Last week I had my first ‘proper’ experience of immersive VR. A year ago or so I’d tried out the VR experience at the National Theatre’s production of Wonder.land. I also had a go at Google Cardboard. But neither quite prepared me for the latest in VR (on a PS4). My friend brought along his system plus the games. First up was Ocean Descent. No interactions involved, but you were dropped to the bottom of the ocean. I couldn’t get over how easy it was to let myself ‘be’ in the diving cradle while standing inside a room on a university campus. Almost immediately I wanted to reach out and touch the animated fish in the VR underwater environment. (Spoilers) Once the shark attacked it was so strange to feel a sense of physical vulnerability after the Great White had ripped off the protection bars at the front of the cage, and my virtual belly was there for the eating. Next I progressed to The London Heist, and interaction. The quality of the sound design was what struck me most in this game (along with my inability to keep hold of the gun at the most crucial moment – I was stabbed to death, unable to shot the bad guy because I’d dropped the gun (twice!)). I was really impressed with the scaling of the game sound. If I moved a mobile phone away from my ear, the sound immediately adjusted to where I’d positioned my hand. A simple example of an impressive audio system, which makes sound an important feature, not just to the fiction but the immersive positioning of a player in VR space. The audio gets really complex during the chase, with gunfire, roaring engines and the screeching tyres of vehicles, wind noise, and dialogue.
Having dived to the bottom of the ocean, raced in a car chased by motorbikes and armoured vans, (and tried out as Batman, but let’s not mention the glitch) I then took on the role of a rebel and flew an X-Wing in Star Wars™ Battlefront™ Rogue One™: X-wing VR Mission. Whoop whoop. It was fun flying around asteroids and fighting the great fight, even if my swooping movements meant things were beginning to get a little queasy. My last game was Until Dawn: Rush of Blood. This time my vehicular experience was a roller coaster Ghost train, which for queasy me meant I didn’t get too far through the levels of the ride. Still, I got a real sense of why so many people are saying this is a great game to play on VR (though players of non-VR versions of the game seem less impressed). The game’s sound is great again – really sets you on edge.
So, overall, what did I think? I’m not sure I thought very much as a first timer, just played the games for the experience. It was fascinating to find myself so willing to reach out, physically act out throwing virtual objects, lean forward and back, turn around, tilt, twist, crouch, or yelp as necessary. I was also struck by my embodied reactions having being made nervous, afraid, even scared, as and when they were provoked by a game. The London Heist didn’t give me cause to have this response. Sure it was exhilarating, but in the end you just kept shooting without much fear. But in Rush of Blood, things got more freaky with a growing sense of vulnerability to the on-coming ghosts and ghouls who get pretty much in your face and, via the audio, in your ears.