This is either the worst time to get a concussion or, the curious journalist inside of me says, the best.
A week before I’m set to fly off to San Francisco for GDC, the annual Game Developers Conference, I lose my footing on a slushy mountain while hiking in NY and slam my head on a rock. I feel the world slow around me as I fall backwards, until my skull bounces off the rock I’d just slipped on and time (and pain) rushes back to me. I make it all the way down the mountain with throbbing temples, a whole lot of whiplash and a fear of rocks — a minor concussion, fortunately.
A concussion is a type of brain injury — any kind of which can be tricky. It basically means you've rattled and bruised your brain in your head enough that you either pass out, lose memory or, in a less worst case scenario, deal with a terrible, persistent headache coupled with long-lasting sensitivities to light, sound, etc. Depending on how bad a hit you suffered, symptoms can last a few hours or a few months. And there are tons of symptoms.
The general rule of thumb when it comes to recovering from a concussion is to take things slow. No exercise, no alcohol, no heavy lifting or taxing activities in general and, most alarming, no screens.
GDC is a meeting grounds for game developers — they’re either looking to learn, pitch and share their ideas, to hire or to get hired. Despite writing about video games for roughly 10 years, this is my first time at the show. Press can attend panels, take private meetings, go to semi-private conferences and presentations, play demos on the showfloor and go to parties at night. Though I don’t last long at the parties (and I certainly don’t drink at them), I decide to do a mixture of all of these to get the most well-rounded first-GDC experience possible.
I also decide that, because what better time to do so than at a big video game convention, I will focus on mostly new VR experiences. Probably terrible timing. I don’t know, I’m not sure. The first few days are foggy.
GDC Day One: The Calm Before The Storm
With a freshly-popped, prescribed muscle relaxant, I half-doze on the short flight from LA to SF and land some time in the late afternoon. I attend one press conference held by Ubisoft, a portion of which is about VR.
“We all knew, or at least we all thought we knew, that there were some truths about VR,” Chris Early, VP of digital publishing at Ubisoft says during a presentation. These previously-held truths: locomotion, game length and social interaction are issues in developing games for VR. You can’t move around too much, it can’t be too long of an experience and it’s difficult to create a social atmosphere within VR games. “We pretty much found that none of these are true,” Early continued. The locomotion aspect is most relevant to my current situation, but Early promises that, at least for Eagle Flight — Ubisoft’s flight simulator — the general problem of locomotion has been solved thanks to synchronized eye, ear and head movement, and tricks like a nose focal point or dynamic blinders that create a vignette shape around the screen when you’re moving particularly fast so that your peripheral vision doesn’t distract you too much.
I leave to prepare some news on a new Avatar game Massive Entertainment is apparently working on and rush off to grab dinner with some old colleagues.
No actual VR gaming today, but the best is yet to come.
GDC Day Two: Don’t Look At The Screens
It is now nine days after my questionable shoe choice led to my demise atop the highest peak in Hudson Highlands and, after I pick up my badge, my very first appointment is a VR game and CCP’s newest: Sparc.
Think virtual dodgeball but, if you’re anything like me, with a higher chance of skill improvement. You can spin the ball, bounce it proficiently off the floor or the walls and catch your opponent’s ball mid-air and one-handed. There’s a limited range in the shape of a box around you where you can reach your arms out to their corners or duck around in.
Putting a VR headset on always feels weightier than you’d expect it to, but even more so post concussion. I slip the Vive on my head as a few CCP representatives help me adjust the straps and the headphones, and it almost feels like a few weights are bandaged onto the top of my skull. I blink a few times as my eyes adjust to the screen that’s barely inches away from my eyeballs. I laugh in my head a little about my doctor’s recommendation a week earlier: “Don’t look at screens for five to seven days.” I wonder what she’d think about one strapped onto my head.
Typically, the thing about VR gaming that makes people feel sick or uncomfortable is motion and your brain’s inability to reconcile the motion it sees with the lack of motion it feels. But CCP’sSparc lacks actual space traversal. You stand in one position and sway around within a small range — left and right — to throw, catch and hit the balls on the court. CCP is developing Sparcin this way intentionally — they’re building an experience suited to VR, rather than trying to create ideas just to cram them into VR as an afterthought.
Because of my concussion, I really don’t want to duck or move around too much. Even just setting one foot in front of the other repeatedly in a consistent speed, also known as walking, hurts my head a little with every landing.
