Virtual reality is absolutely everywhere at GDC this year. On the expo floor, a man strapped at the waist to a treadmill-like device runs in place. At the lunch tables, a woman’s jaw drops as she experiences some simulated haranguing of her sensory organs. Everyone is goggled up. Despite being my first time at the Game Developers Conference, I’m inclined to believe that the nigh ubiquitous presence of virtual reality gear is a first for the event.
But even with an excess of hardware, there’s only so much actual content to go around. Most playable things in VR are demos, like the HTC Vive’s Longbow—literally just archery in virtual reality. They’re less about presenting a completely realized experience and more about showing off potential. So when I was first dropped into the world of The Gallery, a complete game played on the HTC Vive, I was knocked off my critical horse.
On a beach in the midst of a starry night, I wandered through the detritus of ships wrecked long ago. I tossed bottles into the ocean, lit roman candles in a bonfire, I held a seashell to my ear and listened to the ocean. It was a demo, yes, but it was also just the first level of a game. The effect of that completed effort towards full-body immersion defeated any cynicism I might have walked in with. Like a toddler who’s just figured out his own agency, I was ecstatic just to walk around the world Cloudhead Games had created, picking stuff up and, on occasion, smashing it.
Though I was caught off guard, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the game is so impressive. Cloudhead Games began development of The Gallery on the Oculus DK1, making it one of the first games designed to be in VR from the ground-up. “The more we tried to use traditional game design wisdom, the more we realized that it just wasn’t going to work,” Mike Wilson, Cloudhead Games’ narrative director, told me after my test-run. After plenty of iterations, they nailed down a user interface based around natural player motions; to put an item in your inventory, players need only to drop it over their shoulder, into their “backpack.”
Wilson pulled me out of the beach after a little while, dropping me into a scene with much bigger and more spectacular set pieces. However, my favorite moment, and the one that most impressed upon me the power of VR, was in a cavern just off of that initial shore. On a weather-beaten wooden table, someone had left a note. I held it up, but couldn’t quite read it in the cave’s gloom. Without thinking, I grabbed a candle and held it in front of the paper, reading by the flickering light. It’s the quieter, subtle scenes that most effectively draw you into a virtual world.
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