I’ve got two VR headsets in my inappropriately small home, and I spend more time feeling guilty that I’m not using them than I do using them. Conceptually I love the tech, and I sporadically have a fine time with ‘experiences’ – i.e. virtual tourism to real or made-up places – when it comes to games-games I’m yet to get all that much out of it. But what about non-VR games rendered after-the-fact in VR? Could this be the full-fat virtual reality gaming I’d imagined when these headsets were first announced?
I haven’t got on well with most of the VR-specific titles I’ve tried to date. I fear I’m simply too pre-disposed to want ‘traditional’ games, whatever the hell that means – longer experiences with relatively complicated and precise controls and probably far too much story. The VR games sub-industry, for entirely understandable health reasons, does not overly encourage long-form gaming, but by and large it’s also still at the stage where it’s focused more on visual wow than on best-possible-gaming. It’s also preoccupied with accessibility to a certain extent – using a mouse and keyboard effectively blind is a tall order for a great many people. But for superhumans such as I, capable of the unthinkable feat of remembering where the buttons on my keyboard are after 25 years of using one almost daily, the absence of ‘proper’ games is felt keenly.
This is where Vorpx comes in. It’s a paid product, I’m afraid, but it supports both Oculus Rift and HTC Vive (though the latter only very recently, and not as robustly). There are other applications like it, and there will be more yet to come, but this is the one I have used because a) its selection of supported games so far seemed decent b) I bought it in beta last year for my (now-sold) Oculus DK2 and was curious about how well it supported consumer hardware. Basically, Vorpx retrofits standard games for VR. In some cases it’s not doing too much more than rendering them as a big wraparound screen, in others it’s full on mega-scale, head-tracked 3D, almost as if it were made for VR in the first place. Here are a few cases studies, and with it thoughts on whether playing Full Fat Games this way is successful or worthwhile.
Mirror’s Edge VR
On paper, it’s an ideal game. Striking colours and scale, all the better to tickle vertigo glands and make skylines pop rather than devolve into a mess of big-pixelled muddy detail. It’s also quite a few years’ old, so a modern GPU shouldn’t be unduly taxed by trying to render the image twice at once. In practice, my card (a borrowed AMD R9 Nano) struggled with it far more than it did Firewatch or BioShock. But the lack of a speedy framerate was a distantly secondary concern to how overwhelming nauseous I felt. The city looks beautiful, and remarkably tangible as I clamber over roofs and along ledges, but Faith’s rapid rolling, sliding and tumbling is exactly the kind of sudden movement that dedicated VR gaming consciously steers clear of. A great shame, because conceptually Mirror’s Edge + VR sounds a natural fit, but no dice (no pun intended) until VR’s motion sickness issue is entirely eradicated.
Ed Key and David Kanaga’s escapist wunderkind isn’t officially supported by Vorpx, and given it’s not really 3D as we know it, I wasn’t expecting great things. Hot damn did I want to try though – Proteus is a calm and happy place I escape to often, and I dream of seeing those pastel trees at true tree height. With a bit of settings tinkering, it nearly worked, and at the very least I could get head-tracking in a vast cinema-like display working, but between various glitches and the consumer headsets’ image quality issues, Proteus VR simply wasn’t as stunning as Proteus on a large flat-screen.
The jewel in the unofficial VR crown. Absolutely made for it, honestly. The claustrophobia, the towering architecture, and most of all that introductory sequence. Also, it’s impossible to believe that bathysphere scenes were not made with VR in mind – that sense of being contained and trapped within a small space performing an impossible feat… The horror of BioShock works well this way too – long shadows, something moving in the dark, flickering lights, the shudder of an approaching Daddy. It’s far, far spookier at this scale. Even the inevitable headache/sickness of VR felt more like I was roleplaying Jack than suffering the ill-effects of stuffing my face into future-tech. I had to make quite a few settings compromises to get BioShock running well, however, and this is even before the flashier Remastered version arrives.
Another one of my Dream VR games – to be in that forest, seeing those skies and watching those sunsets – and I’m very happy to discover that it works, start to finish. The 3D effect is dialled down as it doesn’t work well with the best effect ‘geometry 3D’ setting, plus Henry’s arms end up sticking straight forwards at all times due, I think, to a combination of an overclocked FOV and look controls being mapped to head tracking. A passing trouble, though. It is truly lovely to just gaze around the forest. This was also the retrofitted game in which I most noticed the audio – something about being boots on the ground made it sound/seem so much more positional and enveloping. The fireworks near the start were particular effective for this – a real sense that they were over my head, not simply at the top of a screen.
I’m here for the city, obviously. The UI didn’t fit VR cleanly so actually playing the thing was a struggle (something like Firewatch or even BioShock, where on-screen elements are minimal and so reduced peripheral vision isn’t quite such an issue, suits this better), and as expected performance was something of an issue, but to gaze at those Antonovian structures as if walking among them was a beautiful thing.
IN CONCLUSION, would I play an actual honest-to-god, start-to-finish videogame like this? Well, it’s complicated. Depends on the game, mostly, but even then – it’s more about trying a game out in VR than playing it through. To clarify: I don’t particularly wish to play all of or even the majority of BioShock in VR. Partly because of discomfort, partly because I’m doomed to have low or jerky framerates until such time as I pick up a ridiculously high-end graphics card, partly because I’d be repeating myself even despite the wonderland look. What I do want to do is see Rapture in VR, in the manner of a tourist finally visiting somewhere he’s seen and admired in the movies, to know how it looks, how it feels, how it sounds, how it might be were it real.
I have a list of places I want to do that with. Pripyat. Yaughton. Vvardenfell. Bloodlines’ Los Angeles. The kind of places I can close my eyes and conjure scenes of any time. I just want to visit. And, with Vorpx and others like it, I shall continue to do so. The effect is spectacular, when it works, to the point that I have true disbelief that most of these games were made without even the slightest suspicion that they would ever be seen this way. I do not, however, expect to spend more than an hour in each.
Because otherwise I will be throwing up into bucket and trying to splutter “but the bathyspheres, man, the bathyspheres” in between retches. Welcome to the future.