Tunnel Vision: The Chair’s The Star

Apologies, this latest in my ongoing Oculus Rift / VR curiosities column is a week late, due to most of the RPS staff being dead last week. On with the sterescopic show, anyway – this week I’m looking at Rift games/experiments which are based to some degree around the concept of sitting in a chair. This turns out to be far more fertile ground with reality-shifting cleverness than it might sound.

The Entertainment

This free ‘intermission’ for the incomparable Kentucky Route Zero has been around for a while, but it’s only now that I’ve tried the Rift version of it. I’d say it’s one of the most essential Oculus vignettes to date, and demands your eyes and ears even if you haven’t played KRZ itself. The dialogue is arch and steeped in so many layers of meta-commentary that I’m not sure it manages to sustain the maudlin reflection of KRZ proper, but the central conceit (and the dawning realisation of what it is) is as perfect a Rift experiment as I can imagine. While this isn’t a narrative game – at least not in a conventional sense – I suppose technically the following observations count as spoilers, so please make a judgement about whether to read on.

The Entertainment broadly involves watching a play. It’s a play about American dispossession with strong Miller overtones, though if there’s one thing I do know for sure about anything Kentucky Route Zero, it’s that it’s referencing art I’m too much of a philistine to know myself.

Watching the play through an Oculus immediately involves one key feature – the ability to turn your head. Look straight ahead and two actors recite lines about dusty lives in a gloomy bar; look over your left shoulder and the director offers a commentary of sorts; look behind you and you see an audience watching in silence, though lines from a journalist’s review of the play soon appear; look down at the table you’re sat at and something narrates your own actions. You’re the audience, except there’s an audience behind you. Which must mean that – ah, well that’s the thing, isn’t it?

We’ve all seen the pictures and videos of people looking like muzzled drunkards in their VR headsets. What plums they are, whirling their heads around while they disappear into an imagined world. That’s what I was doing while I watched this play within a game. I was a play too, for The Entertainment made my seated performance into its performance. For all the archness and metatextuality, right down at the heart of The Entertainment was one big, playful joke. Look at you, twisting and gawping and spinning. Player indeed.

I should also note that The Entertainment further comes alive if you’re sat on a swivel chair, for this is an experience played out in 360 degrees and necks don’t usually go that far.

Blocked In

Until Oculus DK2 is fully in the wild, I do imagine that ‘dioramas’ will be a mainstay of any VR releases or coverage. Interaction with Oculus DK1 one games is hamstrung by the readability issue and the blur/motion sickness issue, though a few games have found ways around this (more on one those in the next column). I find these dioramas almost more thrilling, though – I’m simply transported somewhere else, and without the risk of any game-y interaction shattering that fantasy.

Blocked In is a gag, but it’s not just a gag. What a majority of 3D games do is create large environments which are full of small details, most of which you’ll notice (if indeed you notice them at all) for a split second as you charge around the place. Blocked In demonstrates something that VR can do so well, something that a monitor can not – make you look around. The default response to putting on those goggles is to move your head, not to press a button, and as such you see so much more – because it seems so big and so tangible. Blocked In has you trapped motionless (other than the head) in a cubicle, and as you gaze around the place you notice more and more.

The joke clicks after a few confused seconds, and then after that you start admiring all the supporting detail for that joke. Then you start thinking about the connotations of that joke. Then you smile, and look around some more, and a little later you realise that you hadn’t even tried to move or interact with anything, because the simple act of moving your head had been so rewarding.

Again, a swivel chair is kinder on the neck, and perhaps entirely apt for this vignette about a cubicle drone of sorts.


The joke is that you’re some sort of miniature person living inside what may or may not be Gameboy, trapped inside as endless, gigantic Tetris blocks cascade past your windows. It is detail-packed and sharp.


I wrote in the last column about a few cinema simulators doing the rounds, but a smart twist on that is a console game simulator. Those of us unable to sit back and play games in our lounge because the rest of the family will complain, or to afford a gigantic TV, can get halfway there by VR apps that recreate the experience of staring at a huge screen from a comfy seat.

Alone goes further. Alone has you sat in that comfy seat, playing a console game and staring at a gigantic TV within a very large and very empty home. The windows are open. It’s just countryside beyond. You’re exposed on all sides. You’re just sat there. And you’re staring at a screen. If anyone approached, you probably wouldn’t notice. Unless, of course, that screen suddenly started showing you your own home. Or the noises no longer emanated from that screen’s speakers, but instead from… elsewhere.

Alone makes us three for three on VR games that use the concept of sitting down as a foundation for (very different) game experiments. I’m really quite taken with the concept of chair-as-controller: I interact with bold new places and ideas simply by sitting and turning. I worry, a little, that these sorts of ideas will be abandoned once DK2 does usher in a new age of legible VR.


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    Hodge says:

    Oh man, The Entertainment in VR – I didn’t know that was even a thing.

    *sigh*… I’m going to cave in and get one of these, aren’t I?

