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The RPG Scrollbars: Virtual Reality, RPGs, And Me

Vive, la revolution?

Like most people who can't resist casually mentioning they have an HTC Vive, I recently acquired a HTC Vive. Finally, I have the ability to personally step into worlds of wonder and creativity more realistic and inspiring than anything mankind has ever created before. Instead, I've... uh... been playing mini-golf. Like, a lot of mini-golf. The one VR experience I could literally have better and at higher resolution by getting up going into my own town, only that wouldn't be cool, because I wouldn't regularly float over cliffs as I cack-handedly putt-putt away like I'm trying to join a parade.

I have no idea if virtual reality is the next big thing or just a passing fad. Even as potential fads go though, I can't wait to see what it has in store for RPGs. As long as it's not giant spiders in my face, obviously, I've been looking forward to it for a long time.

And I mean that. I still fondly remember the original VR adventures from the early 90s, in my case mostly to be found at the Metro Centre in Gateshead. It was a perfect place for it. I haven't been there in literally decades, so don't take this as an endorsement or accurate snapshot of what's there now, but it began as an interesting space in its own right. Most of it was your standard issue mall, but then you'd turn the corner and find something different, like a mediterranean village area, or an equivalent area where it was always night and LED stars twinkled away in the skies. It had its own little themepark, and areas tucked away where the likes of The Children's Channel would dispatch its least fortunate employees to handle swarms of kids wanting to play Earthworm Jim and remind them that it alone was actually worth watching. I liked the Metro Centre a lot, and in particular, its arcade. They had all the showy games to either play at a cost of roughly one hundred billion pounds a go (adjusting for inflation), or simply enjoy as spectator sports. Space Pirates. Mortal Kombat. Hologram: Time Traveller, aka the shittiest Dragon's Lair rip-off ever made. Sigh.

And of course, they had VR machines. Specifically, VTOL, a game which put you in charge of a helicopter that you could... well, crash. In theory, it did more than that, but I can't attest to it. Still, getting to wear the heavy Virtuality helmet was an awesome experience, even if the game... well, even at the time it was a bit of a struggle. Just to put this into context, early VR had a resolution of 276x372 per eye, was powered by an Amiga 3000, couldn't handle anything as complicated as texture mapping, and ran at about 20FPS. But it was the future! And if you couldn't get to the Trocadero center in London, as seen in the opening feature of the short-lived Click magazine, a taste of the future was something to be savoured. It's not like another one was coming any time soon, never mind that a single go was pocket-money poison.

These were delicious tastes. On a trip to Florida, I got to play the Aladdin VR ride in front of an audience of incredibly jealous fellow kids - also a low-resolution experience, but one throwing Silicon Graphics technology at the problem, which really took the 'Bah' out of Agrabah for a change. On another trip, I got to play both Doom and System Shock, both awesome as long as you didn't mind having a gun sticking out of your head instead of welded to your face. I was as excited about VR as pretty much anyone, even to the extent of managing to get through two whole episodes of the Craig Charles show Cyber Zone. Nothing summed up the gulf between VR's possibility and reality than this, a cyberpunk gameshow in the Knightmare/The Crystal Maze mould, in which Dave Lister Awooga-d his way around a cyberpunk future full of chainlink fences and catchphrases... before introducing a map called CyberSwindon and challenging teams to shoot ducks in virtual reality. Good god, did this show not need to exist.

Then of course there was Legend Quest. Legend Quest was the game I remember everyone being the most excited about. The completely immersive 3D dungeon experience where you and a team of up to three friends could don the helmets (with the microphones altering your voice depending on if you were dwarf or elf) and step into a whole new world. It was a standing experience in a tiny little shop in Nottingham, with the big set-piece being a statue that turned into an actual monster when you got too close. But what's the point of my describing it when I can just show a clip?

Cover image for YouTube video

(My party was not this successful. As I recall we mostly flailed around incoherently, couldn't quite see anything because the headsets weren't properly focused, ended up stumbling into walls and getting split-up, and ultimately the game just ended when, I'm guessing, everyone got unceremoniously backstabbed by a skeleton. Still, more fun than Descent to Undermountain! And not that much worse graphically. For this, we paid about £1.50 for every five minutes, which might sound like a lot, and was, but is still better value than phoning up for a game of Adventure Call...)

