The following article is the experience of one member of the PlayStation Universe team while playing virtual reality games. The comparison of virtual reality gaming to that of taking recreational drugs is based on his own personal experience. One thing we’ve learned about VR gaming over the past few months is that the experience can differ greatly from one person to the next. It’s an experience that needs to be tried before it can be judged.
Crystal Rift virtual reality demo
I feel isolated. At this moment in time nothing around me in the real world appears to exists as I’m captivated and immersed in a surreal, virtual reality bubble. I’m moving cautiously through narrow and gloomy, smoke-filled corridors, slaying skeletons and avoiding shadowy figures that lurk wherever I turn my head as I dodge traps that make me wince, duck and shout out expletives.
I laugh, but feel anxious, I feel in awe – occasionally pausing for respite to exhale and breathe out as if I’m experiencing a rush from a hypnotic drug – but also feel like I want to escape back to reality and leave this world behind. I’m out of my comfort zone and in a universe that feels so real, yet alien to my brain that it sends out mixed messages. This is virtual reality gaming, and it’s coming very soon, but at this point I’m struggling to work out whether it’s either brilliant or terrifying.
Strapping on a VR headset
I’m at EGX 2015, playing some of the virtual reality games (as well as tech demos) that are coming to PlayStation VR and other headsets. A day of VR gaming begins with Crystal Rift from developer Psytec Games, a title that’s inspired by games such as Dungeon Master and Eye of the Beholder. It reminds me of a T.V. show that I used to watch when I was a child called Nightmare, the children’s adventure game where contestants traversed a medieval environment through dungeons and caves.
In the show, ‘dungeoneers’ were required to wear a helmet that transported them into a fantasy world, and they would physically walk around Knightmare Castle solving puzzles in order to progress. Unlike Crystal Rift, ‘dungeoneers’ could only see a small area directly in front of them, and were partially blinded by the helmet. In Crystal Rift, you get the whole picture as the environment surrounds and wraps around you like you’re a prisoner trapped in an alternative universe.
In Crystal Rift you’re required to stand up in front of the screen, but you don’t physically walk around the dungeon as controls are handled via the gamepad. The left and right bumpers re-orientate your character from the first-person perspective at 90 degree angles, while the triggers allow you to slash your sword (the Crystal Blade) and change its powers from the likes of fireballs and poison bolts. A face button allows you to interact with objects such as switches, items and notes around the dungeon. At this point in time, the demo is hosted on the HTC Vive headset, but we’re assured it’s coming to PlayStation VR and that the experience will be identical. The gyrosensor, accelerometer and the laser position sensor on the headset allows you to look around the virtual reality environment in all directions, and acts as the looking-glass into this fantasy world.
Before I equip the headset, I watch Crystal Rift playing out on a monitor while another gamer straps on the HTC Vive. The graphics are basic (like an old Quake game) and the grid-based, dungeon-crawling concept appears dated, so I’m not expecting to be wowed by the experience. However, as the VR headset is strapped around my head my perception begins to change. Despite the age-old premise of moving around a claustrophobic dungeon, darting down corridors, slaying enemies, pulling switches to activate mechanisms and working out some simple puzzles, the virtual reality headset elevates this simple game to a whole new level. I move my head in all directions to survey a room that looks like the interior of a medieval castle dungeon. It feels like I’m standing in the room, and I’m now feeling slightly overwhelmed. After 30 seconds surveying the area, a rush of adrenaline shoots through my veins in anticipation of the adventure. I step forward.
As I move forward using the gamepad’s analog stick, my body feels unsteady. I feel my physical body leaning forward and I become giddy as the floor moves below me in-game. This feeling subsides after a few minutes, but I continue to feel a little uneasy on my feet with each forward movement as my brain struggles to compute the new world and how my body should react. As smoke fills the corridors it moves around my body and plays with my senses to the point where I can almost taste it. My mouth feels dry, and I find myself licking my lips. Despite the rather basic animations of a skeleton, a mummy and other monsters appearing on screen, it feels realistic within this fantasy environment, like they are really coming at me and intend to cause menace. I automatically react by attacking with my sword, running out the way or physically dodging their blows.
I look around. I glance above and a dark shadowy, menacing figure climbs towards me down through a shaft in the ceiling. I duck and move on hastily. I’m stuck in a small room with locked gates, and I frantically move around looking for a solution to get out. For a moment I have feelings of claustrophobia (despite not suffering at all with this condition) and I anxiously call out for help as to what to do next, hoping that a voice from the real world will point me in the right direction. It doesn’t, or at least I can’t hear it because the outside world no longer seems to exist in this creepy, audio/visual, brain-fiddling experience. I’m in a packed hall of people at EGX, yet feel totally alone. I can’t hear them or see them, so I press on feeling a little confused.
