2016: The Year in VR

We barely mentioned virtual reality in any of our Game of the Year feature, but that’s not meant to imply that there’s nothing worth talking about there. I’m the one member of our team who decided to leap into the uncertain world of VR hardware in 2016 and, for what it’s worth, I’m glad I took the risk.

Preamble

When I was nine or ten years old, my dad took me along on a work trip to the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. This was back when E3, the games industry’s official-unofficial trade show, was just a twinkle in many a profit-focused executive’s eye. Back in the early ‘90s, CES was the sometimes-unenthusiastic but consistent host of the games industry’s latest innovations in hardware and software.

I wandered, wide-eyed, staring at row after row of unreleased Super Nintendo and Genesis games. I sat down in a big, fancy cockpit chair and played a few minutes of Star Fox 2, a game that never saw the light of day (but found a new home when its ROM was dumped onto the Internet a few years later). I remember racing through a Donkey Kong Country cart that had been converted for competitive play, which wasn’t particularly exciting on its own, but I was a little kid and DKC was my favorite game at the time, so it effectively validated my entire life up to that point. I think I met Doug TenNapel, who was demoing Earthworm Jim, a game I’d been ogling in the preview pages of Nintendo Power for months. He gave me some Jim-emblazoned temporary tattoos. I wore them for months afterward. I saw a weird console called the PlayStation. I thought it looked boring, and I predicted it’d fail.

For the game-obsessed kid I was, CES was an enthralling experience. But the coolest thing on the show floor, by far, was the Virtual Boy.

I was here! This could've been my head crammed into a Virtual Boy!

I was here! This could've been my head crammed into a Virtual Boy!

History hasn’t been kind to the Virtual Boy. People who’ve been following this industry for a while know the story about how Gunpei Yokoi, the chief driver of the Game Boy hardware, lost his clout and reputation after the Virtual Boy sputtered at launch and collapsed into an outright commercial flop. But to me, a young child weaned on and inspired by games since my earliest moments, virtual reality promised something I’d always desired on an instinctual level: to exist inside of games.

I never wound up owning a Virtual Boy, though I’ve since had a chance to play every game ever released for it. (It didn’t take long.) The industry lost faith in 3D and VR games for a long time, and the meager efforts to reintroduce 3D to games — the 3DS’s neat-when-it-works-which-is-basically-not-often lenticular 3D effect and Sony’s half-assed pitch to pair every PlayStation customer with a 3D TV — fell flat.

Two decades after that walk through CES, I finally had a chance to own a virtual reality setup — and an honest-to-goodness capable one. I wasn’t going to pass that up.

My Oculus Rift arrived this summer, but I only received my Oculus Touch controllers the day before we decided on our Game of the Year winners. I didn’t have a chance to make an earnest argument for anything that required touch controllers, so I didn’t. But it felt wrong to end our 2016 feature without diving into the various experiences I had with VR. Some were dizzying; some were nauseating; some were far too short, and others overstayed their welcome. More than a few left my jaw hanging agape.

I thought I’d take a little time to share the VR experiences that left the most meaningful impression on me. I don’t know what the future holds for this tech, but I can say with certainty that 2016 was the year where legitimate, robust VR hardware and games finally arrived and fulfilled a dream I’d held onto for decades.

The Standout VR Experiences of 2016

Quake

When my Oculus Rift arrived, I rushed home after work to set it up and jump back into VR for the first time in over a year. And once it was all configured and ready to roll, what did I boot up?

Quake.

Like, the 1996 first-person shooter. You know the one.

There are a ton of polished experiences available for VR platforms like Oculus. I’ve played a lot of them. Most won’t make you sick, and many have at least one or two creative hooks that inspire a lot of optimism in the future of VR experience design. But I knew I had one priority with this headset, and that was to jump into one of the wildest games from my childhood and truly feel it from an actual first-person perspective.

Taking a twenty-year-old game and hacking it to support modern virtual reality is kind of a fool’s errand on some level. For one thing, VR back in Quake’s era amounted to, well, the Virtual Boy, and we all know how that panned out. Also, have you ever seen how fast you move in Quake? Dude’s like a freight train.

Quake has been modded for VR with a variety of control schemes, and it’s nice that the developers put some care into making the transition relatively smooth, but the bottom line is this: I felt truly immersed in a game world that opened my eyes up to a whole new type of game experience two decades ago. It was like seeing it with fresh eyes.

And as it turns out: rounding a corner at 80 miles per hour and stumbling face-first into a shambling demon? Still terrifying as hell, low-poly-count monsters be damned.

Bigscreen Beta

If anything in VR feels like a glimpse at the future through a pinhole, it’s Bigscreen. This is one of several apps for VR headsets that lets you project your desktop display in front of you, effectively giving you a screen of whatever size, curvature, and distance that you’d like.

It feels limited today, but only because we don’t yet have VR headsets that have the depth of resolution you’d need to see your screen in full fidelity. But Bigscreen has a killer feature, and that’s multiplayer.

And, like, hold on — don’t laugh. Think about it. Coworking and remote work are increasingly common needs in this bizarre economy we all inhabit, and speaking as someone who’s worked for many international companies, it can be really difficult to build and maintain strong relationships with people you don’t see often in person. But what Bigscreen hints at is a future where colleagues can jump into a virtual apartment, or office, or skyscraper terrace, and relax in a shared space where each projects their screens in front of them and gets work done. You can easily call people over to see what you’re working on, and thanks to the Rift’s surprisingly excellent built-in microphone, you can easily chat to somebody by just looking over and talking.

