Last year's GDC ended on a cliffhanger for me. Ensnared in an Oculus Rift at the Experimental Gameplay Workshop, I was scrambling to defuse a virtual bomb while my teammates franticly analysed printed documents explaining how to disarm the explosive device I was trying to describe to them. Amid the panicked discussion, I heard a woman's voice say something about how they needed to clear the room - something I found odd as the program stated the event would be running for another hour. "Just a minute," I muttered to the unseen voice.
"No, not just a minute. NOW!" she replied.
I pulled off the VR headset to see that in the past three minutes 90 per cent of the room had been cleared out as ushers were aggressively shutting the place down - a fate much worse than the make-believe bomb going off.
This year I got a chance to finish what I began in 2014 with Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes, the world's first VR party game.
It all began when developer Steel Crate Games started tinkering around with developing games for Oculus Rift only to find friends impatiently waiting to get a turn. "The idea that spawned the game was Ben and Brian [co-developers Ben Kane and Brian Fetter] both had Oculus DK1s [the first Developer Kit] and they were in this situation where they had this cool piece of hardware that they wanted to show off to their friends in a party scenario, but everyone else was just sitting around waiting," Steel Crate's Allen Pestaluky tells me. "They wanted to involve the other players in the room. That's where the idea of an asymmetric multiplayer game came in."
"There was also an episode of Archer," he recalls, referring to a scene in which the characters are comically bickering while trying to defuse a bomb. "That was definitely and inspiration. That idea of defusing a bomb and not being able to communicate properly."
This communication breakdown is exacerbated by the fact that when you're in VR it's tough to converse with those in the physical realm. When I ask about releasing it on non-VR platforms, Pestaluky notes that it wouldn't retain the same sense of distance if players were able to look at one another.
"What we actually discovered after playtesting with so many people was that not being able to make eye contact, not being able to have any type of visual communication, is part of our game," he says. "Just doing hand gestures and being able to see each other, that actually changes the game. Keep Talking is about forcing people to communicate only verbally, and that requires VR. So that's why the experience is going to stay on VR."
So how do I fare at VR bomb defusal in 2015? Not great. For my first round I try being on the support end, which is a big mistake given my woeful lack of sleep during the conference. Clumsily rushing to make sense of a page full of mysterious glyphs and detailed instructions proves too much for my weary brain, and alas, we explode.
Then we switch roles. This time my partner knows roughly what the bomb's modules - each one a self-contained puzzle - look like, so even though the details are different, he has a clear idea what to look for. This is good as some of the instructions can be pretty abstruse. An average exchange sounds a little something like this:
"Do you see a yellow button?"
"No. I see a white button though."
"I don't see anything in here about a white button... Wait, do you see glass over it?"
"Remove the glass."
"Okay, yeah. You're right. It is yellow."
"Now push that button and don't let go. Pushing it is okay."
"Um... okay then..."
"Now, you need to release it when there is a three somewhere in the timer."
"Does it matter where it is?"
"No. As long as one of the numbers is a three, you can let go."
"Okay then. Five. Four. Three-"
And like that, the bomb is disarmed. We all breathe a sigh of relief.
Of course, we're new to the game and already seeing our bomb defusing skills increase dramatically between rounds one and two. Will Keep Talking only function as a novelty for a few rounds, then get old once players become familiar with the instructions?
Not so, says Pestaluky. "It gets so difficult that it's beyond human capabilities," he boasts. "Because of the way the Freeplay Mode works you could set as many modules as you want with as little time as possible. That's totally an option."
He goes on to explain that the game currently has about 16 different modules, each with their own unique instructions. The training bomb from the GDC demo only has three, but there are options to include up to 11 on a single explosive. "Once you get to the really hard difficulties you really don't know what you're going to be getting, so you really have to be fluent in all these different modules," he says. "That keeps the game fresh for a long time."
Pestaluky adds that his co-developers can actually disarm 11 modules, with some rather complex ones, in four minutes and 37 seconds. "That's their record now. That means that they're spending less than 30 seconds on each module. It's hilarious to watch them play. They have short form terminology for everything to maximise their efficiency."
Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes is slated to soft launch on Gear VR in the next couple of months while it's already been tapped by Sony for a Morpheus build, though no time frame for the final release has been slated. "We want to be that first VR party game that you get to show off to your friends when you get this new hardware," Pestaluky says, though he can't promise it will be a launch title. The team is aiming to make that happen though.
The game Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes reminds me most of is Spaceteam, the local-multiplayer mobile game about managing a command deck where everyone's control prompts relate to something on someone else's screen and everyone's yelling at each other until the crew inevitably dies. Yet, as much as I love Spaceteam (and I do love Spaceteam), one of my biggest gripes with it is that it can be a real pain to set up. You have to bug people to download it (even if it's free), adjust your Bluetooth settings, and maybe get everyone on the same wi-fi network. It's both ironically and sincerely great fun at parties. Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes captures the same hilarious social dynamic, yet is significantly easier to arrange. Of course, it will require an expensive VR headset, but in the not-too-distant future everyone will have one of those, right? Cut to black. To be continued.