I strap on an Oculus Rift virtual reality headset to try out Lucky's Tale, the candy colored platformer that had Kirk in love at first hop. It's nice, pleasant, and I do enjoying leaning and looking around the environment. But before long I realize something: I'm kinda bored.
This was my general feeling during my tour of Oculus Rift's E3 booth. I tried out multiple demos and came to a rather abrupt realization: VR wasn't wowing me like it used to. The honeymoon phase was over. The relationship had gone stale. It's not like we were in shouting matches or hurling plates or anything. We just... were.
I tried out the new EVE Valkyrie demo to similar effect. The (admittedly very pretty) space ship shooter is now running in Epic's Unreal Engine 4, which means it sported a sparkly new coat of space paint. I soared, I shot, I got lost in all the massive derelict space architecture. It was... a space game, only I could look around a bit more. The sense of "there"-ness was still, er, there, but it just didn't have the same impact. I'd adjusted to it. It was the new default.
The closest I came to rediscovering the old magic was with a super unique indie first-person shooter called Superhot (or rather SUPERHOT, but I like to use an inside voice in my articles). The basic concept is that every time you stop moving, time slows very nearly to a complete halt. If you stride forward, however, it moves at a normal clip, and a single bullet (of which there are often many) is enough to put you down for the count. To infinity. Because you're dead.
The Oculus version is especially interesting because it adds the option to lean and dodge around bullets, like Neo from The Matrix. It's a neat idea, but it was clearly added very recently, so the game didn't feel like it was constructed around it. I still got hit when it felt like I shouldn't have—like I'd dodged clean—and the whole thing was exceedingly stylish but lacking in substance. Hopefully time will change that, because there's real potential in Superhot's core concept (more of which can be seen in its original, non-VR version).
That was my big takeaway as I strolled through the no-longer-hallowed halls of virtual reality: I needed more. When these things—Oculus Rift, Sony's Morpheus, whatever else is announced by then—launch, the wow factor won't last. Not for long, anyway. In truth, I really don't think it'll even be enough to get many people in the door. Oculus wants to drive down the price as much as possible—and that's good!—but there's still the matter of convenience, of choosing between strapping on a hot, claustrophobic mask for hours versus just, you know, playing a video game.
When I first tried out virtual reality, I was a believer. I'll never forget it: I was playing a VR demo of Doom 3 while series creator (and game development legend) John Carmack stood patiently just a few feet away. I was terrified, but not because of monsters or demons or my latent worry that Carmack grows his powers by consuming other, lesser human minds. No, what got me was a simple ladder.
I climbed to the top of it, and then an enemy came out of nowhere and spooked me. I reflexively leaped backward, and my stomach full-on turned over. Every hair on my body stood on end. I had embodied my character to the point that my real life fear of heights kicked in. I was afraid to fall down a stupid one-story ladder, something I regularly leap clean over in regular games.
Since then, I've probably played a few hours' worth of VR demos—not even that much, in the grand scheme of things. Granted they were only demos, not full games, but the feeling just wasn't there anymore. That makes me kinda sad. I don't think this means VR is going to fail, necessarily. I just think it has some big hurdles to overcome, and game developers need to bring their A-games—think waaaaaaay outside of the box—if they want this thing to stick. Put real substance behind this neat entry point. Make virtual reality virtually (and actually) irresistible, a thing that many games simply feel inferior without.
The good news is, people are trying all sorts of crazy experiments with VR. It's clearly inspired many designers to get creative and dream up all sorts of weird stuff, from full-blown Tron light cycles to first-person Pokemon games that let you physically walk through the world to, er, really fancy Facebook browsers. But experiments are only that, and the real question is how these ideas will translate into practical, playable games—things anyone can access easily. They can't be so elaborate as to keep most people out, but they also can't just be the same things we've played before, only strapped to our faces.
If my slow fall into disillusionment is any indication, the first round of VR games won't be able to rely on "it's that one genre you really love, only more there"—not for long, anyway. I'm not sure if there's lasting appeal in that, and you only get one shot at making a first impression. If that impression ends up being, "inconvenient, isolating, sweaty gimmick," virtual reality might have a little more trouble establishing itself as "The Future" than expected.
TMI is a branch of Kotaku dedicated to telling you everything about my adventures in the gaming industry (and sometimes other offbeat and/or uncomfortable subjects). It's an experiment in disclosure, storytelling, interviewing, and more. The gaming industry is weird. People are weird. I am weird. You are weird. Why hide that? Let's explore it.