In the past, I've expressed a healthy amount of scepticism about VR. In 20 minutes, Valve's VR demo sold me on the concept. Mostly.
I was there.
One second, I was in a small, bland cubicle room with a Valve employee and his good friend, a shelf, and the next I was in a pristine white cyberscape that looked like something out of Assassin's Creed. "Wow," I said while looking around and examining my "hands", aka two thin, only slightly awkward controllers with Steam controller-like touchpads and side buttons to simulate gripping. I pressed down one of the touchpads, and it produced a balloon. Again. Another. Then I stepped forward and thwacked the balloons into each other.
Moving forward with my own legs and thwacking balloons with my own hands — that made all the difference. And if I ever got too close to a wall, a helpful blue hue would appear — in addition to a square blue outline of my play space that was visible at most times. Functionally speaking, I was never in danger of ramming face-first into cold reality. There are cool ways to break your nose (punk shows, winning a fight, becoming champion of the consenual nose-breaking league), but disastrously stumbling in VR isn't one of them.
More balloons, more thwacking. Soon, I was giggling like a child in a human suffering factory, like a laugh track in the realm of infinite sitcoms. I must've looked like an idiot to that Valve employee, but I was already so far gone that I didn't care. It barely even occured to me to be embarassed.
Then the first real demo started.
A Whale of a Time
I was there.
Underwater, on the deck of a sunken ship. I looked up and saw a sky of sea, slim shafts of light diffusing into rippling stars. There were fish all around me. One got a little too close to taking a detour through my eye socket, so I swatted at it. It quickly darted out of the way. Then I waved my hands at other schools of fish, and they did the same.
I also tried to make another balloon, but that didn't work anymore.
Suddenly, a shadow overhead. A big ol' blue whale swam into view. Before long, it was right alongside the ship. Being a Man Who Was Raised In A Forest By Video Games (and also kind of a jerk), I reached out and tried to poke its eye. It didn't react, unfortunately, but it was probably for the better. Getting attacked by whales is rarely a good thing.
The sense of scale in the demo was immense. And again, being able to walk, to reach out and touch some of it, made everything that much more impressive. That said, I began to notice a couple things: 1) touching something and receiving only a small rumble of feedback or, worse, nothing felt downright strange. I felt like a ghost, and not the cool kind that can materialise at will. 2) The VR system's wire (which was plugged into a nearby PC) occasionally tangled around my foot or slipped awkwardly across my leg. I never tripped or fell or anything like that, but it was immersion-breaking, to say the least.
I was there.
A cartoony kitchen, one from a game called Job Simulator. This time I had hands — actual ones, not just outlines of my controllers — and I immediately grabbed an egg and hurled it at a wall. It cracked to reveal a comically perfect cartoon yolk, and that's when I realised this was a "simulator" (ala Goat Simulator) not a simulator (ala Farming Simulator). Grabbing stuff felt nice, though — almost natural thanks to the VR controller's side grips. I squeezed them, and my in-game hand squeezed items. Natural, intuitive.
The demo was brief, and I mostly spent it hurling more things at walls. I did manage to make one dish, though. I crammed a bunch of vegetables and an entire salt shaker into a pot and — tah-dah — it magically turned into a can of soup. "Just like mum used to make," the instruction-giving voice said enthusiastically.
Job Simulator will have other jobs, but this one in particular didn't require me to move around much. I mean, I had to walk over to a refrigerator for more ingredients, but I managed to avoid the VR system's cord for the most part. Still, I noticed a funny thing starting to happen: I was aware of the cord at all times. It was like having an entirely useless phantom limb. My mental map of my surroundings always included the cord. It was an extension of myself, and not one that I particularly liked having around.
Powered By Google
I was there.
San Francisco — which is, admittedly, where I already was in real life — except I was a fucking giant. This demo, powered by Google Maps, let me walk around a miniaturized version of the city like some kind of ghostly Godzilla. "Because it uses Google," said the Valve employee, "it will update to reflect real world changes." "You mean like displaying all the people screaming while a monster rampages through their city?" I asked. Then everybody laughed and YOU HAD TO BE THERE, OK?
It was legitimately breathtaking, though, having this demigod's-eye view of the city I live in. If I peered out far enough — past the Bay Bridge, past miles and miles of water — I could nearly see the curvature of Earth. For once, VR wasn't making me feel small. I dwarfed my surroundings. I could kneel down and see the street, look into windows (though not really see through them), and explore at my leisure.
Passing right through buildings felt strange, though. This sort of VR, I worry, might be like walking around in a fine China shop; look but don't touch, or else the illusion will shatter. Then again, I would also kill (or at least send a sternly worded petition) for a game where I could be an actual giant monster rampaging through real-world cities, knocking down buildings instead of passing through them. Get on that, somebody.
I was there.
In a tiny black room, all alone, save for a neon-glowing flower directly in front of me. I looked at my "hands." This time, one was a virtual painter's palette, and the other was essentially a brush. I could select colours and patterns and — here's the wild part — paint the air around me. I guided rainbows into being with my (mostly) bare hands, to which the Valve employee replied, "The more you know," because he did jokes too.
It was, again, brief, but also astoundingly cool. I'm not much of an artist, but I had so much fun making visual art magically appear right before my eyes. By the time I was done, I'd lit up my dark confines with all manner of pulsating lights, stars, and snowflakes. I was about to grafitti my name on all the "walls," but then the demo ended.