But to actually win at this thing I’ve got to punch my arms out aggressively, shifting my weight drastically side to side to catch the ball that bursts forward from my opponent’s hands. He’d just lost a previous round at another appointment, I’m told, and wasn’t pulling any punches with me. My eyes can’t track the balls fast enough and I’m too nervous to move my neck independently from the rest of my body to look around too much. Sparc requires fast reaction time, and my brain and body just can’t handle it.
After the tutorial and the quick round, my demo is over. I spend the rest of my day at presentations, panels, interviews and playing around with a few of Nintendo’s indie games.
No more VR today.
GDC Day Three: Blood, Sweat and (No) Tears
After Epic’s keynote presentation in the morning where the music is just a tad too loud, I’m off to play Rick and Morty VR, which, as a huge fan of the show (keep Summer safe), I’m super excited about. I even checked out their panel presentation the day before to prepare.
Fortunately or unfortunately, it was a super short experience. Rick is mean (or blunt, whatever) and Morty is skeptical and, after they leave momentarily, I’m virtually trying to pick up and play with everything I possibly can. I pick up some wine bottles, pop their corks and pour the wine out on the floor, thinking about how I forgot to dedicate the spillage to someone first. I pick up a beer can, pop the tab and pour some of that out, undedicated, too. I toss some things around to see how far I can fling them. I pick up Rick’s laser gun that whines at me that I’m not its proper owner. I do some laundry for Rick.
The movements I make aren't dependent on reaction time, or catching flying objects or shooting anything. It’s an exploration — my little sandbox. Developer Owlchemy Labs refers to it as unstructured play. I can take my time and casually look around my surroundings playing with whatever I see fit to, turning or not turning my head towards whatever I want to. Actual movement across the garage the demo takes place in works off of zone-based teleportation, which was incorporated as a way to decrease the chances of motion-based sickness. Happily, it means less movement for my concussed head, too. “Your periphery is going to be what makes you sick,” developer Andrew Eiche tells me after my demo. “As long as you are the agent of your own movement — meaning, when you take a step, you move in the real world 1:1 precisely — you will not get sick. If you do anything else other than that, you run the risk. The reason why teleporting works ... It’s essentially, ‘Close your eyes! Now you’re here.’”
My post-concussion head is pleased, even if I’m still experiencing the same issue of a tight, heavy piece of equipment strapped onto my still-swollen skull.
Finally, Rick and Morty reappear. They urge me to pull a lever, opening a portal, and then urge me to step into the portal that looks out into space.
Stepping inside is weird. I almost don’t want to do it. My legs buckle a little under the uncertainty of my reality — it sure looks like I might fall into a deep well of nothingness and stars, but I know there’s carpet and a floor underneath me back in the real world.
This uncertainty isn’t the concussion speaking, it’s all VR.
After a few meetings following Rick and Morty VR, I run off to my second VR appointment of the day: Survios’ Sprint Vector. The developers boast the same kind of development fundamentals of aiming for that 1:1 tracking system: they believe their fluid locomotion system emulates the realistic experience of your virtual running as closely as it possibly can to how you’re actually moving in VR gear. Ensuring you don’t get sick while playing is all about nailing your intended motion, and translating that into your VR experience, I’m told.
Sprint Vector is currently more of a prototype than a fully-fledged game, but it feels like a fully-fledged workout. It’s a racing/running game, and there’s one track for me to try. Another tightly-laced headset strap-on and I’m off.
The track twists and turns, and so it requires me to physically turn and look around quite a bit. My head — and neck — already does not like this. My eyes, tracking around the field, are already in pain, but swinging my head around means using the muscles of my whiplashed-neck and putting more stress on my brain from all the rapid movement.
I pump my arms in long, smooth strides — the longer you can swing your arm down and back, the faster you run — and struggle a bit with climbing as I can’t quite get the flick of my arm straight down to the floor to virtually jump myself up from grips and ledges. I feel like I’m running even though my feet are mostly firmly planted to the ground, except when I shuffle to the right or left to angle myself onto the track better. Or when I’m tripping over my feet as I’m trying to keep my balance, because it always feels like my feet should be moving when they don’t actually need to. I start basically doing squats to duck under tight bridges — my doctor told me to lay off exercise for a while, too, but I sure have missed the gym, so maybe this is a silver lining.
“We had to build a lot of systems that you aren’t even aware of so that when you put it on and you pump your arms forward, it just works,” Mike McTyre, design director at Survios tells me. “Everyone runs differently. We’re not robots. Everyone will move their arms and their bodies and their heads and shoulders all in different motions.” This means they have to compensate for movements that aren’t precisely a mechanical down-and-back swing. Their system accounts for people who might twist their swing at different angles. “You could go 50, 60, 100 miles per hour in this thing without feeling sick. That’s a game-changer. You can apply this to all sorts of other products.”
