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Don't care about VR? Neither did I

Notes on a VR conversion.

Eve: Valkyrie drops you into the cockpit of a starship, but when I first loaded it up, it dropped me into the cockpit geometry itself. The Rift I was wearing seemed to think I was a giant, and I was left peering at the majesty of the universe through parts of a control panel. And so, my first act as a hot-shot space pilot was to lower my office chair as I eased myself down into position. It was a little thing - and an error, really - but it felt amazing. I suddenly heard myself giggling. VR is weird. Even the mistakes can give you a memorable experience. I think I love it.

And that's surprising, really. Two or three months ago I had a bunch of carefully structured arguments as to why VR was a distraction, a dud, a mistake. I had never tried on a headset, and I wasn't interested: too expensive, too fiddly, too much missing the point. People talked about VR in terms of aiding immersion, and immersion has never been much of a problem with video games. You are standing in a forest. That's how video games once did immersion, and it still works pretty well. It's not broken. Why do I need a headset when I'm already standing in the forest?

Vive arrived, and I spent a morning watching Chris Bratt lug a sofa around the games room, position weird little pylons in two corners, and wobble about measuring the space between the walls. VR does not make a particularly good first impression, but it turns out it didn't need to. Later that day, once the rest of the office had checked out the Vive, I went in and put on the headset. Chris asked if I wanted to see the whale, and then? Wow. Then I saw the whale.

The whale demo is simple. You're standing on the deck of a sunken galleon, all alone, until, suddenly, you aren't alone anymore. A whale swims out of the deep and cruises past. It's not that the whale is big or beautifully animated, although it's both of these things. It's that it's vividly present with you. Because VR places you within a game's space, it means that you suddenly share that space with all the things that are in the game. There isn't much to the whale demo, just as there isn't much to the virtual IKEA kitchen I explored next, but it doesn't matter. It's enough.

Cover image for YouTube videoWe used a VR headset to cook meatballs in a virtual IKEA

It's enough for now, at least. I've spent the last week playing very little except VR games, switching between Vive and Oculus Rift, and if what follows is the story of my VR conversion, it's also a story of VR at a fascinating point in its development. It's dazzle time, when everything is new and interesting. After playing around with IKEA VR, a couple of developer acquaintances said that they were surprised that I liked it so much, because it isn't actually very good. That's the crux of the matter, I think: I'm not sure if "very good" is a phrase that makes much sense for VR right now. That will change, hopefully, but for now, here is what I've learned - or what I currently think I've learned - over the course of a week in VR.

Third-person works

First up: third-person stuff works beautifully in VR. Step forward Chronos, a gorgeously tangible hack-and-slash, and Lucky's Tale, a lovely, if slight, cartoon platformer, both of which I played on Rift. It might seem weird to use VR for third-person stuff, but the wider lesson, I think, is that all third-person VR games are ultimately first-person anyway. I was delighted and baffled by the games that Chronos plays in terms of player identity, for example: you're the kid on screen with the sword and shield, but you're also the cinematic camera tracking him from one room to the next, breaking off to stare up at the ceiling or down into a sheer drop. You don't have one presence in the world, but two.

While this gives Chronos an added frisson of creepiness, Lucky, a game about cartoon animals knocking about a stuffed-toy fantasyland, uses it in a number of sweet ways as well. You can peer into gaps to find secrets routes and collectable doodads, and the game acknowledges your presence playfully throughout. Lean into look at Lucky, at he leans in to look at you in return. At one point, I bumped my head, so to speak, on a lantern, setting it swinging. Chronos is a great game even if you take VR away, I think, but Lucky's Tale is a decent game that's elevated because of VR. It's throwaway fun, but your physical place in that world means that it's throwaway fun I'll remember.

The old feels new again

Both these games hint at another lesson from VR: even if you don't have a dazzling new concept, old stuff feels sort of new again because of this fresh perspective, because of the tangibility that VR gives its worlds. Chronos feels like a place I've visited. The Oculus Home screen itself feels like a place, a stylish open-plan apartment in which I sit on an artfully rumpled rug and watch the cherry blossom blow past outside. Strategy games feel new when you're looking down on chunky little pieces. Platformers feel new when you can duck your head beneath the platforms themselves.

Vive is great, but room-scale isn't everything

And accessibility counts for a lot. Chronos and Lucky are transporting, despite the fact that I played them at my desk in the office with a Rift on my head, an Xbox controller in my hand, and a simple motion-tracking nubbin set up on a nearby stack of books. I could hear chatter about embargoes and people taking pictures of me because I looked funny, and it didn't break the spell. Vive is undeniably a better machine - and in games where you wander around, the ability to literally wander around as you play certainly cuts down motion sickness - but there is a lot to be said for Rift's hassle-free approach. PlayStation VR could be a real prospect.

Cover image for YouTube videoHow much space does the HTC Vive actually need?

