You’ve bought your VR system, set it up, maybe upgraded your computer, and now you’ve downloaded and played a lot of the free experiences that act as an introduction to VR. They’re quite fun, if a bit short, but now you face the question of what to do next. The answer is to invite round friends and family and show off those same introductory experiences to them as well. Because you’d told them that you bought a VR system, and now you have to prove that it wasn’t a huge waste of money.
What I’m calling a demonstration game in this article is a smaller, usually free game that acts as a sort of demonstration of VR capability. The controls are simple, usually offering little more than the trigger-to-grab mechanic that is intuitive and so very impressive for new players. There are lots of objects to interact with in straight-forward ways, levers to pull, darts to throw, coffee mugs to inspect. If there is an actual game then the mechanics are simple and it’s over quickly. The idea is to be an environment for a newer player to be comfortable in and be wowed by – the game is supporting the VR technology rather than overpowering it.
If the preceding paragraph comes across as dismissive then this is not what I intend – these games serve a valuable role in the VR landscape. They allow the appeal of VR to be demonstrated from one gamer to another, and so facilitate the spread of VR adoption by one lounge room at a time. It seems to be a universal truth that the experience of VR can’t really be described with words, and that telling someone else about what makes VR so cool often fails and makes you look kind of stupid as you just try to search for the right words to convey the experience you’ve had. Instead you get the experience across by letting the other person have a try, and that’s where these demonstration games come in.
Free content from Valve that I’m sure is intended to be the first gateway into VR, as well as a showcase of technology to other VR developers. After a brief introduction this game drops you in a hub world where displays around the perimeter of the room offer to teleport you to different experiences, some of them games, some demos, all with different levels of interactivity. The hub room itself is plenty interesting as a table in the room’s centre offers a variety of toys for new players to pick up, inspect, shake, throw about and sometimes meaningfully interact with (the highlight is a remote controlled hovership that can be flown about the room). The game has a consistent “sterile laboratory” vibe, obviously reminiscent of Portal, and an atmosphere that is both patient and often humorous. It is ideal for allowing the player to feel comfortable with mucking around, especially if they need to adjust headstraps, find controllers and observe the changing blurriness as they fiddle with the knob on their headset.
The experiences themselves are strongly varied. There are actual games in the form of an archery tower defense game, a bullet hell shooter and a slower-paced slingshot firing game. Then there are demos of repairing an Aperture Science robot, of exploring a magical shop of curios, of being on a photo-realistic mountaintop and seeing peaks in the distance. The variety makes The Lab an incredible demonstrator as it lets you tailor the experience to the player taking part. Some players might be gamers who are best engaged in a new gameplay experience with a clear goal. Others might be nervous about the new technology and would be happier slowly checking out the mountaintop. You can entertain a diverse audience without leaving this one title. It’s probably no coincidence that there is a menu on the monitor-view that lets you easily switch experiences without needing to direct the player on how to do it.
I have a lot of words for The Lab because it gets a lot right. Valve clearly put effort into setting a benchmark for the quality of VR experiences they’d like on SteamVR, and probably saw little extra costs in integrating some of their own research demos into The Lab. I’d recommend starting demo nights by firing this up first – if you’re not sure what to do then simply put the player on top of that mountaintop and I guarantee you’ll blow their minds.
Job Simulator is a solidly amusing title with an unbelievably bland name. I have never been able to tell someone “You should try Job Simulator” without needing to launch into a description that tries to make it sound fun. It’s unfortunate because the game is content-rich and engaging, with a joyously cartoon style and humorous writing. There are four distinct experiences (kitchen, office, mechanic and convenience store), each with a unique environment and about a dozen different tasks to progress through.
This is a solid demonstration game because it is clearly a game. While players might enjoy the novel experiences of The Lab they will probably be aware of its tech demo nature and will inevitably ask you “so what games do you play on this system?” Job Simulator is then a good choice to load up next. Each task will give the new player some direction, but the game then waits patiently while the player is free to do whatever they want with their surroundings. There’s often a common pattern where the player will receive a task, ignore it, throw mugs at their co-workers, photocopy their faces, eat a rancid donut out of the bin and then get back to work on completing the task. Lots of freedom allows for lots of fun searching for things to mess around with.
There’s a continual sense of guidance and progress and the writing is decently funny (with guest voice work by Justin Roiland of Rick and Morty fame). Job Simulator also makes for a solid spectator game as your other guests will often get involved and shout ideas from the couch about what the current player should put in the sandwich or what type of engine oil they should drink. As a bonus you can switch from one job to another to have fresh new content available when you switch players. Later, when you’ve played all the jobs for yourself, the replayability is basically zero but until then it’s a great candidate for showing off during VR Night.
Accounting is a strange one. Made by the aforementioned Justin Roiland and William Pugh (of Crows Crows Crows), Accounting is a highly linear trip through surreal set-pieces. There’s no story, no meaningful puzzles (beyond “what the hell do I have to do to make the game progress itself?”) and no sense of exploration. It might still be a good demonstration game, though, because it’s absurdly funny, and a little whimsical. The player might spend more time laughing and listening to the dialogue than actually playing the game, and the audience will have a continual stream of comedy to be engaged by. The highlight of the game might be a short while into the forest scene when the player has to solve a short puzzle while being crudely shouted at by both Roiland and Pugh at the same time, one in each ear.
You need to judge this game based on the audience, I think. If they are into Rick and Morty at all then this game is an easy sell. If they’re easily stressed or offended, it might be a no-go. It might also be a no-go if they seem keen to find out the solid gameplay experiences that VR brings to the table, as the game doesn’t really have any gameplay at all and the process of find-the-magic-solution-to-progress-the-scene can get frustrating with unexpected immediacy.
