By Adam Smith on February 6th, 2014 at 1:00 pm.
‘Hands-On’ or ‘Hands-In’? Loading Human combines the power of the Oculus Rift and the Razer Hydra to create a virtual reality experience, in which the player’s head and arms are tracked onto a first-person avatar. The game itself has a great deal in common with Gone Home, and point and click adventures, telling a story of memory, love and loss. Everything is tied to the control system though and as I stood in the middle of an office, as confused and vulnerable as a contestant on Knightmare, I was forced to admit that I am very bad at following instructions. And at standing still. I’ve never been quite so excited and exhausted by a single hour with a game.
“You’d make a great beta tester.” Says the voice at my ear. I’m about to reply, smiling, thank you very much, when the follow-up comes. “You break everything.” I’d just dropped the rag-doll body of my dead wife onto the corner of an elevator platform. Her arms were twitching.
Throughout the session, I rotated slowly, like a dead man hanging from the gallows. A steadying hand on my shoulder informed me that I’d adjusted my feet, without realising, and I had to look down at my in-game hands to centre my view. It was a bit like being drunk in extreme slow motion.
The Oculus Rift paired with Razer Hydra motion controls is an initially confusing combination, providing the player with a view that tracks along with their head, and virtual arms that are like flexible litter pickers. Squeezing the Hydra triggers grips with the left or right hand and the thumbsticks effectively control the legs.
The reason I was rotating, standing but backed up against a chair to keep myself steady, was to do with some disconnect caused by having a virtual equivalent to my head and arms, but no tracking of legs and body. When I turned my Rift-heavy head to study the environment in-game, I was unwittingly turning my body as well, slowly adjusting until I was almost perpendicular to the screen. It’s like being half a robot.
It’s slightly embarrassing to have a developer reset the calibration of a control device several times in an hour because of a flaw in my own ability to coordinate brain-body functionality rather than a problem with the hardware. Despite my ineptitude, there are problems with the hardware as well, however, or at least with the way it syncs with the game in its present state. Several times, I dropped an item and had to position myself with pinpoint accuracy in order to interact with it again, (virtual) hands passing through it, (real) hands stretched before me, groping air and retrieving naught but playground memories of Blind Man’s Buff.
Loading Human isn’t finished though and when it does sing in synchrony with the two devices that act as windows to its world, it’s already rather special. As is often the case, it’s the small things that make the difference. In the build that I played – just over an hour in length with guidance from the developers – there’s only one environment to explore: a duplex apartment with a bedroom, a kitchen, a gramophone.
The game is set a few decades from now but the player character is a writer and, as I can attest, writers have a habit of collecting retro objects and machinery in order to make their environment seem more interesting in the mistaken belief that they and their words will become more interesting as well, through osmosis. Most of them would be better off shutting down their word processors (or putting away the fucking typewriter if they’re that far gone) and getting a job decorating the houses of hipsters.
As far as Loading Human goes, the old-fashioned touches are the most delightful part of the game. As in Gone Home and even Amnesia, I experience a giddy joy when a game replicates an everyday action or object. A great deal of that is tied to the desire for credible and cohesive worlds, and it’s thrilling to experience the same in an abstract or surreal setting, but the moments that make up our lives are difficult to replicate. During my time with Loading Human, I chased data cubes through virtual realities and dragged a corpse through a sci-fi laboratory, but nothing felt quite as delightful as sliding a record out of its sleeve.
I’ve never used the Hydra before but the trick sensation of manipulating objects without any direct tactile feedback reminded me of the world’s most underrated horror game, Silent Hill: Shattered Memories on the Wii. It remains the finest use of motion control I have experience with and Loading Human, after twenty minutes of mental calibration, was almost its equal. Picking up a clock or a bottle and turning it by caressing the air is like falling into a science fiction film, and I was surprised by how quickly I took the tech for granted.
Crouching to retrieve dropped items is the toughest challenge – once out of their usual position, objects are difficult to interact with and I often felt like I was searching for the single, tiny receptive area on their surface. It’s the virtual reality equivalent of a pixel hunt and oddly appropriate because Loading Human is, by the developer’s own admission, an old-fashioned point and click adventure wearing a Daft Punk helmet.
Despite some slightly laboured voice acting, the game establishes a mood effectively. The story is a sci-fi mystery romance, the tale of a brilliant scientist who aims to restore the memories of her husband, who is suffering from Alzheimer’s. I expected a sombre traipse through the moments they spent together but the end of the demonstration build throws a curveball in the shape of a bullet and the trip back through time suddenly has a central question in need of an answer – why did it end like this?