    • Judy says:

      Probably. IMHO, there isn’t enough content yet for continual entertainment, but I think we’re rapidly closing the gap. Especially if you’re into “early-access” games, which abound in the VR scene.

      • Thirith says:

        As far as I know, there are plugins and wrappers that allow you to play games not designed for VR on the Oculus Rift. Apparently a number of them are perfectly playable. Also, there’s stuff like Euro Truck Simulator 2, which should keep you busy for a while, and Elite: Dangerous will be out before the OR – and that’s just off the top of my head.

  2. Judy says:

    I think these demos work primarily because we don’t have appropriate controllers for VR yet. For Blocked In and The Entertainment, the only controller you need is your chair. You probably have one of those. And for Alone, you need a controller, which you probably have. Because in that game, you’re using… a controller. (DUN DUN DUN)

    But nothing else works very well. The more immersive the game, the more you need a controller that directly imitates what your hands are doing in VR. The lone exception being driving or flight simulators, which have controllers that can directly map to their in-game representations.

    EDIT: I forgot to make my point. You’ll still see a high demand for these kinds of experiences when you own a Rift, but not the other necessary peripheral equipment. Especially among the non-gaming populace, where I still think VR could take off much further. You don’t have to be a gamer to sit and experience something new. Just a chair.

    • johnkillzyou says:

      Razer Hydra at the moment does that, and the Sixense STEM that is coming out will track essentially your whole body. Half Life 2 VR (The mod) uses full body tracking, and is utterly superb. It has the UI as a holographic element on your wrist.

    • MrStones says:

      Well looking at The Entertainment I think all I’d really need is a motion tracked whiskey glass.

    • golem09 says:

      Half Life 2 VR plays just fine with a mouse, it’s still the best input device for that. The splitting of viewing and aiming alone makes it worth playing it in VR though, even when using the same input.

      I don’t think we need more hardware for VR, just better software solutions.

      • johnkillzyou says:

        Half Life 2 VR isn’t playable with a mouse. You are referring to Valve’s VR integration of Half Life 2. Check out Half Life 2 VR and you’ll see the difference.

        • Henke says:

          All in all I’ve played about 2 or 3 hours of HL2 with Oculus Rift (yes, the native support. no 3rd party apps) and mouse+keyboard controls just fine with it. I don’t notice the controls when I’m playing it, which is the hallmark of well integrated controls. The problem with HL2 is rather that it’s probably _the most_ motion sickness inducing game I’ve played on the Rift.

          edit: oh wait, you’re talking about this aren’t you: link to vrmods.wordpress.com ? Sorry, nvm, carry on.

  3. BadDancing says:

    Less Miller, more Eugene O’Neill, I think? The Entertainment has a hella strong resemblance to The Iceman Cometh. The devs did an incredible interview on KRZ after premiering The Entertainment at Wordplay with lots of talk on game feel, influences, the uncanny, Colossal Cave, reverence, and set design.

    link to handeyesociety.com

    “This is a game about a man who’s lost in a place he’s ostensibly from”, “There are some kinds of ambiguities better represented with pictures than with text”, “emotional space instead of a realistic, simulated space” — it’s good stuff.

  4. CookPassBabtridge says:

    I think there is a major barrier with the future popularity of the Rift which many people may not be aware of, that for the key low persistence functionality of the DK2 and consumer version to work (a major issue for image quality, playability and nausea) you need a machine capable of a consistent 75fps at 1080p.

    David Braben commented that they used a Titan when testing the DK2 for Elite colon. The Rift itself is fairly reasonably priced, but hardware capable of running it at anything except the lowest detail settings (and lets be honest, fidelity of the world is more important for VR than for monitor based gaming – realism is the aim) you’re looking at serious money.

    I have a dk2 on order and already have a pricey rig in mind for three screen simming, but not everyone will want to make that investment.

    • KenTWOu says:

      The Rift itself is fairly reasonably priced, but hardware capable of running it at anything except the lowest detail settings (and lets be honest, fidelity of the world is more important for VR than for monitor based gaming – realism is the aim) you’re looking at serious money.

      I didn’t use The Rift and I’m sure I won’t have a chance to use it in a near future. But I think fidelity of the world isn’t the right choice here. Typical PC/console experience already has fidelity of the world in mind, that’s why we have really vast areas, cool special effects, sharp textures, but tons of non-interactive objects here and there, aggressive streaming, aggressive LOD, motion blur, really low fps and stuttering during some of the action sequences.

      The sense of presence is the most important thing in VR. And you could achieve that even in an old school titles with outdated graphics like Thief. So if 60 fps is the goal now forget about fidelity of the world. We need new priorities for VR. For example, lo-fi art design, low to medium texture resolution, the lack of post effects, the lack of loading screens (especially background loading during cut-scenes), really small environments, slick animations and physics engine, absolutely unnoticeable LOD, but absolutely guaranteed 60 fps everywhere on every possible machine within minimum and recommended requirements. I don’t know how, but the game and its engine should be designed/tweaked around that.

      P.S: consistency of the world is the right word, I guess.