The Verge's New York offices now have an official virtual reality room. The library for its HTC Vive Pre holds a bunch of experiments and demos for full games we won't see for weeks or even months. But there's too much cool stuff to ignore. So for the next few weeks, we're putting our writers, editors, artists, and videographers through some of the best that VR has to offer. Here's what we think.
I play a lot of video games, and most of the time, my body intrudes on the experience in the form of physical pain. A crick in my neck or the tendonitis in my wrist acting up. A reminder to get up, step away from the screen, and return to "real life." The best part of my time in the HTC Vive Pre was the exact opposite. As I played my way through Space Pirates, fighting wave after wave of angry droids with a blaster and shield, I was continually surprised and delighted by the way in which my body mattered, by having to unlearn the sedentary approach to gaming which has been my reality for the last few decades.
The Space Pirate Trainer demo is a very limited offering - you battle waves of enemies that get larger and larger in size, with almost no evolution in the environment, opponents, or tools available to you. It’s really a proof of concept, so the fact that it can remain entertaining for hours on end speaks volumes about the rich experience the Vive provides. The thrill may wear off eventually, but I never got tired of experimenting with different ways to contort myself around enemy fire, working the edges of my peripheral vision for clues to incoming attacks.
You can hit what you can't see
The game uses two controllers, one in each hand. You can transition back and forth between a gun and a shield by reaching over your shoulder, as if unsheathing a sword hung across your back. The robots fly around you in 360 degrees, firing bursts of lasers. You shoot them to finish a wave, block incoming lasers with your shield, or blast enemy fire out of the air with lasers of your own. Imagine the training scene from A New Hope, but with blasters instead of a lightsaber.
I have always been the type to respond to the action on screen, bobbing and weaving in my chair, ducking down in the hopes it would help my onscreen character to survive. Over time I learned instinctively that what my body did was irrelevant. In the Vive, that meant I had to remind myself time and again that it mattered. I would be shuffling my feet a little, trying to use my shield and pistol to annihilate a wave of enemies without being hit, and then I would think "oh right, I can duck."
Depth is another thing that I kept having to remind myself about. After so much time using a controller to manipulate action on a two-dimensional screen, it’s downright trippy to put my shield up, then slip my other hand in front of it, firing my gun while protecting myself. Equally revelatory is using two pistols to fire John Woo-style. The fact that my arm could follow a character offscreen kept bringing a smile to my face, as I twirled to face new enemies while finishing off a droid that had crept behind my flank.
The biological quirks are the best bit
After struggling to get a bead on some enemy droids, I found myself closing one eye. My aim improved. I don’t really know what to make of that. Each of my eyes in the game is seeing a slightly different version of the same image, an attempt to recreate our natural, binocular vision. Why does one eye work better in this virtual space? Being reminded of the quirks of my own physiology was a wonderful thing, something I’m not sure any other video game has ever done.
I broke a sweat after an hour. That’s nice too. The Nintendo Wii was wonderful while it lasted. Kinect seems increasingly like abandonware. Playing a videogame that results in actual exercise makes the whole thing feel less like a guilty pleasure. The pounding headache that developed in my right temple, on the other hand, seemed like a stern warning from my physical form that this much VR was not a good idea.