More Memento than Wild Strawberries perhaps, although the intention is to explore different stages of the marital relationship, showing the high points and the low points over a significant period of time. The puzzles in the opening section are simple, prompting the player to learn navigation and object manipulation in a small area. A sequence memorisation mini-game threatened to frustrate but it doesn’t make heavy demands and the novelty of turning an object and tapping its surfaces using the Hydra hadn’t worn thin.
There’s a smart hint system in the form of the player character’s internal monologue. Spend too long throwing bottles in the kitchen and, serious as a funeral, he’ll wonder whether it might be a good idea to find the key that was mentioned earlier. Spend another couple of minutes dropping things into the swimming pool and he’ll politely suggest a couple of possible locations that might be worth exploring – places that a key might be found. It’s effective and the writing is strong enough that even though the words are obviously hints, they don’t sound like an audiobook read-through of a Prima Strategy Guide.
Loading Human is reliant on the control technology that drives it. The opening scene has the seeds of a compelling narrative but it could easily slide into puzzle-punctuated sci-fi hokum. It’s the puzzles themselves that I’m interested in. The first scene’s challenges are mostly logical – voiceovers make suggestions of a place, action or item, and the player explores, searching the apartment until the solution is discovered. There’s a riddling quality to some of the language and I expect that will be further developed as new locations are introduced and existing ones change as the journey back through memory continues. Seeing familiar places at different points in the timeline opens up plenty of possibilities for cryptic hints and suggestions.
Despite its point and click heritage, Loading Human doesn’t equip its player character with an enormous inventory. He doesn’t even have pockets. Each hand can carry one object at any time, which means that even in the hour I played, there was a fair bit of backtracking when I realised I’d picked up the wrong thing, or picked up the right thing and dropped it in the wrong place. The area is small enough and the control system gripping enough that wandering back and forth isn’t too frustrating, but after five or six hours, it might well be.
The game might not even last that long. Or it might last for twenty hours. Untold Games told me that the scope of the environments they can build and the length of the game will be dependent on funding. They’ve been smart though, implementing the tech early and constructing a narrative that hangs across a series of small, self-contained scenes. Very little goes to waste in Loading Human’s environments, which act as playgrounds for the Rift and Hydra as well as the home of basic puzzles.
After the adjustment period, during which time I couldn’t tell my virtual elbow from my virtual arse, the controls were a delight to use. The combination of the Hydra – which isn’t hugely different to a pair of Wii Nunchucks working in synch – and the Rift feels like future tech, and the learning curve isn’t as steep as the mountain that first-time mouse and keyboard FPS folks have to endure. Before release, Untold plan to support the STEM System, which eliminates the need for wires and should track arm movements even more effectively. Even with the Hydra, I stood in front of a mirror for a minute, gawping at my ability to communicate effectively in semaphore.
In the mirror, the position of my arms and the turn of a wrist looked almost perfect. I think the system struggles a little with depth though, as it was when reaching into the screen that I felt disconnected. The precision required to target objects needs to be tweaked, particularly when they’re out of position and stuck between level geometry, but some of the awkwardness can be explained – if not entirely excused – by the fact that the player is playing a character who is himself utilising a form of virtual reality.
I’ve already decided to buy a Rift and am convinced it’ll be worth owning for the ease with which it improves cockpit-based games. I can live with the fact that using the low-res prototype unit meant that the screenshots on this page are barely recognisable as the same environment that I saw, but my main quibble with the Rift is the weight and heat – I was wearing it for just over an hour and my head felt like a baked potato for the last ten minutes or so. It’s easier to take regular and sensible breaks when you’re not at an event though, where time is limited and a queue is forming.
While sims may form the core of my Rift experience, it’ll be the experiments and fringe games that pack unexpected delights. Loading Human, with the added need for motion control, is more intriguing than the sum of its parts suggests. The story might shine eventually but even if it doesn’t, it’s a decent scaffolding for single-scene exploration. I’m keen to see more and hope that there are puzzles worth the effort, other than the controls themselves.
Oh, and one final note – there’s a kiss. Like my first teenage fumblings, it was a disaster. I’d screwed up the calibration something rotten and ended up having to crane my neck to see my wife’s face as she delivered a boudoir’s worth of romantic exposition. She was trying to stare into the pools of my eyes but I was pointing my ear-hole at her, unable to move my body for the duration of the scene.
When she finally leaned in to bump lips, I was resting my chin on my shoulder in an attempt to meet her, face to face. At the final moment, I felt my soul escape like a sneeze and it drifted away to make its home in the Uncanny Valley for the rest of time. I received a postcard this morning. It just said, ‘I miss you’.