my view had been from a floating camera - I lost a good few minutes just looking at the pipes on the wall and soaking up the ambience of the damp metal corridors. All the while getting used to my smaller frame.
The real kicker though was finally being caught by the alien - watching its tail bursting from 'my' stomach has to be one of the most intensely surreal things I've experienced in a while. Even though I knew it wasn't real I still caught my breath, and I still patted my own body for reassurance (almost without realising).
Part of the effectiveness of this illusion might be due to the collaboration between Creative Assembly and the Oculus team. Alistair Hope, the game's creative director, says that most of the changes between the main game and the VR demo were "really subtle things", mainly involving using Oculus' experience to "make some very subtle tweaks to the view".
Having only spent about 15 minutes playing the tech demo (a three minute time trial that sees you trying to reach an exit against the clock with the alien in pursuit) I was fascinated by the effect and what it might be like to spend longer in other bodies - nDreams, the developer behind Rift game The Assembly, has already spoken to me about deliberately creating two different sized characters to intentionally play with the idea of inhabiting noticeably different bodies.
Unfortunately Hope did dampen any ideas of a longer experience with a Virtual Reality Alien Isolation, saying the demo was just "a prototype" (reiterating a previous tweet that no full VR version of the game was in development). He added, "I think we need to go back to the studio and figure out what to do". When I pushed about whether the team had tried Sony's Project Morpheus there was an awkward pause, a slightly exasperated sigh and a cookie cutter response: "This is our prototype and it's just a really exciting time to be making games whatever platforms". (Sorry Al but I had to ask.)
While this might be the beginning and the end of 'being' Amanda Ripley, it's left me wondering what the experience of inhabiting other bodies might be like and how gaming could manipulate it. To reiterate, there is science behind this:
Slightly crazy science, admittedly, but the above experiment states that: "Manipulation of the visual perspective, in combination with the receipt of correlated multisensory information from the body was sufficient to trigger the illusion that another person's body or an artificial body was one's own". Basically, it doesn't take much to trigger the "perceptual illusion of body swapping" and it could be an amazing new idea for developers to play with.
This post originally appeared on Kotaku UK, bringing you original reporting, game culture and humour with a U from the British isles.