Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Sidequest Corner: The One Where I Tried VR

VR is an unbelievably experimental and uncharted region of game and technical design. The amount of hardware and processing power needed makes it a decidedly niche corner of gaming. In terms of games available they're mostly tech demos trying to find a way to make interesting experiences without making their players horribly sick to their stomach.

But more importantly to a consumer like me it's a dangerous combination of overpriced, lacking in substance, and full of potential health concerns.

As such I never really touched VR. Much like 3D TVs I found it to be a real waste of time for a small desperate attempt of breaking down barriers that are pretty solid. No matter how much it looks like a hand is reaching out at the screen to get you, it doesn't change the fact that it's doing it only to show off.

But in terms of accessibility things have gotten better on the V R front. Sony's PSVR peripheral for the PS4 is the cheapest of the three major headsets clocking in at about $400, albeit only compatible with another $300 PS4. Which is a lot better than the $600 Oculus Rift that requires a hardy PC that can easily set you back a grand or the behemoth that is the $800 HTC Vive.

However, every single colleague and insufferably optimistic writer – who still has hope and love for a medium they can still see as pure and can do no wrong – keep insisting that I cannot judge something without experiencing it for myself. That I should just blindly invest a large amount of money into what can easily be a fad and see with my own eyes the grand possibilities.

But I'm a freaking miser when it comes to new technology so I looked for a place where I could simply rent some time with VR to get a good first impression.

So, courtesy of the local Play N Trade store in Camp Hill recently acquiring a demo version of a PSVR headset, I decided to put my money where my mouth is and actually try this new way to game for myself. An hour of it. For ten dollars. Because I like food and electricity.

After adjusting the VR headset and getting everything calibrated, all while standing up the entire time due to lack of chairs, I had to think of what game would be best to bring me into the world of VR gaming. The demo discs were obvious. Something simple like that street luge simulator, or something truly immersive like Batman VR that uses motion controls. But I was told almost all of those games were maybe half an hour's worth of content at best and were ostensibly tech demos.

So overreaching my natural stamina I decided to spend my hour of convenient VR virtual splendor on a full game with complete VR support. Specifically the only one currently on the market: Capcom's Resident Evil 7.

Yep. Don't give me Batman or the ability to realistically play virtual ping pong. Give me a game all about being stuck in a messed up rotting plantation house in Louisiana while running and hiding for my life by a murderous redneck family infected with some unholy parasitic life. All right in my face in very uncomfortable detail. That totally won't be traumatizing at all!

The first thing that did strike was how comfortable the headset was designed. Easily adjustable, surprisingly intuitive and not as heavy as I thought it'd be.

But this isn't a hardware review this is more gonzo stream of consciousness experience so let's get back to me describing how much I nearly pissed myself.

The other reason why I decided on Resident Evil 7 was that I did play the game originally on a television up to a certain point. I knew the gameplay, I knew where certain key items and weapons were, and I could anticipate some of the bigger scares in the game. I really wanted to put VR through its paces, to see just how much a simple format change can enhance an experience.

And the initial reaction was a bit underwhelming. The key to making sure VR doesn't make you want to vomit your guts out is maintaining a high framerate. It's crucial because if it dips below sixty, everything goes slower than your eyes can perceive which leads to a lot of issues regarding kinesthetic dissonance. The PSVR manages this for Resident Evil 7 but by noticeably lowering the quality of textures and by intercutting cutscenes with noticeable fades to black and fades from black.

This cuts down on processing strain but the cutscene cutting lead to some problems I had with immersion. RE7 is in first-person and the game loves to have the protagonist thrown around, spun around, and thrown to the ground. But that sort of rapid movement can be horribly disorienting to a VR user so to prevent further motion sickness the cuts are used.

On the one hand it was amazing to get frighteningly close to foliage, to actually react to insects flying at my face, or to see in disgusting detail the rotting food in the fridge. Then the more horror focused stuff happened and things were a little bit lost. I actually panicked when the first major encounter happened, the psycho murderer getting right in my face brandishing a knife. Then the rapid fades happened and I actually lost track of my character's orientation. On the one had I wasn't getting whiplash and falling on my ass, on the other what should have been an intense sequence of being tossed around lost its impact.

And then I met the Bakers and things really stepped out. There is a now iconic sequence at a dinner table where you're tortured by villains of the pieces, Jack and Marguerite Baker, and you have to escape. Once again I had been through this part of the game before. But something about Jack putting a knife so close to my face or the fidelity of having their punk kid flicking stuff at my face made everything far too real for me.

I was leaning behind corners, actually physically leaning, in order to see if enemies were around them. Whimpering to myself, worried that at any moment my neck would be snapped by an unknown assailant. My aim with any weapons being unreliable since aiming a weapon in VR is done by looking around and my head was shaking too much in panic.

My hour ended after finding a key in the bathroom before wasting my last few bullets trying to stun zombie Jack Baker before he crushed my skull like a grapefruit.

And it's from there that I took the headset off and realized I was sweating all over and was unbelievably dizzy. Like waking up from a nightmare.

So yes. This was my first experience ever with VR and I have to say I am glad to be eating some of my words. Even in an experience I was familiar with that I knew was well made from the ground up, the extra fidelity and immersion made the whole thing feel fresh and nightmarish again. The technology still is not there yet but I have a newfound respect for those working in the field and see what they find so valuable in this field.

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