Video games can create new and seemingly impossible experiences for their players. We travel to imaginary lands, try on new identities or perform feats of strength and grace that surpass the limits of our bodies. As virtual reality becomes a new aspect of the medium this year, it is delivering on its promise for new kinds of experiences and interactions in ways that are tantalizing yet frustrating.
After two years of hype, including Facebook’s $2 billion purchase of Oculus VR in 2014, consumer virtual reality is finally here — for people with the patience, not to mention the wallets, of early adopters. The Oculus Rift headset and the HTC Vive, which uses infrared sensors and motion controllers to create room-scale virtual environments, started shipping this spring, but the selection of games and other entertainment remains relatively thin.
Even so, for a novelty-seeker there is nothing as rewarding as virtual reality right now. First-person shooters are the classic rock of video games (as the culture site The Ringer recently put it), while VR is closer to a buzz-band concert. You might catch the Next Big Thing, but you’re equally likely to endure an ambitious misfire.
When VR works, the sensation that you have been physically transported into another world is uncanny. I’ve found myself crawling on the floor of my home office to evade laser beams and robot sentries in games like Budget Cuts and Unseen Diplomacy. The sense of scale and the vertiginous heights and depths felt when exploring outer space, or the ocean floor, or an icy mountain range, are not comparable to anything on a two-dimensional screen.
New hardware with the potential to broaden VR’s appeal beyond its core of true believers is coming this fall. Oculus is expected to release its motion-sensitive Touch controllers, which will give Rift players (like their Vive counterparts) virtual hands that can point and grab — or wield a sword. In October, Sony will release its PlayStation VR headset, which game developers hope will be bought by a decent chunk of the owners of the world’s 40 million PlayStation 4 consoles. And Google has said that it will release Daydream, a headset and controller for virtual-reality apps and games on Android phones, this year. (The Gear VR, a partnership between Oculus and Samsung, already runs on certain Galaxy phones.)
Scores of VR software titles — 30 for Oculus Touch, 50 for PlayStation, still more for HTC Vive and mobile phones — are expected to be released by the end of the year. Here are a few of the most interesting.
ROCK BAND VR The plastic-guitar game was a kind of proto-VR: It showed that people were willing to strap silly-looking devices to their bodies to serve fantasy. The VR version abandons the sight-reading that has defined the genre since the first Guitar Hero. Instead of watching a colored highway for cues, players are asked to strum in rhythm while experimenting with different finger combinations on the fretboard to create chords. Your stance and head motions matter, too. Look back and nod at the drummer on the virtual stage to begin a song, and then watch the crowd mimic your movements if you decide to begin jumping or headbanging to, say, Van Halen’s “Panama” or David Bowie’s “Suffragette City.” (Harmonix, for Oculus Touch)
EAGLE FLIGHT Most VR game developers right now are small indie studios and one-man shops, but the French giant Ubisoft is wading in with three releases. Star Trek: Bridge Crew and Werewolves Within (an adaptation of the card game Werewolf) look fun, but it will be hard for them to top Eagle Flight, which turns players into birds of prey that soar over and through the streets of Paris. You change direction with your gaze, letting you fly over Notre Dame, or down the Seine, just by turning your head. It’s true that bad VR can be literally nauseating, but this isn’t poorly made — it’s exhilarating. (Ubisoft, for Oculus Rift, PlayStation VR and HTC Vive)
MEDIUM One of the simplest pleasures of the HTC Vive is drawing with Google’s Tilt Brush, which lets players scrawl on the air in front of them and then walk around it to admire their handiwork. The tools in this creativity application from Oculus promise to do something similar for virtual sculpture. (Oculus, for Oculus Touch)
THE GALLERY: HEART OF THE EMBERSTONE The developers of this episodic adventure pitch it as “Myst meets ‘The Goonies,’” for its combination of simple puzzles and a story about teenagers in the Pacific Northwest. The first episode, “Call of the Starseed,” is one of the best games for the Vive. I can’t wait to play the second, scheduled for release in early 2017. (Cloudhead Games, for HTC Vive and Oculus Touch)
SUPERHYPERCUBE and THUMPER The “reality” in “virtual reality” gets too much emphasis, and the “virtual” too little. These surreally abstract games will serve as a corrective. Superhypercube (Kokoromi, for PlayStation VR) is a kind of three-dimensional Tetris that forces players to peer around, above and below the shape of an object to determine how to fit it into holes in walls that glow and buzz in a trippy, neon atmosphere reminiscent of an early 1980s arcade. The rhythm game Thumper (Drool, for PlayStation VR) will play on a two-dimensional screen, but its VR version is like falling into the album cover for Pink Floyd’s “The Dark Side of the Moon.”
HEADMASTER When mobile games took off in the iPhone App Store, many big video game developers tried to shrink popular console genres like the first-person shooter. But developers who introduced new games — like Rovio’s Angry Birds — designed for touch screens had the greatest success. Something similar seems to be happening in VR, where gunplay can be less thrilling than looking and touching. Headmaster combines both of those verbs into a single interaction: heading a soccer ball into a net. But there’s also a darkly comic story, about an athlete sent to a rehabilitation camp that, in the words of the lead designer Ben Throop, is “definitely not a prison.” (Frame Interactive, for PlayStation VR)