We're Bryant and Ahmed. Like most human beings on this earth, we had never played a virtual reality game before.
We played about a baker's dozen virtual reality demos and games over four days at gaming convention PAX Prime. Everything we played, including the systems themselves, was still in development and subject to change.
So what did we think of VR before we did it for the first time?
Ahmed: To be quite honest, I always thought virtual reality would a.) never exist and b.) be terrible. The best things about video games are running fast, backflip-punching robots in the gut, and jumping off walls. No matter what, this soft human body will never really be able to do those things IRL and a headset won't be able to fix that.
Bryant: I didn't have a huge interest in VR games because I never saw it as something super accessible. However, seeing the actual headsets at PAX Prime had me hyped. I was ready to try it on and see what virtual reality was all about. I wanted to fly and do crazy shit.
Ahmed: I felt like I was being initiated into a third-dimensional cult. After we put the headset on, an operator piped instructions directly into our headphones. You realize quickly you can walk around freely and SEE the ice cream cones moving in 3D space as a fork and knife, a bow and arrow, paintbrush and easel, or whatever you want.
Bryant: The demos were very intuitive and we rarely needed any instructions. You could rely solely on common sense and complete the task of the VR room you were in.
Ahmed: Totally. In the intro demo, one controller made balloons of any color and you could hit them with the other controller. The guy running the demo was like, "OK time for you to move on from the home screen," but I made them wait 'cause I wanted to keep playing.
Ahmed: The drawback: If the operator didn't properly guide me, I ran into the wall a lot. I accidentally punched the wall like three times.
Bryant: The walls transformed based off of the VR we were currently in, so it got a bit confusing adjusting ourselves physically.
Ahmed: There were some demos that weren't "first person" and I couldn't see my own legs. I kept trying to touch them to see if I was still real.
Actual footage of Ahmed punching a wall IRL but not IVR (coining that btw):
Bryant: I actually felt more comfortable existing in these other worlds because headsets made it so I couldn't gauge other people's reaction towards me. I was really into Job Simulator where you act as a cook and have to complete a few kitchen requests in order to advance to the next order
Ahmed: I messed up the camera on this part, but Bryant was basically popping and locking and throwing tomatoes into a stew. It was about as amazing as it sounds. The "operator" was cracking up. It defies explanation: HOW DID VR MAKE COOKING SO FUN? Probably because he didn't have to worry about stains.
Bryant: Ahmed did this one which was literally just standing on the bow of an underwater ship with a giant whale swimming about.
Ahmed: I still get stressed out thinking about the terrifying purple eel from Dire Dire Docks in Super Mario 64, so you can imagine having my entire body transported 20,000 leagues under the sea did some shit to me.
Bryant: Yeah, you freaked out.
Ahmed: I can't help it. I learned how how small I am compared to a whale, but at WHAT COST?
Not pictured: Ahmed freaking the fuck out.
Bryant: My other favorite demo, Tilt Brush, took place in an empty dark room that acts as a canvas for you to paint in the air. I held a Photoshop toolbox on my left hand and a paintbrush on my right. I was hesitant to draw anything because there was a ticking clock in my corner, reminding me that nothing I made would last. But even something as simple as manifesting my own name in 3D felt oddly satisfying.
Ahmed: Bryant was a lot better at the VR thing than me. He was painting calligraphy in the sky and I just wanted to draw dicks.
Bryant: I found a certain beauty from walking and standing in and out of my artwork. I added a layer of sparkling electric-blue stars to the word "hello" scripted out in neon green and thought, I'm a fucking artist, b.
Some footage of Bryant drawing in 3D space. We weren't lying when we said the room was dark.
When most people read about modern VR, they're usually thinking of Oculus. It's a headset with two little goggle eyes inside that make a full VR world with depth. Rather than having a special controller, Oculus is played using an Xbox controller. It looks like this:
Ahmed: Oculus was the only system we played actual games on that you'll be able to buy in the near future — every other thing we played was a demo of "look how cool our tech is, bruv."
Bryant: The visual 360 that the Oculus provided worked seamlessly with the controller. The act of physically motioning your head forward to read something on a digitized wall or on a newspaper was cool, but there were directions that I almost missed out on because at the start of the demos I wasn't actively looking around with the headset on.
Ahmed: Yeah, it's really amazing in concept, but for me, it really depended on the execution a lot more than the Vive. With MOST of the the Oculus games I had to actually remind myself to look around since I still had a controller in hand that was doing most of the "gaming." Also, I had serious trouble fitting it over my glasses on an occasion or two.
Ahmed struggled to get the Oculus over his glasses on more than one occasion.