For the players who do want to see the gameplay opportunities of VR, Panoptic is an excellent title for a demo night. The game offers asymmetric gameplay where the VR player represents a giant floating god-mask that casts its searchlight gaze across a complex level of platforms and tiny worshippers who travel about them. A second player then views the computer’s monitor (I use HDMI output to a TV) to control one of the worshippers with a regular gamepad. The gamepad player has to reach an orb at the top of the level while the VR player tries to find him and incinerate him with an eye-laser. Because he is hunted in this manner, the gamepad player has to act like the NPC-controlled worshippers, walking as they walk, making progress but without being so aggressive as to draw suspicion.
So this is different from the above titles because it doesn’t offer a playpen of objects and experiences, but rather is a single game with a clear goal. But it’s an easy to understand game, similar to hide and seek, and shows gameplay potential that is rarely seen in traditional gaming, with the closest non-VR analogue I can think of being Spy Party. Give the new player the role of the searching god, as it is the most intuitive and most impressive. The new player will probably be amazed by the tiny, doll-house scaled level winding around his personal space, kneeling and craning his neck around to get a good look at the architecture that seems right there but can’t actually be touched. The game is solid for spectators too as, sitting on the couch, they see the same action as the gamepad player and share in the same tension as he makes careful progress, as the spotlight of the VR player’s gaze sweeps across the screen, and the panic when he is spotted and needs to make a dash for safety. Players can see how the game looks from both radically different perspectives and the game lends itself easily to a loser-swaps-out mechanic.
I would be remiss to not mention the suspiciously similar Mass Exodus, which plays on the same concept but with more features, more levels and online multiplayer. My opinion is that Panoptic is more suitable for a demo night, as a much simpler game with more basic controls, cleaner art and a more focused goal. Mass Exodus could very well be the better game but for demonstrating to brand new players it might be on the other side of a little too complicated.
GORN is a simple game with straight-forward controls, but rather than using your hands to pull levers and open doors, you use them to drive a spear through a gladiator’s face. GORN is an unbelievably brutal combat game that provides the player with fun weapons, hulking enemies and blood, lots of blood, so much blood. Because of this it’s not for all audiences – you probably wouldn’t fire this up to demonstrate VR to your parents. But for the right audience it can demonstrate how visceral and physically active VR can be. Take special care to point out the roomscale grid, as this game is the prime suspect for smacked monitors, scratched walls, damaged controllers and smashed ceiling lights.
GORN has gone from a simple demo to a fuller game experience, and the latest versions have thankfully re-introduced the “Training Mode” that leads you through a series of combats that increase in weapon diversity and number of opponents as you progress – beginning with the player duking it out against a single naked opponent with their bare hands. The audience is likely to be engaged by the sheer spectacle of this game’s brutality, including heads being caved in, sabers that can slice limbs off and opponents that can be picked up and used to bludgeon other opponents with.
As an aside, I want to talk about motion controls and gaming. GORN is really a very simple game with controls that can be understood in the context of picking up a weapon and waving it at an enemy. In many ways this demonstrates the ability of VR to fulfill the promise of the gaming swordfight. Well back in the days of the Wii, gamers speculated about motion controls allowing swords to be wielded with 1-to-1 precision and used to enact duels of skillful display. Games such as Zelda and Red Steel failed to really satisfy this ideal, and often sword controls weren’t coded to match your motions 1-to-1. Instead, swinging your arm would trigger a pre-made slashing animation, perhaps matching the direction you swung, but something that might as well have been triggered by pushing a button. GORN really does match the weapon’s location to your arm’s location at all times. You can slash fast, slow, high, low, curved, straight, heavy or light. You can spin around as you attack, you can lunge, you can showboat and pump your fists in the air after you throw your opponent’s newly-severed head into the cheering crowd. This is a remarkable accomplishment for any video game and reflects very well on GORN’s sole developer. I will note some strangeness to the controls, for example the bendiness of all weapons as though their handles are made from stiff rubber and not wood or steel. This is likely due to the hard reality that faces all motion-controlled combat games, that physical things that might stop a sword in the game will not stop your arm in real life. Because of this, you must accept a situation where either your in-game sword and real-life arm are now de-coupled in position, or otherwise your in-game sword simply passes through the enemy’s shield. GORN finds a compromise between these two by having the weapon’s handle always follow your arm precisely, but the bendy staff allows the weapon’s head to be blocked by an enemy’s shield and then spring back to their correct positions. Possibly a bit clunky, strange to look at sometimes, but something you can easily get used to.
I’ve hosted quite a few demo nights of my Vive and I think other VR owners are compelled to do the same. Sure we want to assuage our guilt over having spent just so much money, but also I think we just want to share these amazing experiences we’ve come to have with our friends, some who might not have any other opportunity to experience them. VR owners, who are already undoubtedly early adopters, also come to be evangelists in a way. As such I think that these demonstration games play an important role in the VR landscape. They probably don’t require a huge market share, though, as even the complimentary The Lab covers a wide range of experiences that can keep a demo night going for hours. With this role seemingly well-covered, I am most excited for more games like Panoptic and GORN, that show off novel gameplay experiences that can’t quite be realised in traditional PC gaming.
In the next article I will leave the word experiences firmly behind as I cover lengthy single-player games such as The Gallery and Solus Project. What is it like to see a tornado bearing down on you in Virtual Reality? The answer is that you are killed.