VR infancy: Taking a peek inside The Matrix

It’s hard not to feel excited, much like I was, on the 16th of July, watching a delivery driver pull an ominously dark package from the back of his van. I stood at the front door of my flat with an eager, gormless smile on my face as he handed me a box that could easily be mistaken for a dirty bomb if we still lived in the year 2004. He plods back to his van, all sullen and defeated, and I bound right back up the stairs – eager to get at the packaging like a Yorkshire terrier ripping apart your Christmas presents.

Opening up the sleek, black parcel reveals a dizzying array of cyberpunk technology and splaying black spaghetti that now have to somehow fit inside your living space, which, if you’re like me and you live in a Thatcher-era brutalist box of hopelessness, this can be a little daunting. You get the headset itself, the massive, vibrator sized controllers, a pair of lighthouses and a link box that magically pairs everything up with magical computer words. This is the part where diligent research will almost certainly pay off as setting up the whole shebang with your living quarters in mind has to take into account the proverbial Vietnam war of cables and black monolithic slabs of tech that will now litter your apartment.

The lighthouses themselves come with a wall mounting system that, while I’m sure works great, I simply don’t trust the plaster on my walls to withstand a brisk sneeze let alone a weighty magical lightbox. I elected instead to stick them on top of light poles that make it look like I’m running a porn set from my living room. Your results may vary, but I was able to arrange everything in a rather subtle way that didn’t look like some nasty den of godless inequity.

Enough of that though. On with the headset. With the HTC Vive, you’re dumped into a sleekly designed modern home environment, much like the ones you’ll never be able to afford in this lifetime. This is, for all intents and purposes, a “desktop” for VR. You can launch games and apps from here, pull up your desktop and use your PC, As well as customize your home screen to be less of a mortal wound to your soul. For me, I preferred not to be reminded that I’ll always live in a tiny casket of an apartment by turning my home screen into that lovely island town from The Legend of Zelda: Windwaker, lovingly recreated by a community member. Much of the SteamVR stuff is customizable to impressive degrees, from your disembodied avatar to the skybox above you, it can all be tweaked from a community hub in your home. You can also write all over the walls and draw big comedy cocks everywhere which only sophisticated comedians like myself do.

Games themselves have a varying degree of quality and a lot of what is out on digital stores right now resides firmly in uncanny valley territory. For example, I picked up Jam Studio VR, a music app from the viveport subscription that allowed you to simulate the feeling of “jamming” with friends with various instruments. It’s a fun distraction but not even anywhere as deep, interesting or experimental as GarageBand. You’ll find many of the apps in VR act this way – they mirror the app stores on your mobile phones in their volume of gimmicky bollocks and sifting through the turds to find something worthwhile involves some level of research on your part. It’s pretty easy, though, to tell apart the dross from the genuine articles.

The tech resides in uncanny valley territory, too, which is a bit funny considering the HTC Vive is sold as a consumer product. As soon as you start plugging in the strands of cables and finding spare space for all this tech to live, it’s pretty obvious that it’s being aimed at enthusiast level consumers, not your everyday console hustler. For a majority of my first week with the Vive, I’d been battling an overheating issue which, of course, I had no idea was a heating issue until I’d exhausted every single possible solution I could find across the world wide web. It’s heatwave season in the UK right now, and thanks to living inside the urban sprawl of death-concrete London, my flat is warmer and sweatier than a pool of molten lava. I’m grateful, though. Thanks to my investigations, I now know that the Vive inside out and I can confidently say it isn’t something for the faint-hearted. It probably won’t work right out of the box, and you’ll probably have to fiddle around with all manner of things you’re probably totally ignorant of before you can safely say you’re happy. But when you get over these humps, the experience is like nothing else. My problem, in case you were curious, was fixed by a strand of electrical tape over one of the headset sensors.

