We can finally talk about virtual reality games with a straight face.
At this year’s Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) video game trade show in Los Angeles, a small pool of VR games held their own against a big slate of indie titles and triple-A blockbusters. This is the first year that Oculus VR, the poster boy for VR’s resurgence with its popular Oculus Rift headset, had a presence on the expo floor, an elegant booth that wasn’t too far from Oculus’s biggest competitor, Sony’s Project Morpheus. Neither company has set a release date for their devices (Samsung, the third challenger for the VR crown, is trying to beat them both to market).
I packed in as many VR games as I could into my E3 schedule, and while everything I saw was impressive in one way or another, the following games are the ones I want to play as soon as I can buy a VR headset.
Until commercial space flights reach a price level that us lowly mortals can afford, we’ll have to settle for games like Adr1ft to scratch our space exploration itch. Developer Three One Zero calls it a FPX, or first-person experience game. Partly inspired by cofounder Adam Orth’s social media kerfuffle last year when he was at Microsoft, Adr1ft puts you in the role of an astronaut who wakes up in the middle of a crumbling space station. You don’t remember what happened, and your spacesuit is constantly leaking oxygen, so you have to roam around the open-world to replenish your air tanks and solve puzzles to figure out what went wrong.
“It’s the immersion of the world in Half-Life, the minimalist presentation and storytelling of Journey, and the scope and scale of [the film] Gravity,” Orth told me.
That’s quite a legacy to live up to, but I definitely saw a lot of Gravity in my short time inside Adr1ft. Unlike actress Sandra Bullock’s character, I didn’t have to worry about satellite debris hitting me, but it’s remarkable how well VR renders that feeling of loneliness when you’re drifting in space. The demo — purposely stripped of its gameplay mechanics to “prove the awe of space in VR” — began in a greenhouse, and when I emerged from it, it was hard to not just float in place and stare at the crisp blue Earth below me. I slowly passed by other remnants of the space station while a Beethoven sonata seeped through my headphones, making me feel calm and peaceful despite the dire circumstances of Adr1ft’s premise.
It was probably the first quiet moment I had to myself all week, and it was definitely a welcome relief from the boisterous expo floor that I had walked through so much. That’s why I was a little sad when Orth tapped me on the shoulder after a few minutes, saying my time in Adr1ft had come to an end. The game will also support Morpheus, but you don’t need Sony’s headset or the Rift to play it. Three One Zero will release Adr1ft in 2015 for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC, and Steam machines.
Irrational Exuberance tackles space exploration a little differently, moving away from realism or even sci-fi in favor of something more ethereal. I met its lone designer, Ben Vance of Buffalo Vision Games, at an independent games event outside of E3, and he was a little hesitant to tell me about the game’s plot. He didn’t want to spoil it, and even went as far as covering the outward-facing TV on his table so anyone passing by wouldn’t accidentally spoil themselves, either. I wasn’t sure what to make of this until I finally played it for myself.
Irrational Exuberance’s tagline is “a surreal space odyssey at the end of the world,” and apparently, the end of the world has a lot of polygonal asteroids in it. I started walking around on the asteroid I was on, not sure what to do. The only pieces of the level I could interact with were these particles of light that would spiral into space and disappear when you looked at it. As far as I could tell, I had to keep finding these bright clusters, jumping to asteroids below me when the rock I was standing on didn’t have them anymore.
My “aha!” moment came after finding a pile of rectangular panels that, like the particles, disappeared when I got too close. Thinking that I must’ve missed something, I intentionally tried to kill myself by falling off the asteroid, but that didn’t go as planned — I stopped mid-way through my fall. When I looked down with the Rift, I realized that the panels were appearing beneath my feet. I looked back up and saw a trail of them leading back to the asteroid I fell from.
I somehow gained the power to glide through space, and I felt like the Silver Surfer as I zipped around asteroids and stars. It was thrilling. If I wanted to go somewhere, I just needed to look in a certain direction, and the white blocks would take me there.
That was a cool and unexpected twist, and I immediately understood why Vance wanted to keep parts of the game a secret. He hopes Irrational Exuberance will continue to surprise players when he releases it for PC, Mac, and Linux.
