My arms are aching, I'm anxious and I want to be standing on solid ground again. I'm just about as uncomfortable as I can remember being while playing a game, and I think that's a good thing.
At Gamescom, I played two games using the Oculus Touch that impressed me. One was Wilson's Heart, a horror game that reminded me of Frictional's work, and the other was a climbing game. It wasn't the horror game that caused my anxiety to spike, it was The Climb. After playing, I spoke to Jason Rubin, formerly of Naughty Dog and now head of Oculus' “first-party initiatives”. He's spent the last two years figuring out what VR gaming is capable of, and working with game studios to identify projects that might work and problems that might arise. We talked about what is possible now and what the future might hold.
Rubin stays in his seat for most of the interview. At one point, he jumps up and runs over to a door to demonstrate the difficulty of making a virtual hand interact with a handle, and there's a moment when he jumps out of his chair while describing the time he tore his trousers while playing Dead and Buried, a multiplayer shooter. He's animated and enthusiastic, but he begins the interview by asking me a question.
I'd just finished playing The Climb and while the view from the vantage point I'd reached was a splendid reward for my efforts – the game is the most attractive I've seen in VR and I paused for a full minute to take in the view – I was disorientated and a little queasy. Hanging from a cliff-face, scanning up and down for hand-holds and then reaching across to them as stamina runs low and tension rises, I'd become quite anxious.
Maybe I'd played the game for too long without taking a break, which is a sign of how much I was enjoying the challenge, but I needed to sit down and gather my thoughts. It's a remarkable game, played with the Touch controllers, mimicking the movement of your hands incredibly well and using visual and audio feedback to hammer home how close you are to slipping and falling. I was relieved whenever I found a spot where I could rest and started to worry about making my way back down to terra firma, even though I knew that wasn't necessary.
I hadn't realised Rubin was close enough to hear my reaction as I finished playing – he may even have been in the room for a brief time when I was climbing and providing a nervous commentary – but he had picked up on something I said to the person chaperoning me through the session. And so, as we sat down, Rubin began the conversation:
“I know we're working on your time and you might want to jump straight to your questions, but do you mind answering something for me first? You said that this was the first time VR had really made you feel uncomfortable, but said that wasn't necessarily a bad thing. What exactly did you mean by that?”
I've played enough VR games to believe that the hardware can create spaces convincing enough to trick my brain into accepting them, but mostly the experience has been pleasant and playful. Games aren't always pleasant and playful though, and having missed out on Resident Evil 7 VR recently, I hoped Wilson's Heart would be the game to show me that VR could make me feel uncomfortable, scared anxious and even a bit nauseous.
To my surprise, it was The Climb rather than the actual horror game that managed to make me feel all of those things. I explained that to Rubin and how it made an activity that I have little interest in absolutely fascinating, and intense. The focus on a specific type of movement and challenge brought out the best in both the hardware and the control scheme.
I mention Uncharted 4, which I've recently played through, and how Naughty Dog have changed the climbing system ever so slightly, allowing closer control of Nathan Drake's leading hand as he reaches for hold-points. It's a tweak rather than an overhaul, giving finer control of a process that is still mostly guided. The Climb takes that one aspect of an action adventure game and builds a whole set of interactions around it.
That wasn't always the plan though. Rubin described the origins of the game:
“There are three kinds of game we're seeing in VR: the games that can have a VR element but don't need it, the games that suit VR, and games that always WANTED to be VR games but couldn't be before now. A big game, something like Uncharted, could risk falling into the first category.
“Crytek wanted to do a big game, with driving, walking, shooting, climbing. They think big. I asked them if they had tech demos for any of that and they said they didn't at that time. The climbing made sense so I asked them to put something together and they did – just climbing on blocks, no backdrops or graphics like you see in the game today. It worked though and that's when I said we should just make that the game. Just the climbing.
“We're probably not going to see the big game for a while. People are learning how to do things in a new language. Some of that is easy but other things are hard. How do inventories work in VR? Can we use UI in the same way? Things that were never a problem before suddenly become difficult. Movement is difficult. It's the most simple thing in the world to move a character in a game but in VR it becomes a huge challenge.”
That brings me to Wilson's Heart. Although the setting hits horror Bingo far too quickly – asylum, amnesia, documents of extreme foreboding - the opening half hour is well-paced and builds up a sense of dread effectively. You move by teleporting from place to place, each possible location indicated by a ghostly figure. There are plenty of things to interact with at each spot, some of which are there to add flavour rather than to solve puzzles.
I ask about the teleportation trick for movement, which I first saw in Budget Cuts:
“It's an interesting idea because so many designers try to think of a narrative reason for it. It's not enough [for them] that it just solves a problem in an abstract way, it has to be explained within the setting. I think we have to move away from that kind of thinking.”
I understand his point; it'd be like trying to find a narrative reason for characters being able to carry an arsenal's worth of weaponry rather than just accepting it's that way because that way works for the game. It can be interesting to explore these questions but that doesn't mean they always need to be raised as questions in the first place.
The doors in Wilson's Heart are my favourite thing though. The game has a variety of them and I'm not embarrassed to say that I enjoyed interacting with them more than I enjoyed actually progressing through the story. Some require both hands to slide two partitions apart, some have handles that must be turned, and others require a gentle push, to which they respond by creaking open and allowing you to peek through the opening.