I’m starting to feel a little anxious, to the point where I almost want to give up and whip off the headset, but I’m also buzzing from this shift in reality. It’s hard to put into words what it is about the experience that is making me want to continue. It feels like I’m living it, like I’m in the game. It’s both amazing and scary at the same time, inducing paranoia, anxiety and thrills in equal measure. I start to wonder whether these new virtual reality game worlds will become welcome places to totally escape from the everyday stresses of modern life, or whether we can possibly acclimatise ourselves to being in these environments over significant periods of time.
In this demo, I’m given five minutes to try and escape the dungeon, but it feels much longer. The time restraint is playing on my mind and causing me to rush and make mistakes as I get caught in a spike trap that makes me wince, and get crushed by a Indiana Jones-style large stone ball that comes rolling through one room. I sway, duck and dodge like a professional boxer as I navigate my way past swinging axes desperately searching for the exit. I find notes that help me on my way and warn me of danger ahead, and find coloured crystals that allow me to safely move through gas-filled doorways.
As the demo ends, I feel disappointed because I want to continue. Despite my pangs of anxiety and occasional giddiness, it feels good. I was fully immersed into a world that was all around me, I felt like I was a ‘dungeoneer’ and that my physical movements in the game (though I didn’t have to make them) were natural reactions due to the realism of the setting, the clever design of the environment and the brief scares, as well as the awe-inspiring power of virtual reality. Crystal Rift may be simple in premise, but the game world is consistent and immersive, and the experience is real.
As I take the headset off I feel exhilarated and a little bit uneasy on my feet. I feel spaced out for a good hour afterwards as I navigate the show floor with a pinch of paranoia. As the comedown begins, I reassess the experience of Crystal Rift and virtual reality games. I can’t help but make comparisons to recreational drugs that alter your mind and tamper with your emotions, the highs and the rush as the drug kicks in and the comedown experienced when the party is over and you’re slowly coming back to reality.
Though I don’t think for one moment that Crystal Rift is going to be the best VR game available, it reassures me that there’s a space in VR gaming for indie studios. It doesn’t have to be about the triple-A titles that focus on realistic graphics or scale, because as long as the world you enter is consistent then it still feels real. This is my first injection of virtual reality gaming since I first played Eve Valkyrie on Oculus Rift a few years ago, and it’s a powerful experience. I’m shaken a little and not sure whether I’m prepared for bringing this level of intense gaming into my home but, like a drug addict searching for his next fix, I move on looking for my next virtual reality high on the show floor at EGX 2015.
This is my first experience with the PlayStation VR headset (formerly known as Project Morpheus) which feels very comfortable and light to wear, and very much in line with the sleek styling of other PlayStation products.
During the Battlezone demo, I feel much more grounded. The fact that I’m sitting down helps. Now, I’m the commander of a tank in a re-hashed version of the Atari tactical shooter of the ‘80s. Through the window of VR, I survey the surroundings – a colourful, futuristic-styled landscape filled with ramps and cream structures of various sizes – through a periscope, with the screen of PlayStation VR acting solely as my eyes — all other game commands are handled via the DualShock 4 controller. The picture is crystal clear and I can see far into the distance. Structures, objects and colours are vivid and crisp.
The aim of Battlezone is to drive around a fairly small arena searching for other tanks and aliens to destroy, while ensuring you don’t get blown to pieces. Aiming is handled with the right analog stick which controls the on-screen reticule, and you can strafe and boost forward, which comes in handy for doing swift 180 degree turns. Your head is simply used to look around for enemies as you switch between machines gun and cannon shells to take them out. I know what the objective is here, so unlike Crystal Rift I don’t feel anxious of the unknown and find that I only need to make slight movements of my head to line up enemies in my field of view. Consequently, I don’t for one second feel nauseous, though still feel detached from the outside world as I get fully immersed in the fight.
I navigate between tiered structures hunting down enemy tanks, and blasting away at turret-type structures which spray me with coloured bullets. Just like my Crystal Rift experience there’s a feeling of oneness with the world, like I’m part of it and nothing else exists in that moment in time. Battlezone is far from being a realistic tank battle game, with enemies shattering into tiny blue and yellow coloured blocks on each accurate blast, but it still feels like I’m a resident in its game world, and not just a spectator with a control pad.
Far from feeling nauseous this time, I’m enjoying every minute of it. It’s exciting and the control scheme feels very fluid and natural. My sense of awareness appears heightened, proven by the pin-point accuracy of almost every shot I let rip from the cannon of the tank, and I’m soon propelling forward with the dash move, pulling off turns and rapidly taking enemies down like an unstoppable killing machine.
Smaller enemies arrive en masse, flying through the air in an undulating pattern, which causes for a change in strategy and a switch to the machine gun, allowing me to take them down with ease.
