I've dodged killbots in clandestine facilities, tumbled down mountains in a space buggy, and painted neon lights across a starry sky. But after months of bumbling about in virtual reality, I remain unconvinced. PC-based virtual reality looks neat, but the hardware is expensive, cumbersome cables keep you restrained, and it isn't worth the cost of upgrading my gaming rig.
At least, I wasn't convinced -- but would you believe that a few rounds of mini golf may have finally won me over?
Earlier this week I took a trip to Seattle for Valve's SteamVR Developer showcase. In the spacious, spartan Fremont Studios, 12 game developers congregated to present 12 distinct takes on virtual reality, each showing off games slated to be released for the HTC Vive sometime this year.
The experiences ran the gamut, from first-person shooters that'll have you taking down zombies, to introspective, puzzle-heavy exploration adventures. These are arguably the best of the best games in development for SteamVR and the Vive -- why else would Valve, the arbiter of PC gaming, invite them all to this fairly exclusive showcase?
And Cloudlands: VR Minigolf is probably the least flashy of them all. I mean, it's mini golf: you choose a putter length, pick a color for your ball and get to putting. So I step behind the ball and get to it, winding the HTC Vive's remote control back for the big drives or lightly tapping the ball to ease it around a gentle curve. Sometimes, I need to get down low to line up a shot around whirling electric fans, or down narrow wooden ramps. I'll occasionally lean over to the side, cautiously peering over the edge of a hill to get an idea of what the rest of the course looks like. And sometimes the ball gets stuck in a corner and I've got to crane my arms awkwardly, to get the putter around a pillar.
The folks from Futuretown, the game's developer, remind me that I could just, you know, step into the pillar, which conveniently fades away, because it's not actually there. And I know that, I'm not some kind of idiot. But I'm still ducking to and fro, ruining perfectly good shots because what if that rapidly twisting wall hits me? Maybe I am an idiot.
But that's okay, because this is what I've been missing. Not kooky first-person shooters that let me chuck bullets at baddies, or simulators where I make sandwiches for robots. The courses in Cloudlands make a logical sort of sense, and the ball and course physics are spot on. But it'd be excruciating to navigate those steep hills, or clamber up and down these glass towers, in the real world. Here I just push a button, and I'm back to contorting myself awkwardly to get that perfect shot -- sacrifices must be made if I'm going to stay under par.
Like vanilla reality, only better
My ideal VR experience is less concerned with the highlighting the wonders of this new medium, and more concerned with taking the familiar, and making it fantastical. When the lines between the real world (i.e, meatspace) and virtual reality are blurred, and the illusion becomes so strong I can almost forget I'm wearing a headset, the experience is magnified.
VR Minigolf is my gateway drug, but the space exploration and combat simulator Elite: Dangerous will be my ruin.
I'm a huge fan of Elite. My desk at home has transformed into a poor man's cockpit, my regular keyboard shoved aside to make room for a pair of joysticks and a smaller one-handed keyboard, in a feeble attempt to make my interstellar exploits as efficient as possible.
But Elite was designed with head-tracking in mind -- strap on the HTC Vive, and I can look left or right to get to control panels on my ship that I'd normally navigate by keyboard shortcuts. I usually rely on the radar to find targets in the inky blackness of space. But dogfighting is an entirely new experience when you're craning your neck around a cockpit, keeping an eye on a target that's just out of view and working your joystick and throttle, out of sight, to get you into position. And in Elite, your pilot's arms rest on a stick and throttle that mimic the motions you make in the real world. Get your chair and peripherals lined up just right, and it's a beautiful, convincing illusion -- I've gone back to Elite on my PC at home in the last few nights, and it just feels wrong without a VR headset, pulling me into the action.
Coming to terms with the cord
But the illusion in Elite: Dangerous works so well because you're sitting down, in a chair. The cord that tethers PC-based Virtual Reality remains its chief drawback, breaking my sense of immersion every time my legs or arms get caught up. I can forgive it in VR Minigolf because my movements are restrained; you develop a sort of sixth sense, understanding where the cables are in relation to your body, and compensating for them as you're making your way around a golf course.
In Neat Corporation's Budget Cuts, I don't really have the luxury of time. In this stealth-centric puzzle game, killer robots can strike me down in seconds. I have a few feet of space to maneuver in, enough to peek out around a corner, or step back behind a wall. But I can't just run away from a fight, movement is restricted to launching glowing orbs that transform into portals you'll teleport through -- a task that becomes especially difficult when you're down on your knees crawling through a vent, or hastily turning a corner and teleporting between rooms, hoping to evade capture.
I spent 3 hours (albeit broken up into 15-minute chunks) immersed in diverse virtual words, the longest span of VR time I've had in a single day, and I still don't have an answer for this tethered cord conundrum.
I want to believe I got over it and learned to live with the limited range of motion when I just wanted to scamper, or spin in circles, or even just wander without worrying about remembering a particular teleportation mechanic or the gesture required to move about.
Valve gathered the best of the best virtual-reality experiences in development for SteamVR into a single room, each showcasing their own take on an experience unlike anything we've had before. But as much as these experiences improve over the next few months, they're still ultimately limited by the restricted cable that defines virtual reality on the PC.
Until some far flung future when PC-based VR goes wireless, there'll still be that tug holding me back, when I want to see just a little bit more and explore a little bit further. I got a taste of this when I reviewed Samsung's Gear VR, you're restricted to Samsung's latest mobile phones and the experiences aren't nearly as robust, but you're at least free to wander.
I've seen enough, though. Never mind the hardware costs -- this VR-naysayer is back on the fence, and cable complaints will only hold me back for so long. Valve has confirmed that we'll be able to get our hands on the HTC Vive Pre soon, so brace yourselves for the deluge of impressions as we get to spend a lot more time roaming virtual worlds.