Tales From the Digiverse

This past weekend a friend and I visited our local purveyor of realities, Augmentality Labs. Up until then, I had only watched others play games in VR on video. The constant refrain I heard was "This is great and it's impossible to believe it's great until you try it." After doing just that, I think I mostly agree.

First off, I should clarify the circumstances. Augmentality Labs has a pretty great set up with maybe the least possible friction for playing VR games. I booked ahead of time, walked in, and they took my friend and I to the play space. We each got a roughly 6x6 soft mat area to move around and the HTC Vive headset and pair of controllers were ready to go immediately. We got a quick tutorial from an employee and could select any game they had and freely switch within our time slot. The headset wires were held above our heads with a pulley system rigged up in the ceiling. Judging from the videos I've watched of people tripping over cords, this is probably the biggest advantage over a home set up.

Another benefit to trying this at an arcade was the possibility of local multiplayer. On the day that I write this, HTC has announced a $200 price cut to the Vive. That's great but even if more people buy one of these things, they sure aren't likely to buy a $600 spare. So for an extra $20 (the rate for a half hour of play time) my friend and I could enter these ridiculous worlds together. We had time to squeeze in three games: Trickster, Drunkn Bar Fight, and Rec Room. I knew about Drunken Bar Fight and Rec Room before hand but had no idea there were co-op modes.

Trickster - Employees told us this was the most popular co-op experience, but I found it pretty underwhelming. You're dropped into a stock standard medieval fantasy environment and some orcs come at you. You can switch between sword and shield and a bow. Since this was our first game there was some novelty to swinging the sword and drawing the bow. After that wore off, so did the fun. At one point we thought we had accidentally backtracked to the same area, but it was just an exact copy and paste of an earlier environment. This might be a good intro to VR, but it didn't do much to distinguish itself.

Drunkn Bar Fight - This was easily my favorite game we played. You're dropped into a bar with a bunch of people standing around, and you fight them. Almost everything can be used as a weapon. Bottles, chairs, gumball machines, pool cues, and walkers are all tremendously satisfying to pick up and fling around. The character models are floppy and stretchy which amplifies your hits in a hilarious way. Get hit too much by angry patrons and your body falls away from you and crumples on the floor. A friend has to bend down and drag you back to your feet, just like in a real bar! The designers of Bar Fight clearly understand what is fun to do in VR. The level and variety of interactivity won me over. That, and nailing a guy in the forehead with a dart.

Rec Room - I only saw a very small slice of Rec Room in the form of a co-op quest. The gameplay was a lot like Trickster. You're armed with a sword and bow, and you work your way through the level killing creatures. Luckily, Rec Room is about 1000 times more charming than Trickster. The premise of the game seems to be that you're in the most well-funded community center ever built. The quest takes place in hallways with lockers and water fountains. They're decorated with cardboard cut outs of castle turrets and the enemies are mop buckets on wheels painted to look like orcs. If a friend goes down, no problem. Give them a high five to revive them. Seriously. The whole aesthetic of Rec Room is fantastic and it brought back childhood memories of made up backyard adventures.

I definitely plan to go back and try more games and pay for a longer session. I thought I might be nauseous or that my eyes would be tired after a half hour but I felt like I could have easily kept going. An employee told me they plan on selling alcohol there soon which is...a choice. I think I'll stick with one escape from the real world at a time for now. At least I know that no matter how I use VR, I'll look really cool doing it.