I was surprised by how much works on Rift, to be honest. I banged my head on the floor playing Budget Cuts, a game about peering through holes and leaning around corners that I can't really see working on anything other than Vive, but I banged my head even more playing The Climb on Rift, a first-person rock-climbing game that works amazingly well considering that, due to the Oculus' inputs, the person in question is limited to two free-floating hands and a head. (Watch that head, okay?)

Great art and design are still king

The Climb is proof that old-school design and art skills can be crucial in this new landscape. Buggy and a bit crash-happy as it is, this is still the best game Crytek has made in an age, and I've spent hours scrambling up mountains and leaping from one handhold to the next, Mission: Impossible 2 style, within its levels.

Why does it work so well? In part, it's because Crytek has built game mechanics right into the basics of this rather simple affair. You climb its mountains hand over hand, moving from one ledge to the next, but you need to manage stamina and keep chalked up, and there are a handful of different ledge types to deal with.

Cover image for YouTube videoThe Climb: Announcement Teaser

More important, however, is the sheer skill with which Crytek makes you feel like you're up on a mountain. You can get a good sense of the difference that art makes to this game due to the awful tutorial that lumbers you with a naff geometrical climbing wall. After about ten minutes of this antiseptic environment, I was ready to switch off. Then I tried the first real level, which took me to the sheer cliffs of Thailand, painted golden by an afternoon sun, and I was hooked. Suddenly, the drop below me made each handhold feel crucial, while the path around the rocks saw me moving in and out of shadow, with each summit giving me a staggering view. I'd been climbing for a while, but now I was actually headed somewhere.

Simplicity doesn't hurt

At the moment, a lot of VR games are following the same model as The Climb: a simple experience that shines because of your unique position within the world. Eve: Valkyrie spends a lot of effort placing you in that spaceship cockpit, and to do that it simplifies the controls beautifully so you have time to enjoy the little things. I'm not sure how long I'd want to play this multiplayer-focused dogfighter against real people, but it's a joy to pitch through its bloomy skyboxes for a few hours, switching between standard gatling guns and the head-tracking rocket lock-on. Eve: Gunjack is even simpler - a spin on Galaga, basically, in which you blast away at polite waves of foes as they cartwheel past, pausing only to collect the odd power-up. It's a 1980s arcade game given a little VR juice by the fact that you're situated in a gunner pod on the outside of a giant starship, planets turning beneath you and nebulae filling the horizon.

Such games make Out of Ammo seem complex in comparison, but Rocketwerkz' scrappy wave-based tower defence game bolsters simple RTS ideas like defence placement and a variety of different soldier types with standout moments that acknowledge the strange potential of the tech. Selecting units to leap into is a treat, as you peer down, imperiously, before taking direct control - and once you're in first-person, reloading a gun becomes a weird piece of playground mimicry, as you remove empty clips and bung in new ones. Silly as it seems, these simple interactions do a lot to bring you into the world of the game. I doubt Out of Ammo will go down as a classic, but I'll remember it years from now due to the peculiar panic it manages to create when - well, when you're out of ammo.

Motion sickness depends on the game

What about sickness? I'd heard a lot about this, and our own John Bedford can't put on the Rift for more than a minute without turning a bit green. The worst candidates seem to be first-person games where you move around and use your head to adjust the camera but the right stick to actually change direction. Then there's a game which is actively trying to chuck you around: Windlands is a glorious folly, a first-person game about jumping and grapple-hooking (?) around a bright and simple world that makes me so ill it's perversely admirable. It's stomach-flipping stuff, and the pan-pipey soundtrack only makes it worse. Even so, there's something amazing about a game that makes you feel like you're falling when you're really just sat at your desk. I'm used to dealing with physics objects in games, so it is novel to actually be a physics object.

Look around you

My favourite thing about VR, however, has taken a while for me to understand, and I think I'm only just starting to get it. It reliably comes at the very beginning of a new game, and it's to do with the way that you are drawn into the world that you are about to explore. We're used to fade-up moments in movies and games - that instant when the first images become clear and the story begins. In VR, this moment often feels woozy and protracted: it takes a long time to work your way into the world.

Cover image for YouTube videoChronos Reveal Trailer

I got this most clearly in Chronos, which starts you off in a rare moment of first-person action as you are gathered around a campfire and - over time - you start to realise there are others gathered there with you. You turn to realise that you are part of a silent crowd. Equally, in the Apollo 11 VR experience, a wonderfully stagey NASA love-in that sends you to the moon alongside juddering waxworks of Aldrin and Armstrong and Collins, footage of Kennedy's great speech about sending man to the moon is projected onto a wall. I watched for a while, and then started to take in my wider surroundings: a small room, a lava lamp, and a '60s egg chair that I was actually ensconced in. It was like waking up, like emerging from general anaesthetic. In VR, even the simple things don't always feel so simple anymore.