Until someone makes an official Star Wars: Rogue Squadron game for VR headsets, the multiplayer-only Eve: Valkyrie is the next best thing we have. Developer CCP Games is using the existing universe from its massively multiplayer Eve Online as the backdrop for its space combat game, where you play as a mercenary fighter pilot. Maybe it was because of the futuristic kiosks that CCP designed for the game, but when I pulled the Rift over my head, I didn’t feel like I was wearing an obtrusive piece of technology. It melted away and became a natural extension of my imagination.
I wasn’t wearing a VR headset: I was wearing a badass fighter-pilot helmet. And I was ready for my next battle.
While you still use a controller to pilot your ship, you use your head to aim and keep track of your enemies. That means if you see someone soar past above you, you need to crane your neck a bit and steer your ship in that direction if you want to catch up. That freedom of movement — you can even turn your head around and look at the back of your ship — takes a few minutes to get used to, but it really grounds you in the game’s world.
Eve: Valkyrie is a VR-only experience, so if you’re playing on PC, you’ll need an Oculus Rift, and PlayStation 4 owners will need the Morpheus.
Lucky’s Tale is the first VR game I played that doesn’t have a first-person perspective. It’s a platforming game with colorful graphics, a cute mascot (Lucky the fox), and of course, a lot of things to jump on. But since a normal third-person camera (think of the 3D Mario games or Ratchet and Clank) in VR games is the quickest way to get you sick, developer Playful Corp. made the wise decision to use a pseudo-isometric view — you’re not close to the action, but you’re not too far, either. The camera’s always facing north as well, so you don’t have to worry about looking back.
It’s a fascinating perspective. Instead of pretending I was Lucky, I felt like I was with him, like a silent disembodied partner overseeing his adventure. My unique point of view allowed me to see things that Lucky couldn’t, like the entire layout of the level. And whenever he picked up a bomb, I helped him by looking in the direction I wanted him to throw it in. It’s a bizarre concept, effectively making Lucky’s Tale a single-player cooperative game.
After the demo, Playful cofounder Paul Bettner revealed one neat feature I didn’t see that underscores this odd player-character relationship: If Lucky is facing toward you and standing in a certain way, and you look down on him, he’ll actually wave to you and wiggle his nose.
“The way someone would describe Mario or really any other third-person [game] like Uncharted or whatever is ‘I’m Mario,’” said Bettner. “But in this game you don’t ever feel that way, because VR always makes you feel like you. So instead, Lucky feels like this toy that you’re playing with. And so when we saw that moment of connection when he looked up at you, we just immediately realized this is not third-person like ‘I’m projecting myself on the character.’ It’s more like, ‘He knows I’m here, and I know he’s here, and we’re going on an adventure together.’”
Lucky’s Tale is an exclusive launch title for the Oculus Rift.
In Anamnesis, the Oculus Rift isn’t the primary way of playing through the game: You still have to use your PC monitor, too. Made by Alexa Kim and Scott Stephan as a class project at the University of Southern California, Anamnesis takes place in Los Angeles in the year 2020, some time after a devastating plague led to the quarantine of half the city. You’re a FEMA agent investigating the disappearance of two tenants from a temporary shelter. In addition to using some basic detective skills, you also have a pair of special goggles that allows you to see past events through the eyes of the shelter’s residents.
To use the in-game goggles, you hold the Rift up to your face, and to deactivate it, just place it flat on a table. With the goggles on, you’ll see more information about what you’re looking at, or even a completely different scene. One bedroom I entered just had a dusty pile of boxes sitting in a corner, so it didn’t look out of the ordinary. But when I put the Rift on, the gloominess of the room disappeared, and I found out it was actually a children’s bedroom [pictured above]. The goggles will also trigger voice-over moments, which explain a little more about what these people were up to.
Toward the end of the level, Anamnesis took a creepy, almost survival-horror turn. I started seeing angry messages smeared across the walls and floors, and letters that hinted at how desperate some of these people became. It was a cool, if unsettling, experience. Like Eve: Valkyrie, Anamnesis adds a tactile layer to the VR headset, and even goes one step further by providing a narrative reason for its existence in the game. If you already have a Rift, you can play it for free by downloading it from the official website.