As I get a tap on the shoulder to notify me that my time with Battlezone has come to an end, once again I feel a little disappointed that I can’t continue. This brief demo seems that it was created to give players a chance to experience VR rather than offering a challenge, and I wonder if there’s going to be much more to it. Enemies were simply too easy to take down, and offered little in terms of resistance, while the chances of getting blown up myself seemed very slim. Nevertheless, the impact of Battlezone was so profound that I’m looking forward immensely to more virtual reality experiences.
Will virtual reality gaming take-off?
My experience with virtual games is currently limited to a few titles – Crystal Rift and Battlezone – though collectively the PlayStation Universe team has played other VR games, including RIGS and Loading Human. Both the titles I played offered a different type of experience with the former being much more intense than the latter. Before I deliver my personal conclusion on VR though, I asked some of team at PSU about their thoughts on whether they think VR gaming will take off.
Here’s what they said:
Lanie Hyatt – Associate Editor
"There was a time way back when Virtual Reality was a huge fixation in the industry, but after a couple of failed attempts, such as Nintendo’s Virtual Boy, the interest in a more immersive gaming experience faded. This is probably because it seemed impossible, but video games have taken huge strides with technology, and VR capability is becoming more and more available and will hopefully become more affordable to the general public.
I’ve been dreaming of a gaming experience where I feel like I’m there, swinging my sword at enemies and flinging spells. I don’t want to let go of that dream, and I’m sure I’m not the only one! PlayStation VR for PS4 will open doors to a new era of interactive storytelling like we’ve never seen before. That’s what I hope, anyway.”
Joseph Abbruscato – Regular PSU contributor
"I personally think VR has a shot at really changing the way we play our video games. I think us as gamers are continuously looking for games that truly immerse us in the experience. What better way than to actually be right in the midst of the experience. At first, I think it will come off as gimmicky and clunky but as we embrace the experience and technology advances, headwear will become lighter, developers will create astonishing experiences and new ways to tell a story.
One real genre that can benefit from VR is survival horror. Imagine the jump scares and the feeling of being in a place where you feel so vulnerable. It gives me chills thinking about it! I think if done correctly, it can really innovate but definitely not replace the controller in hand experience.”
Chris Clement – IT Manager
“It’s Doomed. While VR is sure to be a accident-inducing/viral-video phenom for YouTube, that in itself may shun the technology from many a household. PlayStation VR and Oculus Rift will encourage us to interact with a virtual world while making us blind to the real world at the same time. Bad things are going to happen.
Hopefully Sony and others can keep the price of VR less than the cost of a trip to the emergency room.”
Are we ready for virtual reality gaming?
I remember all the hype for 3D PlayStation games. It lasted until the first 3D game launched and then it was quickly forgotten. There’s hasn’t been a 3D compatible PlayStation game for a couple of years now. With that in mind, I do feel that VR may also turn out to be a bit of fad, and a gaming medium that is more suited to shorter experiences, the likes of which we’ve played during tech demos. I’m not convinced that anyone could spend too much time in a virtual reality world in one session.
There’s no doubting PlayStation VR’s power to change your perceptions and offer unique gaming experiences, but I worry about the side-effects and the detachment you feel from the real world. What if there’s a game created that makes you feel so good and elated that the real world just doesn’t cut it anymore? How will it affect children, or people who suffer from mental illnesses? And, what are the long term effects of prolonged periods of play in a VR world?
Let me sum up the VR experience by listing some of the effects that the games had on me, which sounds rather like the symptoms that might be experienced from taking a recreational drug.
– Head rushes
– Claustrophobia and the feeling of being trapped and wanting it to stop
– Detachment from the real world
– Dry mouth
– Heightened sense of awareness
This makes me wonder whether gamers are actually ready for virtual reality gaming at all. It feels so different to the thrill of playing games right now on PS4 and other consoles as it affects you emotionally and mentally on a whole new scale. It took me through many different emotions, and triggered a fair few negative feelings, but at times it felt so good and exhilarating that I felt disappointed when the sessions came to an end, and eager for more.
Note – though I experienced these sensations it doesn’t mean that everyone will.
Will there be enough quality virtual reality games made?
The success of PlayStation VR and virtual reality gaming in genernal is going to be down to a few things. Firstly, the reaction of gamers to the technology when they test it out, and whether they’re prepared to embrace a virtual reality world that toys with your perceptions and emotions. Secondly, the support of developers who need to create a wide range of meaningful experiences that make you feel good, and not sick. And thirdly, PlayStation VR needs to be affordable enough to sell enough units to encourage more developers to create games over its life cycle. Without that install base, it’s going nowhere.
Whatever your expectations of VR gaming are, put them aside until you’ve picked up a headset and tried it for yourself. It’s such a personal experience that will differ greatly from one person to the next, but one thing I can most definitely guarantee is this: it will blow your mind.