Ahmed: Two or three of the demos gave me nausea if poorly implemented. One demo dude was like "if you break out in a cold sweat, take it off. It'll only get worse." He was not wrong.
Bryant: I normally don't experience motion sickness, but in one instance I did feel a wave of nausea. I walked upstairs and jumped off a balcony IVR, which apparently is very straining for people to adjust to. I mentally talked myself through it, which made it easier for me to forget I was getting a headache.
Ahmed: The nausea dug itself comfortably between the two hemispheres of your brain. Not truly awful, but it wasn't fun. Almost seems like you'd have to design games around 10-minute segments in order to not royally piss people off.
Bryant: Moral of the story: Don't be a tough guy. I felt terrible for a couple hours after.
When the virtual nausea hits:
Ahmed: Though it was the only system I felt any real nausea in, Oculus also had some of the most developed games. Of every game we played at PAX, Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes was by far the most unusual — the player wearing the headset is looking at a bomb and Player Two actually has no technology other than a really confusing binder IRL to guide the bomb defusal. And because both of us only had half of the picture, you had to be nice to me for once, Bryant.
Bryant We had it rough, but I never felt closer to you. 😇 For background, each newly spawned bomb has a different function that can only be solved by relaying to your partner clues found on the bomb. Using the corresponding information given to you from the binder manual, I was then able to cut the correct wires and push the right buttons. It could be confusing AF though. At one point I started pressing random buttons on the bomb because I lost patience waiting for your instructions and survived on my own. TAKE THAT.
Ahmed: Thanks Bryant. Meanwhile when it was my turn, Bryant let me blow up. Funny thing about this game — I asked them if you could play without VR. They said you could play it on a computer, but the other player would have to like "hide in a blanket fort" to isolate themselves from the screen. Cute. I'm teaching my baby niece and nephew how to defuse a bomb next time I go home.
Bryant: Just FYI, I do not endorse or condone pressing random buttons on a bomb.
Bryant defusing the bomb like a boss.
Ahmed: The other standout for me was Time Machine VR (currently playable with VR on Steam Early Access), which was probably the only Oculus game we played that truly felt immersive like the Vive. I was continually looking around the inside of my time machine to see what little doodads were lying around. It was a nice touch that I could look down and see my two hands piloting my Time Machine pod. I think that grounded the experience a lot more than others.
Bryant: I felt like I was actually swimming with the fishes down under. The demo was immersive, but the endless introductions and instructions made the gameplay way too slow for me.
Ahmed: Yeah, it was slow, but veeeeery creepy and atmospheric. Well-designed for virtual reality I think.
Bryant: I guess that's why this was the only demo where we didn't leave with a headache. Thank god the guy sterilized the headset after each play. Apparently, other companies had a pinkeye outbreak last year. Not fun.
How Time Machine VR looks IRL and IVR.
Bryant: As a big fan of board games, I really enjoyed how castAR integrated traditional game genres like Battleship and Marble World into another form of social gaming.
Ahmed: Yeah comparatively speaking, this was the easiest to adjust to. It was like a mix of a Wii and a board game. The big thing the developers were pushing was that you could actually communicate with the other person, since you don't have a big, clunky headset blocking your vision. And it's true, when I was beating Bryant's ass in marble racing, I did a little jig. Satisfying AF.
Bryant: It's true, hearing Ahmed egg me on when he passed my marble really made the gameplay more competitive. I tried to shove his arm so that he would fall off the course.
You can't understand how cool this image looks unless you have a headset on. But you can see PAST the board and to the ground. It's cool, trust us.
Bryant Hua: When playing AR, you modify your existing reality and adjust your vision according to your location. The field becomes true-3D, in that if a statue is obstructing your view in one position, you can move around until the statue is no longer blocking your view.
Ahmed: That gray screen on the GIF below had a bunch of different board game-inspired demos projected onto it. The perspective on it was pretty accurate.
Ahmed: It very much felt like an old-school gaming experience taken to the next immersive level. What we played was basic, but it felt the most like traditional gaming to me, with added depth. Less of a blow-your-mind kind of thing but still cool and way more realistic for a consumer than the other two, imo.
Bryant: VR games, where playing is equally as entertaining as watching someone else play. ;D
Ahmed: Virtual reality is fun on the inside, but you can't tell from the outside!!!! The main thing I realized after playing the Vive was that VR feels more authentic and immersive when it's not conceived of as a video game, but a playground. It was great, as long as there was no nausea. I highly recommend finding a Vive pop-up station near you and ordering a VR balloon demo straight, no whale.