The Vive overwhelmed me when I first tried it at GDC, but after playing through Valve's hand-picked demos for a general sense of the VR headset, I went back for a second time to play more of Job Simulator [official site]. Of the game-like experiences I've had with the device, it was the best - better even than Valve's own Portal 2 vignette.
The game begins in a cartoon kitchen. Laid out in front of me is a kitchen surface with a chopping board, a rolling pin, a stove, some ingredients, and behind it all, a robot. "The high level of Job Simulator is, in 2050 robots have taken most of our jobs," explains Alex Schwartz, the founder of developer Owlchemy Labs. "So in order to make sure our children understand what all of the old usurped professions are, there's this simulation. It's basically this pile of VHS tapes in the loading scene, and you can put the tape in - say, "gourmet chef" or "chemist" or "bartender" - and you put it in the mouth of the job-bot and then you get teleported into this world."
The demo they're letting people play at GDC is the chef simulation, so job-bot welcomes me and shows me a recipe on screen for tomato soup - two mushrooms, two tomatoes, and a lot of sriracha hot sauce. I pick up a mushroom and plop it in the pot, then grab two tomato halves at the same time and drop those in. I look for a second mushroom and as I glance towards the fridge, it opens automatically. I reach inside and take what I need, toss it in the pot, then pick up and turn the sriracha bottle upside down to pour it inside.
As simple as they sound, these mere actions - simple tasks of picking, dropping, reaching - are core the pleasure of Job Simulator. "It’s amazing to grab stuff, it’s amazing to just put things on top of each other - stack, move, throw. All these kind of kinetic actions that weren't possible before we had input," says Schwartz. I agree. What would have felt mundane in a first-person game with mouse and keyboard controls takes on a strange pleasure in VR with motion controllers, albeit one likely dependent upon the novelty of interacting in an unusual way. Owlchemy know this, too - they're the only VR developers I speak to at GDC who aren't also planning to release the game for regular monitors.
Once I've combined my ingredients in the pot on the stove, they combine to produce a tin of what looks a little like Campbell's tomato soup. I put the tin - the whole, unopened tin - on a plate by a window in the wall, ding a bell, and the plate flies off to its unseen restaurant eater. Objective complete.
"Things are wrong in the simulation," says Schwartz. "Like, why do you make a can of soup when you put all the ingredients in, why isn't it real soup? And, it’s because it’s the future's view on the past, done through like a dirty lens. As if the robots didn't do their research very well about what those jobs used to be, so it's a simulation of the current from the future as the past."
This is the other half of Job Simulator's appeal: there is silliness in the simulation, and Owlchemy are writing or programming responses to any actions players are likely to perform in the world. That means that when you reach up to knock a hanging pot, it swings. When you throw things at the robot, he obediently responds. "We just watch people play and we realise; hey, they're doing this real world analogue thing that we haven't supported," says Schwartz. "Like, my wife; she threw a plate on the ground and it didn't break. She was like, 'c'mon!'. So I added that immediately to the top of my task list; make plates break."
A second recipe has appeared on the screen next to the job-bot, but I ignore it. I start to look around the room at all the different objects. I pick up a recipe book, put it on a plate, and ding the bell to watch it fly away to a virtual patron. I put a knife inside the microwave and cook it, to which the job-bot congratulates me. "You have created a: no." I put the smoking, charred lump on another plate, and ding it away, too.
"We thought people were going to follow the recipe straight up, and it would be like, 'OK, here's this and then that,' and then you follow the steps and you've successfully done your thing," Schwartz tells me later. "And usually people, so far that I've seen, they do the soup creation and they realise 'OK, I'm in control here' and they stop listening to the robot and they start throwing shit around."
Yeah, pretty much. Plates do break now. That 1:1 relationship between your expectations and the game's responses is important, because it's twice as frustrating than it would be in non-VR games to try something in VR - to physically try to crack an egg against the side a pan, say - and to have nothing happen in response.
The other benefit to that close simulation, even in a cartoony world, is that when a game world works as expected, there's a lot less that needs explaining to players. "My mother who is 59-years-old and gets sick on motion simulation rides even at Universal, she put this headset on and she was in that kitchen, throwing shit around, picking stuff up off the floor. There was nothing to know, there was no 'how do I do this, how do I do that?' You just do it, because it’s a one-to-one of the real world."
This freedom to go off-track and experiment so easily is what made Job Simulator the best game I played on the device. I was more impressed by the technology in some of the tools and passive experiences, and Valve's Portal 2 vignette was funnier, but everything else was also wholly linear. They were either cinematic novelties or simply frustratingly limiting, albeit while still leaving you staring gawp-eyed in wonder. Job Simulator, meanwhile, felt like it had a structure in place that could expand to be entertaining even after the initial VR thrills wore off.
Owlchemy are aiming to release on day one with the release of the Vive, which is due before the end of the year.