When you do find great games, though, they’re often on another level of immersion altogether and the few standout titles I’ve messed around with have been worth the lofty price of admission alone. Arizona Sunshine, for one, is a sandblasted, sun-drenched survival shooter set in a zombie-strewn desert. You plod along through varying degrees of abandonment in the Arizona wastelands dealing out headshots to slow, shambling zombie hordes as you go. Abandoned cars yield ammo and health-restoring burgers once you’ve pried open their doors with your bare hands, inviting you to lean into the brown, dusty passenger seats in the hope that someone left behind some spare shotgun shells. Some levels drop the lights and you’ll be left scrambling around in darkness trying to find light sources – with a VR headset, this is much more terrifying than it sounds. The shooting is so tactile and natural that you’ll quickly realize how much of a terrible shot you’d be in real life. Half the battle is in lining up the sights of your gun properly to actually land an accurate shot rather than spray wildly and end up shooting your toes into a pulpy mess. The hands-on approach to much of the worlds interactive elements is what really makes this shine. Generators need to be powered on by big levers that you pull down with a big slide-chunk noise. Cages can be opened by putting a key in the lock, twisting the handle with your controller and swinging it open. This organic approach to interacting with the world feeds into your immersion and it really felt like the same thing simply isn’t possible in a traditional video game environment.

Onward is VR’s answer to ARMA, albeit in a very simple and limited format but nonetheless, the scale and immersion offered by VR make this all the more intense. What usually ends up happening is you die trying to figure out how to reload your gun. The basics should be obvious to anyone – you press a button to drop the empty clip from your weapon, then use your spare hand to slide a fresh one in its place. But the death usually occurs as you try to work out why the gun isn’t firing anymore. Each weapon is different, you see. Some guns require you to pull a charging handle before you can begin firing again, others you only need to put a new magazine in before you can start redecorating the world in blood. Some machine guns, by default, aren’t loaded and therefore need to be loaded before you do anything which has had me running into enemy ambushes with my pants around my ankles trying desperately to feed a bullet belt into my weapons various openings. This simple layer of authenticity changes how the traditional First Person Shooter operates – where before you could press one button and your gun is magically filled to the brim with death juice, now it’s a tactical decision, one that can, if you’re sloppy, get you killed. It’s possible to get cornered in a dusty, abandoned building as your weapon runs dry and you desperately scan your weapon for a button to hit or a charging handle to tug on just to get everything to work. This, combined with a decent set of headphones is an absolutely unparalleled experience, especially online with some co-op pals, it’s something that can only be done in VR. The only thing missing is the debilitating PTSD and endless trauma of loss, but I think I can live without that being simulated, thank you very much.

Rec Room is probably my personal highlight, as I often can’t fathom it’s existence. It’s a totally free and constantly updated VR hangout where everyone roams around a big leisure centre and just sort of… exists. It’s a bit like Ashford or Hull but with more joy and happiness and friends. In Rec Room you can chill out, play with the physics objects, draw on the whiteboards, make friends by shaking their hands, mess around with side activities, PVP battles, sports events. You name it, it’s probably inside Rec Rooms user-generated environments, much like the ever-popular but bafflingly named Garry’s Mod on PC. The confusing part is working out how developers Against Gravity make money from Rec Room. It’s totally free and has no micro-transactions, so how do they profit? Are they just some rogue, philanthropic game developers who exist to just update their joyous VR leisure hub with constant new fun things to swallow? Recently they added the by now de rigueur battle royale style PVP game mode which is a surprisingly good time for an added afterthought. Everything has a tactile, hands-on feel. Everything can be picked up and manipulated and you can make strange, transient friendships with every Thomas, Richard and Harold you find in all of Rec Rooms neon coloured hallways – it’s a joyous celebration of strangers meeting under strange circumstances.

VR is still in its embryonic stages. It’s yet to develop it’s swimming legs, still hasn’t found the magic formulas that make everything click, still hasn’t quite stumbled on the industry-standard magic that will transform all of this technology into something that could threaten our traditional gaming sensibilities – but that’s no bad thing. Being on the cutting edge, and electing to sit on the very bleeding edge of developments has its own benefits and rewards. Getting in on the action this early means you get to watch something brand new slowly crawl from the primordial gene pool with legs strong enough to change how we view art, education and the media. I believe in VR. I believe one day it could change the world. How the world reacts to that change, I guess, remains to be seen but for now, if you don’t mind, I’ve got a couple more zombies to kill before the next level starts.

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