We’re not yet to a point where in-VR work is preferable to the headset-less world of Skype and Slack, but Bigscreen lays the groundwork for some truly transformative technologies. I don’t think we’ll be using sensory-depriving headsets to work in 20 years, but with AR technology barreling toward the mainstream, I expect we’ll see a future very much like the one Bigscreen promises today.

Rec Room

This is a collection of casual games that take advantage of room-scale VR and touch controllers. The games themselves range from inspired (a Pictionary clone where you’re sculpting 3D objects before an audience that’s scrambling to shout out the correct answer) to middling (a paintball game that’s a little too cumbersome for its own good).

But Rec Room’s real killer feature is its combination of presence — of feeling like you’re in a shared room with other people — and the clever design of how you interact with other people. The result is a genuine feeling of messing around in a big den or bonus room full of ping-pong paddles, balls to pass around, and all kinds of toys to toss at the other players.

There’s something uncanny about hopping into the game lobby, picking up a frisbee and tossing it to a stranger — and then they catch it! So naturally, you raise your hands (and touch controllers) up, and your avatar does the same. You release the triggers — your avatar opens its hands, showing you’re ready to catch. The other player tosses the frisbee your way, and it sails in a smooth, natural arc toward you. Instinctively, you reach out to grab it, spin around, and whip it away to the next player. It’s uncanny.

SUPERHOT VR

It’s Superhot, our #3 game of 2016, except in VR. It’s every bit the mind-bending power trip you might imagine it to be. I’ve played through the full game at least four times now. It’s an incredible thing. You must play it.

I’ll just illustrate one scene and then move on:

There’s a sequence where you spawn at the apex of a bridge, and a pair of bad guys is charging at you from each side. You’re unarmed.

The left guy approaches first, wielding a knife. I punch him in the face, and his head shatters into a beautiful, techno-crystalline mess. His knife goes flying into the air, sailing toward me.

I glance back to the right, and the other guy’s arm is cocked back, knife ready to stab me. I hit him in the chest, sending him sailing backward. His knife soars in front of me.

I remember the trajectory of the left guy’s knife and instinctively reach out with both arms. I grasp, and I connect. I’m now holding both knives. Two enemies down; two to go.

They’re both running at full clip, ready to take me down. My arms are still raised up in front of me to grab the knives. I wait. I wait until they’re right up on me, and then I slice in an X-shape downward. I don’t look at either of them; I don’t need to. I know where I am, and I know where they are, because the sense of presence just works.

They explode. I win. And while I probably look like the biggest dweeb to anyone passing by my window, for a brief moment — and for the first time ever playing a game — I actually feel like a superhero.

Superhot VR is that moment, except dozens of times over across multiple hours. It’s a wish-fulfillment engine. I like it a lot.

Eve Valkyrie

I love a good in-cockpit spaceship game, and as Spencer will attest, a good spaceship game is hard to find these days. I still recall the hundreds of hours I sank into X-Wing and TIE Fighter in the mid-’90s, memorizing in meticulous detail the intricacies of piloting these ships and the myriad controls I needed to master to stay alive in what felt like epic battles between the Empire and the Rebellion.

Eve Valkyrie is a very simple game compared to the X-Wing series, but it’s in VR, which means it conveys a feeling of being there. And in that regard, it nails that feeling to a T.

One of the first things I’ll have VR neophytes do is hop into Eve Valkyrie and run through the tutorial. You “wake up” in the cockpit of your ship and a pre-flight check sequence plays out around you. Lights illuminate, engines hum, electronics whine and a voice in your headset runs you through the steps. All the while, you glance around at the cockpit that surrounds you, taking in the feeling of being in a spaceship.

And then you launch.

The sense of momentum — hangar lights whipping past you, engines roaring, the airlock approaching at a rapid clip — is literally jaw-dropping. And then, as you blast through the airlock — all is quiet. Just you and the vast expanse of space.

As a kid, I dreamed of space exploration and the freedom of movement that so much of my favorite sci-fi promised. Eve Valkyrie rekindled that dream, and ten-year-old me was delighted.

Accounting

The crassest, grossest, funniest thing I’ve seen in VR comes from Crows Crows Crows, which worked on The Stanley Parable, and Squanchtendo, which is Rick and Morty creator Justin Roiland’s VR game studio.

I won’t say anything about it, but I will say that I couldn’t stop laughing the entire time I played. Whether that says good things about me probably depends on whether you think Rick and Morty is brilliant or irritating, but hey — I can live with it.

Google Earth VR

It’s amazing what a difference it makes when you take existing technology — for example, maps — and use VR to create a feeling of presence.

I had a friend of mine fly over to the house she grew up in and take me on an aerial tour of her old stomping grounds. We visited the schools she attended, the street where she got her first speeding ticket, the woods where she used to go play after school. It was a novel way for me to learn more about her, but to actually be in the headset — to be able to drop down onto your knees to take a closer look at your old house, to see the street you grew up on from a first-person perspective — is uncanny.

I’ve heard stories of Google Earth VR conjuring up old memories that had long since vanished for people. It happened for me. There’s something powerful about the way this technology connects us to the world, and it’s only scratching the surface.