The Survios team pits me against another player and my competitive side comes out. I’m swinging my arms more furiously now despite the increasingly loud headache. I take dizzying turns at high speeds, and feel the blood sloshing around in my head as I squat down and up in between approaching the low bridges. I’m incredibly uncomfortable, and this was before slipping the headset off to realize I’m now facing the showfloor aisle which was previously empty and is now filled with people watching me play Sprint Vector. I’m also sweating — a fuzzy sweater was a great choice for GDC Day Three.
Apparently this track was as literally straight-forward as they get. I’m glad I didn’t have a chance to test the windier ones, because there are apparently more advanced tracks planned for the game that have you actually turning around in them.
GDC Day Four: Once More Unto The Breach
Day Four is a lighter day: I finally have some time to wander the showfloor at my leisure, with no VR appointments left. But I keep hearing people rave about Robo Recall and as I’m circling Epic and Oculus’ booths, I can’t help but be drawn to it.
Alright, let’s try this again.
Turns out, Robo Recall is friggin’ awesome. You know all those Minority Report dreams we’ve had since 2002? Where you’re swishing your hands around, looking all professional, controlling an AR environment? Well, Robo Recall is kind of like that, but not, and with guns and robots.
Wary of yet another day experiencing the pressure and weight of a VR headset, I try to get away with loose straps. But the diligent Epic representative is good at his job and instructs me otherwise. I whimper inside, but I suck it up — it’s now day 11 post concussion and my symptoms are down to a meager 30 percent nuisance level anyway.
Robo Recall starts off slow enough. I get a tutorial of how to teleport around using the thumbstick on the Oculus Touch controller, swinging the joystick around in the direction I want to face once I’m teleported there. That rotational move comes in handy throughout the rest of the game.
I learn I can grab robots and pull their limbs off one by one. I start flinging limbs everywhere, just because I can. When I’m finally planted into the game, little crawler bots try to pounce on me and I expertly either shoot them square in the metal face or catch them and toss them at their buddies, which acts like a grenade because they explode on impact. Neat.
Upright, humanoid robots come after me. I alternate between catching their bullets and tossing it back at them and turning to shoot them one at a time. I teleport myself down the street and shoot more, catching robots and bullets and shooting out robots and bullets.
I’m having the kind of fun I used to have on roller coasters, but that I get too motion sick for now. Once my heads-up display indicates I have shotguns at my back to use, I’m beaming. I throw my arms over my shoulders to grab at my virtual shotguns and shoot out at robots on my left and right sides simultaneously. Once my ammunition runs out, I toss the shotguns to the side and grab at the pistols at my waist. I’m shooting off high on the right and low on the left, switching my arms’ positions to confront new enemy angles as they creep up behind and in front of me. It’s non-stop. I’m tossing guns and grabbing at my newly-downloaded ones as they respawn on my body. When I’m in a tight spot, I teleport away and attack from a safer angle. Everything is fluid.
I’m giddy. Somehow, moving and turning around doesn’t even feel too bad. Actually, all I feel is like a badass gunslinger. Maybe it’s the day 11 recovery effect. Maybe it’s Robot Recall. Either way, I can’t believe how much fun I’m having.
Concussion Day 15: 95% Recovery
Concussion Day 1 was painful: a sharp spike to the head and a whole day of headaches. Concussion Day 2 and 3 were really bad: intense neck stiffness and pain, and throbbing temples and eyeballs. Sound, movement, light, existence hurt. I kept a heat pad wrapped around my neck and sunk into my couch on those days. Concussion Day 15 is a fairly normal day. My eyeballs still feel a little slow to move but my brain doesn’t feel slow and every step I take doesn’t feel like lighting rushing from my feet to my head anymore.
My doctor told me my minor concussion pretty much brought out symptoms for a problem I was already prone to: namely, migraines. I suspect my experience playing VR games can be summed up similarly. I never took too well to VR. Back when the Oculus was still just a devkit, I’d get motion sickness and wasn’t able to explore VR worlds for too long in one sitting. Nowadays, with advancements in understanding how certain VR conditions contribute to motion sickness and how to avoid them, my issues are more contained to matters of balance for any locomotion that doesn’t work off of zone-based teleportation like in Robo Recall or Rick and Morty VR.
So how does VR gaming stack up to a previously-concussed player? Well … just try not to move around too much if you find yourself in a similar situation.
And what does my doctor think? “It usually takes about two to four weeks for the pain to improve after a concussion so you are doing really well,” she wrote to me recently. “Keep up the good work.”
She thinks I’m doing good work.