Welcome to the first of a series of articles about my travels throughout the wild landscape of VR. I have owned a VR headset since June last year and in that time I have amassed a library of dozens of games and played a hundred hours of some of the most unique gameplay you can have on the PC. Needless to say that these articles will reflect my own personal experiences with this technology, so if you feel I have disparaged your favourite game then feel free to call me an idiot in the comments. Without further ado, it’s time to jack in!
My Cyberverse Rig
The games and experiences I will discuss in this series have been run with the following setup.
- HTC Vive
- Intel i5-6600K
- Nvidia GTX 1070
- 16 GB RAM
- All games run off SSD
Note that I list these details for comparison’s sake and not because I have a need to boast about my e-peen. I am quietly confident about my e-peen without the need for external validation.
I bought into the Vive for a few reasons. One was because the Oculus Rift had yet to bring out the Touch controllers or proper room-scale, so the technical superiority of the Vive was obvious. More than that, I have a thing for open standards and the walled-garden approach to the Rift turned me off. In hindsight I continue to feel that I made the right choice, and also it came out that Palmer Luckey was a Trump supporter. Whoops!
Has This VR Fad Fizzled Out Yet or What?
So I am at the 10 months point of my Vive ownership and the appeal is still very much real. New games come out that I am excited to play. Some games have been played to death and I’ve moved on (Job Simulator). Some games never got a chance because their online playerbase has regrettably died off (Hover Junkers). I figured there was a real chance I would have my fill of VR and then return to regular PC gaming.
Really I’ve found that I’ve been enjoying regular PC gaming and VR gaming basically contemporaneously. I’ve been enjoying DOOM, Offworld Trading Company, Super Chicken Horse, Undertale and For Honor during this period, even buying a Steam Controller for regular PC gaming and even recently buying a Switch. The truth is that VR gaming comes with some amazing experiences but it doesn’t straight-up replace regular PC gaming. Sometimes you want to be immersed with a world all around you and sometimes you want to sit on the couch with a controller. VR isn’t the future of all PC gaming, but is rather a lateral expansion of gameplay possibilities.
What Has Been the Biggest Appeal of VR Gaming?
I’m glad you asked. I’ve had some time to gather my thoughts and I think I’ve identified the aspects of VR gaming that have kept it fresh and exciting for me even after this time.
Sense of Immersion
An unfortunate reality that VR owners have come to discover is that you cannot describe the sense of being in VR. Gameplay videos don’t cut it and neither do lengthy explanations – they cannot properly evoke the VR experience in the mind of the listener. The only way to explain VR to someone is to have them try it for themselves. This means that VR fever spreads slowly, as gamers try their friends’ VR systems before realising why they need to get one for themselves.
What is this VR experience? It is a sense of immersion that you are in the world being presented to you. I will be clear – you are not playing a game that is all around you, instead you are just in an environment where a game happens to be taking place. The high resolution, 90 Hz refresh rate and precise motion tracking are sufficient that you stop noticing the small frictions that remind you that you are in a game. This is the biggest power of VR. It’s not about enjoying how cool the technology is. It’s about the technology being so reliable and dependable that it recedes into the background, you forget that you are in VR and you engage with a world that you take for granted.
I’ll also note that although VR systems offer stereoscopic displays and thus depth perception, this is not an important part of the immersion. I’ve found I have a little trouble with depth perception in VR anyway, likely due to my glasses, but that the way the world moves fluidly and with parallax as your head moves around over time is worth much more.
Novelty of Experience
With the Vive and now the Oculus Touch, a lot of games are experienced by simply waving your hands around and pulling the triggers to interact. You pull switches, throw grenades, spin dials, connect components and fire pistols. It’s intuitive, extremely simple and fun. Consider how fun it was to slowly open a door in Amnesia: The Dark Descent, or slice through an artery in Surgeon Simulator. Manipulating everything with your actual hands in VR takes it forward another step.
These are basic interactions for game designers to implement at first, and games like The Unspoken show how hand control mechanics might grow in complexity as VR matures. For now, the fun of being hands-on in new environments with new tools hasn’t worn off.
The Social Aspect
My experiences with VR have had a bit of a weird dichotomy in that I either feel lonely or very sociable. A lot of VR experiences are strictly single player affairs in that the developers want to take you to a particular place or put you in a particular situation, but it’s only you. After a number of these isolated experiences I started to feel lonely in a way that doesn’t quite happen with regular PC gaming. I needed to go find some company.
Luckily in VR that’s extremely easy to do due to the excellent Rec Room, which is completely free. I’m not sure how and I don’t know what their business model is. It’s a fully fledged game with a burgeoning userbase, and immediately you are surrounded by other people who stand around you and move about and wave their arms and talk to each other. Rec Room, Onward and a few other games make the smart decision of having your mic activated at all times, with muting as an optional setting. This results in rooms full of chatter and activity, with groups of players that have conversations completely unrelated to you. It makes the lobby room feel alive.
In fact, the realness of other players bears mentioning by itself. In Rec Room you have other players who inhabit physical space near you. They are the same size as you. They interact with you and notice you. They smile and wave and dance and play games with you. The math on these interactions is astonishingly minimal. A player’s head in 3-dimensional space is represented by six values (X-, Y- and Z-coordinates for position and then roll, pitch and yaw for rotation). The player also has two hands with another six values each. This means that a player’s motion can be entirely described by only 18 numbers for each timestep. Yet from that simplicity comes a huge range of expressiveness that players can exhibit in-game. You can tell when they’re happy and bouncy, when they’re reserved or nervous, when they’re crouching and sneaking, when they’re tired, when they’re playful. I spent a game of frisbee golf leaning out suspiciously from behind a tree, videotaping the other players. The behaviours that can be expressed with a head and two hands is powerful enough to bring the full presence of other players from their living rooms into yours. It is levels above the familiar multiplayer fare of a character model with a player’s name, conducting a pre-scripted animation.
Simply New Games
I wrote many words about the previous appealing factors of VR but this one is simpler. A small but real appeal is that VR is a new platform and so it comes with new games you can’t play elsewhere. This is the same as when a new console is released or you upgrade your computer, but it still counts for VR. Are any of these games the so-called killer apps that justify VR as a platform? There are strong contenders, and I will go into them in future articles.
Future Articles, You Say?
I do say, and now that I have talked about my experiences with VR in general, I will spend the next few articles talking about particular games and experiences that I have personally played. There will be rough themes for each article, and I will give my first-hand impression of those that were the most fun, those that offered the best experiences and those that I didn’t particularly like but could see what they were trying to do. So watch this space and prepare to jack in and enjoy my guided tour of the cyberverse.