Spring is tentatively Springing. The outside world is becoming more and more appealing. Yet I eschewed sunshine and the joyful company of my capering 2-year-old for what? Why, for performing menial chores in the dark, with an LCD screen mashed directly onto my eyeballs. Job Simulator [official site] is a cheerful satire of a possible future in which robots rule the world and recreate the boundlessly mundane human jobs of yesteryear for their own entertainment - but this cannot come close to the fundamental absurdity of what I am doing with a VR headset today. The future is here, and it's bloody ridiculous.
It's hard to say exactly what is the headline act for the Vive, whose first major foray into public availability began today, but Owlchemy's Job Simulator is certainly one of the biggest hitters. With its physics-based buffoonery and playful cartoon style it's tempting to call it the Wii Sports of Valve's VR platform, but I think that honour will ultimately go to something else, something I haven't tried or perhaps don't even know about yet.
Wii Sports was the game you used to demo your console and delight relatives with, yes, but it's also the one that you actually went back to time and again. Job Simulator is a hoot, make no bones about it, but it's an inventive and funny showcase rather than something I'm going to repeatedly check in on.
The Vive usually gets talked about as a virtual reality headset and as one that turns your room into a navigable playspace, but there's a third string to its bow, which is its wireless motion controllers. These are key to the whole experience, because they let you use your hands. No finger control, no, but you can pick up, move and throw objects which do not, in fact, exist, and this is a big part of why the humble brain quickly settles on 'sure, this is basically real, why not?'
Job Simulator is almost more about these controllers than it is VR. While the initial awe of finding yourself standing within a visually enormous cartoon space filled with robots and big chunky vegetables or coffee machines or cars doesn't dissipate as such, it quickly ceases to be what your attention is focused on. The 360-degree and enormous surrounding become taken for granted.
Your attention is instead focused entirely on clumsily picking up an egg and trying to crack it open on a worktop counter, or cack-handedly pushing a new tyre onto a boxy car, or waving a hexagonal donut somewhere near where your mouth is. In other words, you're grappling with the comedy physics of so many Wii titles, or even something like Goat Simulator, more than you are existing in whole new form of reality.
It works. It feels entirely as though you're there, stood behind that Quick-E-Mart desk or in that greasy spoon kitchenette, frantically responding to orders - make sandwich, scratch lottery ticket - and fumbling your way through believably tangible objects to do so. The patter, from in-game billboards and robot observers, is often very funny, and there's a rich seam of inventiveness in the challenges asked of you.
The robots don't know what 'burning a CD' meant in the ancient human vernacular, so they tell you to put one in a toaster. Pizza is made by putting bread and cheese in the microwave. Bananas are stuffed up malfunctioning car exhausts. The radio station reassures you that everything is fine, just fine, and the robots are definitely not killing all the humans.
Loads of stuff like that, and a deft blend of the background or spoken gag and the player-driven pratfall: things fall over, things catch on fire, things can be turned into hood ornaments, things can be thrown at robots who then frown at you... Just taking it all, just mucking around in it is a good time. It's not the most dramatic use of room scale-VR - you're mostly taking small steps and doing a lot of turning and reaching - but it all feels so physical. A virtual reality, without a doubt.
Then the question creeps, unbidden and unstoppably, into your mind.
Why? Why am I doing this?
Once you have clumsily made one disgusting sandwich by waggling a motion controller into the fridge and onto the breadboard, what is there to be gained from doing it again? How many times can drinking a virtual cup of coffee remain delightful? Each of Job Simulator's four mini-games lasts around 20 minutes - with an option to dick around endlessly if you so wish - and once done the only reason I can think you'd do it again is because you wanted to show your Vive off to a friend or a relative.
As a demo of what VR+motion control can do, I can't think of much better. It's charming and it's clever and its comedy is responsive to your actions, and most of all it demonstrates that this technology really does work, but I just can't see any reason to go back to it solo.
Right now, none of that matters. Job Simulator is a showcase - one that comes 'free' with a near-£800 Vive kit. Makes sense, works very well as a first port of call. But it's also being sold seperately for £30, and at some point the 'free' offer will apparently expire so that's what later Vive owners will have to pay for Job Sim. I generally hate getting into value arguments, but this one's off the charts. Tilt Brush, another showcase launch title, is one I repeatedly fire up, for the sheer pleasure of abstract and ambient creation, but this does all it sets out to achieve all too soon.
It's delightful, but it's delightful for about 90 minutes - with the very important exception that you might very well bust it out every time someone new comes around your house.
The Vive floodgates opened up today: I'm hoping that, somewhere in the sprawl of new titles, I'll find something that answers the lingering question: what kind of games am I going to play in VR in the longer term? The witty and inventive Job Simulator is an excellent shopfront display for Valve and HTC's technology, but it is not by any means an answer to that question.