I like opening doors in VR. It's an extension of a similar feeling in Frictional's horror games, which have superbly tactile objects in their environments and allow you to manipulate them with some fine control, inching drawers open rather than clicking a button to shift them from one state to another. My favourite parts of SOMA don't relate to the story at all – it's interacting with the machinery and all the switches, levers and buttons.
“You wouldn't believe how much work the door handles took. The problem is, you're reaching for the handle and how do we deal with the fact that you don't actually touch it? Because there's no resistance in the real world, your hand in the game feels like it should pass right through the handle, through the door, through the wall. A lot of work goes into figuring out how to give that feedback.
For a while, so many developers came up with the solution that the player character should be a ghost. That way, it's fine for their hands to pass through things. But you can't have every character in every game be a ghost! That's not a solution.”
Wilson's Heart isn't as immediately impressive as The Climb, as a selling point for the hardware, but it does show that a horror game can work without resorting to jump scare after jump scare, or excruciating violence. More importantly, from my perspective, it plays out a little like a point and click adventure, except without the pointing and clicking. VR is very good at creating believable spaces and having the player concentrate on the details of those spaces, and then, through Touch, allowing interaction with individual elements.
I have a habit of referring to design as a process of finding solutions to problems. Good design doesn't just find clever solutions, it approaches interesting problems. Rubin is refreshing in that he's happy to talk about problems. There's sometimes a hesitance from developers or publishers to refer to problems within design when in conversation with a journalist. I get that. It can sound like I'm trying to introduce a negative spin and the echo could run through an entire article - “Here are the problems developer X faced while designing game Y.”
Rubin is refreshing in his willingness to talk about design as a series of problems, and acknowledges that helping developers to recognise and solve those problems is part of his job. I asked if curation of the Oculus store was important, in the sense that for people who are already wary as to the benefits of VR, a storefront full of games that don't make good use of the system could be an immediate warning sign.
“Absolutely. Anyone can release a game on Oculus but we curate the store quite heavily. And we choose the developers that we want to work with carefully.
"As I was talking about with The Climb, we'll work with a developer, even somebody with a lot of experience like Crytek, to help them make the best game possible. Often that'll mean telling them to think smaller because we know that trying to make lots of different elements work in a single game is a huge task. For now, I'd rather see games that do a few things well than games that do a lot of things and only do a few of those things well.”
The Climb, with the Oculus Touch, was a revelation to me. It's on a par with the first time I ever used a Rift, back in 2013. I started that article by stating that “I didn't believe in the Oculus Rift”. Taking a passenger seat in a fighter plane, flying over low resolution scenery, convinced me that there might be something to the tech.
Playing Climb using the Touch controllers gave me a similar feeling for the first time since. It's exciting and it doesn't feel like anything else I've ever played.
With Sturmovik and The Climb as my reference points, I asked Rubin to pick out the moments that had convinced him that VR was a plausible future for games.
He describes an early Oculus demo where the player is standing at the edge of a sheer drop. “People will not step forward over the edge. They know that they're in a room, standing on solid ground, but they do not want to put their foot forward because they can see that they will fall. I loved that.”
And then there's Toybox, which allows two players to mess around with the contents of a... toybox. Players are represented by a face and two hands, so that their intent and interactions can be seen.
“When you see that avatar, even though it's abstract and you know that there is nobody in the room with you, people often have a flight response. When another person comes toward you, right up to your face, you don't know what its intent is: it could want to fight, it could be curious, it could be a sexual thing. There is always a reaction though; people don't just stand their ground, unaffected.”
Perhaps it's because I've just been playing two games that induced anxiety, but I find the whole idea of avatars in VR slightly unnerving. Rubin agrees that the Toybox experience can be unnerving but also recognises the possibilities of opening up new kinds of social interaction - “There's a reason Facebook bought Oculus, right?”- and enabling people to experience things that would otherwise be impossible for them.
That's something games have always excelled at. I joke that the number of fatal falls I suffered in The Climb shows precisely why I should stick to VR climbing rather than the real thing, and Rubin responds with a serious point, telling me about a wheelchair user who played the game at a convention.
“However playing The Climb feels for the two of us, it's hard to compare to how it felt for him. That's part of what VR can do as well, placing people in different bodies and different identities. We can enable but we can also challenge how people think of themselves.”
The most memorable moment in Wilson's Heart doesn't rely on anything overtly creepy or otherworldly. You come across a mirror and are suddenly face to face with yourself. Except it's not yourself. It's a haggard white man who looks like he needs about a week of sleep to shake away the waking nightmares.
For me, that's a fairly accurate reflection, and yet the scene is still bewildering. Shocking even. I can raise my hands and turn my head, and another person copies my movements. There's a reason for the scene beyond the reveal of your other self, and I won't spoil that, but it's the thing that comes to mind immediately when Rubin turns to playing with identity.
“Imagine how much stranger that would be if you didn't look anything like the guy in the mirror, or if the person in the mirror didn't look anything like you. We can shock you and scare you, but what about empathy and thoughts about stepping into a different body? That's something that we want to explore as well.”