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Wilson's Heart shows how VR could make adventure games for everyone

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Few people will actually play any Oculus Rift games, especially ones using its Touch motion controllers, for a long time. Writing a preview for one is like describing a visit to a small art gallery: hypothetically interesting, but holding little relevance for most people’s lives. But even if you doubt you’ll ever own a Rift, Wilson’s Heart could be one of the best arguments for giving it a try.

Wilson’s Heart is set in a strange hospital, apparently sometime in the ‘40s or ‘50s. The world is black and white, and its vibe is somewhere between Shutter Island, The Twilight Zone, and the early stages of ‘90s point-and-click horror game Sanitarium. In my short demo, I woke up in the body of Robert Wilson, voiced by RoboCop’s Peter Weller. I pulled off the restraints that I was inexplicably wearing and made my way out to an intercom, which shorted out as I tried to figure out what was going on. Within a few minutes, I had found a mysterious book and a dead man, but the nurses back in the hallway didn’t believe me — until a creature seemingly dragged them to their doom, and it was too late.

The 20 minutes I saw of Wilson’s Heart were a simple adventure game, the sort that’s mostly about exploring to find the key or item that will let you move on to the next space. Later in the game, I’m told, you’ll gain new abilities courtesy of the "mysterious device" that’s replaced your heart — the developers wouldn’t divulge much more, but they suggested things along the lines of magnetic powers, not direct combat skills.

While high-end VR hardware itself is still tough to access, motion controls that feel directly connected to your body make interacting with a 3D world incredibly approachable. There’s no learning to move with a keyboard’s WASD keys, or twisting a mouse or analog stick to examine an item. Instead, you’ll reach out your disembodied hands, which fade off smoothly around the lower arm, and pull a trigger to pick up objects. To get around, you look for a ghostlike silhouette where your character can move, then click one of the Touch controller's sticks. It doesn’t require memorizing buttons, or even remembering more than a couple of controls. Motion and gesture controllers have been used in games before, but the Touch is much more painlessly accurate, and looking at a copy of your hands on a TV screen is less intuitive than seeing them move right in front of you.

Knowing that players will look around scenes like actual human beings could promote more challenges that feel like real extensions of the world, not abstract moon-logic puzzles — or, conversely, ones that involve little more than pressing a button every so often. The best moments in Wilson’s Heart are those that make you remember your own body. If you’re in desperate need of a fire extinguisher that’s locked away, for example, you don't look for a key or heavy object — you just punch the glass in front of it. Something as simple as trying different keys in a lock becomes compelling when you're pulling them off a key ring as quickly as possible, trying to find the right one before a mysterious creature attacks you.

One of the risks of motion control gaming is that it’s harder for people with less real-world stamina, dexterity, or breadth of motion. But the demo’s simple actions weren’t nearly as exhausting as trying to shoot at waves of robots or climb a cliff face, and Oculus is promising to make it work for as many people as possible. Around the start of the game, you’re told to look in a mirror above a sink, letting you see your character's face. When I mentioned that I would probably see things from a different perspective than the much taller protagonist, Oculus head of content Jason Rubin started wondering whether the mirror would be too high for people who were even shorter, or seated in a wheelchair. He ran back to the developers’ booth to ask.

I’ve been badly disappointed by some Rift games with excellent demos, so I can’t say whether Wilson’s Heart will live up to my expectations. Likewise, the Touch controller implementation isn’t perfect — you’ll occasionally pick something up in a way that’s awkward, or have trouble moving things from one hand to another. But it shows how VR can help realize the potential of exploration games, creating an experience that’s less reliant on knowing existing video game conventions.

Wilson’s Heart isn't the only title trying to do this; The Gallery: Six Elements is an HTC Vive adventure game that's also based on natural motion. But Wilson’s Heart promises unusual polish and style, and it's a shame it won’t come out until 2017, well after Touch is supposed to be released. We’ll just be hoping to play more of it before then.