The funny thing is that, and I don't mean this damning with faint praise, I kinda feel like I just played it again. Specifically, I mean Vanishing Realms, which much like the technology on my head, is a very similar idea done to modern standards. It's not going to age well. It's the absolute definition of a first-generation try at something new, but that doesn't stop it being cool. It's also one of the first actual Games That Want To Be Proper Games for the Vive, rather than something experiential like Valve's The Lab or the ball-and-occasionally-back-wall-bashing of Audioshield et al. You actually have a dungeon to explore, with obstacles like blades swinging out of walls, monsters to flail at and fight, gold to gather and spend on weapons, and lots of rooms designed to show off the scale and sense of presence that even a relatively simple location has once you're staring at it through a couple of HD screens and able to wander.

Everybody talks about the sense of presence, but the Vive is the first VR headset that I think genuinely nails it - and I had a DK2. Even with a tiny room that barely offers enough space for room-scale play, room-scale movement is a game-changer technology. What's most interesting about it though isn't the sensation while playing the games themselves, when it's very easy to get lost in the illusion, but the perceptions that are recorded in the game. Much like making eye-contact triggers the same synapses as doing so in real-life, the sense of having been in a world lingers long after the helmet comes off. There's nothing particularly interesting about Vanishing Realms' opening areas compared to even other VR locations. So far, I think my favourite is the Secret Shop from Valve's The Lab, as a kind of preview of the fidelity that commercial games will hopefully be offering by the end of the year. Yet even so, I could probably draw you a map of those opening corridors, and remember them as being far more real and creepy than a quick look at the screenshots shows them to be.

When you finally get out of the opening tunnels into a moonlit valley, it genuinely feels like an sea-change in a way that going outside hasn't since games like Shadowcaster and Dungeon Master 2 stuck a sky texture on the ceiling and we all imagined one day playing Ultima Overworld. Oh, to play something like Skyrim properly on the Vive. I know, there's tools like VorpX that can try to jury-rig it, and I tried it on my DK2, but that was just enough proof for me to know that I need my VR games more tightly tied to the technology than hacks and so on can do. After trying room scale, the bar has only gotten higher. Even if we desperately need a better form of locomotion than teleporting everywhere. It's fine as a stop-gap, but it's jarring even in the initial bout of games like Vanishing Realms. I can't imagine it being the standard locomotive tool of choice in two years, and if it is, the industry can officially have considered itself to have failed.

The only downside is that being part of a world makes breaks from what you should be able to do all the more annoying, like - yes - talk to the monsters, or bash in a skeleton with a torch instead of a sword, even if the torch isn't officially considered an item. Vanishing Realms generally does a decent job of its world simulation, especially things like moving the torch up to a flammable object to set it on fire, so the moments when it doesn't are all the more disturbing. But, it's early days, for both players and developers. I've had more than a few embarrassing moments of my own, including being very impressed at the haptic feedback as I batted a balloon across a cavernous warehouse only to realise that I'd just smacked my ceiling with the Vive controller. Doh.

Just dipping into the simple games and experiences already available though takes me right back to 1991 - not knowing if anything will come of this, but desperately hoping it will. A big difference between now and then though is realising just how many different forms the cool thing could take, from the classic first-person experience of wandering through a dungeon, to sitting back and looking at something more akin to a table-top system, or following along in third person to have the feel of being in a world while still allowing for abstraction in controls and not having to worry about things like locomotion and haptic feedback. It'd be cool to be in the middle of an epic wizard battle, pausing and stepping through the pyrotechnics for a better view, while still enjoying the scale of being in the world. Arguably, that's a more immersive way of playing than actually Being The Guy, since it cleans the board of immersion breaking factors like knocking a pot and not having it fall to the ground, or not being able to pick something up off a wall. I could totally imagine playing a Dragon Age game like that, even if (to stick with Bioware) I'd rather 'be' Shepard/whoever in Mass Effect.

And then of course, all the potential for new experiences. Valve's Secret Shop was cool, but you know what I want? The Hearthstone tavern. I want to sit across from Jaina, Thrall and friends at a table and play, while the innkeeper wanders past and a couple of trolls have a fist-fight in the corner. I want to fire it up at Christm- ahem, at Winter Veil and see it all decorated. For the moment, I suspect it's that kind of experience we have to look forward to rather than big, ten-thirty hour epics, and the stankiness of the sweat-absorbing foam in that headset means that's probably a good idea. But with presence, with character, with an eye for flair as well as technique, I can imagine looking back fondly on even really good five to ten minute experiences some thirty years in the future, much as VTOL, Legend Quest and whatever still ring a nostalgic bell. I just hope that now, with proper technology backing up the dream, we'll be able to remember them for what they were, instead of what they wanted to be.

Please though. I mean it most sincerely: No jumping spiders to the face.

These headsets are fragile... and expensive.

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Richard Cobbett