Now You're Thinking With(out) Portals
I was there.
After being bounced through all sort of wild locales and feeling — even if only for a moment — like I was actually somewhere else, there was something to be said for sweet familiarity. Aperture Science's (of Portal fame) sterile corridors were a sight for sore eyes, and yes, it was time for tests.
First I had to open a drawer. I grabbed a handle, squeezed my controller, and pulled. Again, the lack of tangibility was strange — an uncanny valley effect if ever there was one — but it worked just fine. It was the wrong drawer, said a voice over a loudspeaker. So I opened one right below it. It contained — ha-ha, very funny — a moldy piece of cake. Also, that was the wrong drawer too. Next, the final one: it contained what appeared to be a diorama of a workplace environment, with tiny silhouette people seated at tiny desks.
Until they sprang to life and started cowering in fear of me. "Oh no," said the loudspeaker voice, "they have noticed you, and now they think you're their god. Please close the drawer." I did that, and then the voice came back on. "Experiment contaminated. Incineration mode activated." I could hear muffled screams from inside the drawer and laughed — a little too loud — in spite of myself. In other words, it was all very, very Portal.
One tiny person slipped out of the drawer and began to feebly crawl away. I tried to pick him up, but no dice. "Damn these ghost hands!" I bellowed (in my mind). "All they ever do is destroy my sense of immersion."
The next bit let me interact in a big way, though. A thoroughly busted robot hobbled into the room, and I was told to fix him up. It would be cake, I was told, for anyone with tremendous knowledge in the field of machines. So... not me.
The voice told me to press a single "fix robot" button. Phew, OK. Easy enough. I did that — nearly tripping over the VR system cord while walking around the machine's massive portrusion of parts — and then a self-destruct sequence began. Of course it did. "Now simply [a nearly unintelligable mass of technical jargon]," said the loudspeaker voice, calmly. "Take your time." The self-destruct sequence was rigged to go off in 30 seconds. I was doomed. I had fun spinning all the machine parts while I waited for inevitable death, though.
Moments before The End, a wall broke down, and my little lab began to crumble away. I instinctively took a step back as the floor tiles beneath me tumbled into a terrifying abyss. Then I heard a different voice.
"Oh, it's you."
GLaDOS was hanging right in front of me, mocking and threatening me just like back in the good ol' days. Some things never change. After that she killed me. Demo over.
Later, the Valve employee explained that the goal of this demo was to create a narrative-focused experience in virtual reality and figure out how to draw players' attention to key elements despite the fact that they might be wandering around or shifting their heads a bunch or what have you. I felt like, by and large, it worked quite well, although it was obviously very constrained. More importantly, it underscored the fact that VR — especially Valve's holodeck-style room VR — is a super new thing, and even Valve is still taking stabs in the dark, game design-wise.
Fear of Heights
I was there.
Stranded on a platform in the sky. Beneath me, cloudy nothingness. I was told to take a step back, but I didn't want to. I was fucking terrified. If I moved back, I'd be off the platform, and I thought for sure the game would make me fall thousands of feet, to my in-game death. It all felt too real. I couldn't handle it, even the idea of it. I legitimately thought the rapidly induced momentum would — despite not being real — make me throw up or scream or leap or curl up into a ball. I don't get motion sickness from games, but it didn't matter. I was scared to death that I was about to actually fall to my death, even without the real "death" part at the end.
Fortunately, the game — a turn-based strategy called Skyworld — didn't mind that I was technically standing on sky. Phew. The strategy, wherein I physically interacted with a clockwork table that I towered over, was neat enough, but mainly I was struck by the fear of falling that surged through my senses like a lightning bolt.
This is not hyperbole. It all felt so real that I was honestly terrified about a the possibility of a thing happening, something that didn't even turn out to be in the game. It's one thing to fear dying in regular video games, to worry about losing progress or whatever. It's something else entirely to fear the sensation — the physical feeling — of what will befall you. Dying in games just got a whole lot scarier. At least, potentially.
I was here again, back in the real world. It felt more like stepping off a plane after a long trip than it did setting down a video game, though. I'd been to a lot of places.
I'm buying Valve and HTC's Vive VR system when it comes out. I don't care if I have to shove aside a bunch of furniture and calibrate a couple cameras to use it. Unlike Kinect or something like that, this technology is game-changing. I've never felt so thoroughly transported to other worlds in my entire history of playing video games. Never. And this was in a tiny convention cubicle where I could still hear voices of people mingling through my headphones occasionally. In my own home, with no distractions or Valve employees, I can't even imagine how powerful the illusion will be.
That said, game designers will really need to focus on making things tangible (e.g. letting me touch and pick up basically everything, programming the controller to react appropriately) and minimising gameplay that might get the cord tangled around my feet/legs. The illusion Valve's VR creates is — authentically, actually, again no hyperbole — incredible, but it's as fragile as it is powerful. So many little things can chip away at it, eventually shatter it.
This shit is wildly cool, but Valve VR on its own will not make an experience great. That will take some damn talented creators with an eye for the system's weaknesses as well as its strengths. I'm looking forward to seeing what they come up with, even if we get a flood of duds on top of the good stuff.