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VR is a revolution in control more than immersion

Tom Francis on Holopoint.

Holopoint is a VR archery game, and it's almost impossible to explain why it's so good without sounding like a wanker. It doesn't look like much. You're in a dojo, and some blue cubes straight out of My First Unity Project hang in the air around you. You shoot arrows at those, holding your bow in one hand and drawing back the arrow with the other. Sometimes they shoot at you. Eventually some holographic samurai show up and wade slowly toward you from all sides, feet sliding across the floor in a mismatched animation. You shoot these also.

Nothing about that sounds terribly good, so you have to start talking about what it feels like to do these things, what they bring out in you, what you become. Like a wanker.

It's a room-scale VR game, so when one of these shooty-cubes spawns behind you, you have to physically turn around to shoot an arrow at it. And when they shoot back, the only way to avoid getting hit is to physically dodge. Since these cubes show up in increasing numbers, pretty soon you're drawing, aiming, and firing your bow at one target whilst dodging a bullet from another. This is when it starts to get cool.

But it hits a whole new level of cool, one I've never experienced before, further on. Once you're surrounded by five or six of these cubes, with three or four unconvincing samurai ice-skating toward you from all corners of the dojo, your body and brain start to do things you didn't know they could do.

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First you're loosing three arrows in a row without pause, hitting three different targets, two of them moving. You are f***ing Legolas.

Then you're dodging two bullets at once. You are f***ing Neo.

Then you realise that as you twisted 180 and ducked to deal with all the threats behind you, your subconscious spotted and memorised three other targets to your side. And when you spin back round to deal with those four arrows later, you don't even have to think: the muscle memory for each of those shots arrives pre-programmed into your arms, by some silent background witchcraft. You hit all three without needing to consciously aim. You are something else, and now you sound like a wanker.

It's by far the best VR game I've played, and it's the one that makes the medium feel like something truly new. More immersive versions of the games we already have are cool, but they don't make VR feel like a new world. Games you control with your head, hands and body, though, are a revelation. It's everything we imagined the Wii's motion controls could be: instant, exact, and so natural it feels silly to even call them controls. You don't control a bow in Holopoint, you just shoot it.

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As soon as you're not dealing with buttons, mice and thumbsticks, the way you learn a game changes. The first time you try a VR 'skill' like archery, it's exhilarating how fast you improve. You go from being unable to hit a stationary target to hitting three consecutive moving ones in your first 30 minutes. Because instead of putting all your judgement, knowledge and skill into tiny adjustments to the millimeter nudges of your thumbs, every muscle in your upper body is learning how it needs to move. And when the game applies all that budding talent to a challenge neither games nor reality have given you before, you get those sublime moments of instinctive flow (wanker). Real life archery is cool, but I shot very few floating cubes and ice-skating samurai in my first lesson, and only now do I see this for the failing it is.

Currently room-scale games like this only work with the Vive. Oculus are releasing motion controllers this year, but they say they're for 'seated and standing' experiences, so I don't know if they'll support twisting, dodging, physical games like Holopoint. If not, I think they're missing a big piece of what makes VR a big deal. It's also worth noting that even with the Vive, this first generation of VR and room-scale is rough. It's a big faff to install, you need lots of space near your PC, the resolution and focus are not great yet, and the headset cable is a pain. If you're waiting for it to get cheaper and more elegant, you're probably doing the smart thing. But what we have is enough to see that Holopoint, and the full-body games that'll follow it, are something new.

I don't think there's anything unique about archery, it's just the first skill games hit upon that suits the medium well. But there is something unique about using your whole body: ducking to duck, walking to walk, looking to look, using the full range and capabilities of your arms and hands. Even if you're a clumsy nerd like me, your body can do these things to a level of specificity, expressiveness and precision that puts thumbsticks and mice to shame. You can do amazing things. Real life rarely asks you to, and games let you press a button to make someone else do them. Room-scale VR is where you do them, and I can't wait for developers to figure out what else they can let us do with all our new powers.