Of all the virtual reality games to leave me feeling disoriented, Minecraft was the one I least expected. The pixel-art game, which Microsoft announced today would be coming to the Oculus Rift headset when it starts shipping next month, was a surprisingly immersive VR experience when I tried it last week. But as one of the only upcoming Rift games not built from the ground up for VR, Minecraft is a perfect example of how transitioning a traditional game to a 360-degree environment has its downsides.
For a title with such low-resolution graphics, Minecraft felt more real than any other VR title I've tried to date. That's mostly because the powerful gaming PC it was running on wasn't trying to render a world with photorealistic visuals. Instead, it could focus on creating the most responsive and fluid scenes made up of only pixel blocks. Nothing in Minecraft's Rift representation stutters or blurs or feels artificial — and that has the somewhat adverse effect of freaking your brain out.
Minecraft in VR can freak your brain out
Similar to the uncanny valley in which an animated or robotic being sits uncomfortably between the real and the unreal, Minecraft in VR can throw you for a serious loop. You're standing inside a world you know is not real, and yet you're being blasted with stimuli telling you otherwise. It's the sensation of "presence," the feeling that you're physically somewhere else. It certainly takes getting used to and may be off-putting to those not well acclimated to VR.
There's also the matter of moving around. When a game is typically constructed for VR, it's done so with careful consideration as to how players will be able to explore. A game can be designed to be a full-body experience — like the aperture robot repair demo for the HTC Vive, which uses a laser system and positional trackers to keep you within the confines of a safe area. More often, however, a VR game will rely only on the position of your head and will take into account the fact that you'll be stationary on a couch or in front of a computer.
Minecraft for the Rift tries to pull off both of those styles at once because it was designed to be played on a screen, and not one pressed up against your face. My head and joystick were in constant battle for control of my view. At times, I had to use the Xbox One controller to reorient the screen because the alternative was moving my whole body in dramatic fashion just to, say, round a sharp corner or turn to look behind me. It's odd and discombobulating watching your view jitter left and right when you use the thumbstick while your head stays stationary. It's a necessary though to have a wide-open game world you can't explore by physically walking around a room.
That brings me to one of Minecraft's most interesting VR features. With the tap of a button, you can pull out of first-person mode and play the game on a virtual screen in a virtual living room. The scene is still in Minecraft's pixel-art style, but all of the motion is happening within a fixed rectangle many feet away from your eyes. Throughout my demo, I had to pull myself out of the Minecraft world and play the game on the virtual screen for fear I was pushing myself up against my comfort threshold.
I preferred playing Minecraft in the virtual living room
I pushed through most of the demo in first-person mode to get a full sense of how it felt, but I definitely preferred playing in the living room setting. The feature hints at an understanding from the game’s developers that the first-person mode wont be for everyone.
I'm not saying Minecraft for the Rift wasn't a fascinating and exhilarating time. I can see the game becoming one of the core staples for Oculus' headset, and it should without a doubt convince gamers that there's more to VR than walking simulators trying to replicate reality. (And kids will undoubtedly lose it when they try this for the first time.) But it's also a very telling lesson in what kinds of constraints developers are working with, and just how different a made-for-VR game is from one designed for a controller and a standard screen.
My game-playing friends often ask me about the future of VR, and whether we'll see games like Halo or Call of Duty ported over to the Rift. I have to explain that it's not a good idea to just throw players in a first-person game that was designed for 60-frames-per-second gameplay on a TV. When characters start moving as fast as super-soldiers, the experience would completely break down. Figuring out how to translate those more traditional games into VR will be a big challenge, but Minecraft is a solid start.