My affair with VR and everything it represented started with a visit to my parents’ in Madrid last month after a spell of separation due to Covid. I was based in Berlin but I’d made the executive decision to stay there during the first wave — it seemed safer and it was. My mother attested that Madrid’s first wave was nerve-wracking — especially due to Spain’s policy of fining anyone outside their homes for anything non-essential thousands of euros and the government’s notable mismanagement of the crisis.
She also added that she would have found it much more bearable had she invested in a virtual headset earlier. Her company sent her one for free in June. Since then, she had been racking high scores in Beat Saber, frequenting FitXR and doing the occasional bit of art in Tiltbrush.
She knew that I was taking a course in Augmented Reality development and that I saw immense potential in the emerging medium and that I couldn’t wait to get involved. Naturally, she wanted me to try a headset on before I started developing for one. Perhaps I’d hate it. Maybe I’d be one of those people who got motion sickness from noticing the discrepancies between how the world moved around me when I moved in VR and how it would move in real life.
It turns out I wasn’t one of those people.
So for the past few months I’ve been commuting between reality and the virtual space and back again and I’ve compiled a few of my favourite VR experiences. These are applications and games that I love to show friends when I’m showcasing them the best that the medium has to offer. They are also experiences I think about often when I’m developing. Some of these were recommended to be by my mother — the only other person I know who regularly delves into Virtual Reality. Some of these I discovered all by myself.
I’ll start with what I think is a seminal entry in the history of VR games and it came out of a small Polish studio. This game is built around a central gimmick — you are a dude fighting against a hoard of red dudes, many of whom are armed. This is like an action movie. The one advantage you have — and it’s a significant one — is that time only moves when you move. This means you can take all the time you need to mull your next move over.
Then there’s a gimmick on top of that. There’s a story in this game that only tangentially involves the red dudes coming for you. As you progress through the main campaign, you find that Superhot is a VR game within a VR game and the story plays deeply into this sense of intertextuality. It’s a meta-commentary on the medium and how it affects you. But, more importantly, it’s the most fun I’ve had on my Oculus. I’ve found myself doing legitimate acrobatics while dodging bullets, catching guns in midair, shooting them and throwing them at people when they’re out of bullets. The game turns you into an action hero. One last distinguishing feature is that, any time I’ve shown this game to friends, they’ve taken the liberty to use their entire play area and bodies to kill dudes, turning this into the closest thing I’ve seen to VR-induced physical theatre.
2) Sport Scramble
I have more than a few bones to pick with its presentation. The game seems primarily oriented towards kids, judging by its bold color scheme, bright visuals and motley of cartoon characters cheering you on and booing your opponent. There are tutorials but they are patronising as all hell and seem hell-bent on telling you how to bat the ball without explaining the minutae of how to bat a ball well (I could have already guessed you could swing your bat by swinging your controller). More over, the game types are hit and miss. Bowling in this game doesn’t even work remotely like it does in real life (by this, I mean that games are tied).
However, at its core is an experience I keep on coming back to — tennis (and sometimes baseball too). It’s accessible but pregnant with replay value. Each game starts like a regular tennis match, with you and your opponent ponging the ball to the other side of the net. Then power ups emerge in the middle of the court and, when you hit them, may transform the tennis ball into some other projectile (like a football, a disk or a fish) or your racket into some other implement (like a baseball bat, a pool noodle or also a fish). These change the dynamics of the game — some balls react differently to being struck to others. It makes tennis games that much more unpredictable and otherworldly and bring something to the sport that real life isn’t in a position to provide.
In all, I think this is the VR counterpart to Wii sports and I would be interested in seeing them expand to other sports like golf or pool as well.
3) Thrill of the fight
This is VR’s most prominent and most accessible boxing game. It speaks for itself — you enter a ring and fight an opponent. You duck blows by moving your head or entire body and you strike by punching with your fists. This game has been instrumental in helping me work out my frustration on a virtual other. On top of that, I appreciate how bare-bones the presentation is. The only suggestion I would make is that the game allow you to extend the number of rounds you can play against a sparring opponent (say, to a maximum of three rounds, to prevent people from boxing for all eterntity).
(As a note, a friend of mine who regularly boxes noted that I box better with this headset on than without it. This is a testament to VR’s transformational qualities).
I’ll make a second post shortly with more of my favourite experiences in VR.