After a long road adorned with the corpses of terrible 3D movies and even worse gaming systems, the promise of virtual reality appears to have finally come to fruition. The past few weeks have seen the launch of both the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, two of the three major VR headsets to launch this year (the third, Sony’s PlayStation VR, won’t be out until October).
VR still has a long way to go: current generation headsets fail to simulate a player’s real-life peripheral vision, while freeform movement is still a riddle that has yet to be solved. Nonetheless, a few notable games have emerged from the dust of VR’s consumer launch. These games, though largely imperfect, demonstrate the potential of virtual reality to reshape the way we imagine games, building on the promise of total immersion that has tantalized players since the first iteration of Pong. They are:
Two parts Audiosurf, one part Wii Sports boxing, Audioshield is a rhythm game that generates a slew of incoming boxable targets in sync with whatever music the player gives it. Granted, the beats are not as precise as those of a Guitar Hero or Elite Beat Agents – how could they be, with the game’s levels and music not being pre-selected? – but the experience is wholly unique; a fusion of rhythm, exercise, and Tron-like visuals. The audiovisual immersion of Audioshield is perhaps just the thing to replace your Zumba workout, and it’s a bold new vision of what the exercise game could be.
As previously mentioned, VR games are still trying to figure out how to tackle the issue of movement. Yes, the Vive allows you to move within a room-sized rectangle, but space is still a tremendous constraint. Many games have toyed with the notion of a “teleport” mechanic: point your controller at a far off point within the VR and you’ll instantly be transported there. Novel, but jarring and immersion shattering in worlds where teleportation doesn’t belong. Budget Cuts takes the idea of teleportation and runs with it, making it an integral part of a stealth espionage experience. By making teleportation a fundamental component of the game’s diegesis, Budget Cuts expands the size of its world without breaking the player’s immersion. That this mechanic comes wrapped in a cool sci-fi spy game is just the icing on the cake.
Job Simulator is VR’s killer app, the game that you absolutely must show to newcomers to the medium. Cartoonish, simple, and delightfully absurdist, the game is a comedic interpretation of mundane 9-to-5s, presented in a world where virtually everything is interactive, often in the silliest of ways. The simple joy of making an egg-tomato-bacon smoothie or gleefully throwing office supplies – or, if you’re boring, actually doing your job right – speaks to the simple wonders of VR, and a testament to just how fun it can be to spend an hour or two goofing off in a virtual world. Bolstered by charming dialogue and cutesy visuals, Job Simulator’s accessibility and charms speak to the potential that VR has to be inviting, engrossing, and just plain fun.
Lucky’s Tale is a bit of an odd experience: a 3D platformer akin to Super Mario 64 or Crash Bandicoot, with seemingly no unique VR hook: it’s not first person, unlike the majority of VR titles. However, what VR offers to the game is an extension of the precision and awareness presented by platformers on the Nintendo 3DS: playing a platformer in VR enhances a players sense of spatial recognition, allowing them to better gauge jumps over pits or to determine just how close that obstacle or enemy really is. It’s a seemingly basic enhancement, but in a medium that relies heavily on players having an absolute sense of control over their characters, it’s a quiet revolution in how we might understand the mechanics of a 3D platformer.
Along with Budget Cuts, Unseen Diplomacy is one of VR’s cleverest uses of space in a video game. Whereas the former utilizes a sci-fi mechanic to expand beyond the confines of a single room, Unseen Diplomacy uses a series of twisting corridors to create the illusion of a massive compound – all while having the player walk back and forth within a small area of space. This application of space is perhaps not as applicable outside of Unseen Diplomacy – the model is useful only in scenarios such as this, where the game’s world is based around navigating tight spaces – but in context, it’s remarkably clever, and a hint at the innovative solutions to the movement problem that developers will be able to devise once VR has been around for a bit longer.