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LOS ANGELES — As I sit down in the wheelchair that developer Starbreeze set up as part of its new virtual-reality hardware and game demonstration, I start to understand what I’m in for. Four minutes later, as the zombies approached my helpless body, my fears were confirmed.
StarVR is a new VR head-mounted display that Starbreeze is making itself in conjunction with Starbreeze Paris, which was formerly known as InfinitEye. At the Electronic Entertainment Expo tradeshow yesterday, the publisher used its new Walking Dead game — from developer Overkill — to show off the capabilities of the new device. If that sounds like a terrible idea, that’s because it is — and the company responsible for all of this was happy to make it as horrifying as possible. But I came out believing that this new competition is only going to mean good things for the future of VR.
StarVR is entering a market that hasn’t even really had a single consumer product beyond some peripherals for smartphones. But, despite that, many consider companies like Facebook’s Oculus Rift and Valve to have an inherent advantage in the space. Starbreeze came to E3 with its The Walking Dead game, based on the comic book franchise about a world overrun by reanimated corpses who are hungry for flesh, to convince people that it has a chance in this race.
And the demo is absurd. It opens with two other survivors in the zombie apocalypse arguing with one another about whether or not they are going to help you. The reason for sitting me down in a wheelchair is because I was playing as a character who does not have the use of his legs (and apparently weak arms as well, as I couldn’t move the chair with them). Naturally, this creates a point of tension in my group.
The woman companion, bless her heart, didn’t want to leave me. But the male character made it clear — as he whispered loud enough for me to hear — that he did not want to risk his butt for me. In the end, the woman won.
She came up behind me and started pushing the wheelchair. At the same exact time, one of the people running the demo start rocking the wheelchair I was sitting in. It’s a cheap trick, but boy, did it work.
We didn’t have to roll through the hallways long before we came across our first zombie. It was here that I realized how helpless I was. I couldn’t move, or at least my character couldn’t — and what’s the difference?
Thankfully, I wasn’t completely useless for the entirety of the demo. About a minute in, one of the characters handed me a shotgun. At the same time, one of the people running the presentation handed me a motion-tracked shotgun controller. It was a surreal moment, but it’s one that I’m learning to expect from virtual reality.
Through the rest of the demo, I was blasting zombies in the head as best as I could.
But nothing good can last. As we neared the exit, the woman companion started to get attacked. Instead of helping her, the guy just grabbed me and yelled that she was already dead.
I was already feeling grim about my chances of survival, but then I ran out of ammunition for my weapon. That’s when the male companion decided to ditch me.
“You’re on your own,” he said as he ran off.
As I was surrounded by zombies, I tried firing my empty weapon. That didn’t work. I tried clubbing them with the shotgun, and I’m sure I looked silly. And thinking back on it now, I’m glad I didn’t hit anyone in the gut with my wild swings.
But nothing I did deterred the undead’s approach, and I just had to sit there and take it as a pair of zombies climbed up my body to a take bite out of my face and neck.
It was spooky, but it was also another wonderful example about the power and potential of VR. I didn’t feel helpless — I was helpless, or at least that’s how I remember it now. And if a half-finished, 4-minute experience can make me feel that way, then what else can VR do?
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