Versions is the essential guide to virtual reality and beyond. It investigates the rapidly deteriorating boundary between the real world and the one behind the screen. Versions launched in 2016 at the eponymous conference dedicated to creativity and VR with the New Museum’s incubator NEW INC.

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ExSpearmint, or: how this developer learned to stop worrying and redefine play in VR

ExSpearmint, or: how this developer learned to stop worrying and redefine play in VR

Ben Goldsmith, a San Francisco resident and former Product Analyst at Google, is making virtual reality games. Or rather, making game experiments for other developers. Spearmint 1, part of a larger series entitled ExSpearmint, is at its most simple an escape room game. At its most complicated, it’s a test in if constrained, tightly designed play spaces even work in VR.

Interactivity in Spearmint 1 is resigned to flipping switches, as the player realizes that they aren't escaping a room - they're launching a nuclear weapon.
Interactivity in Spearmint 1 is resigned to flipping switches as the player realizes that they aren’t escaping a room—they’re launching a nuclear weapon.

One of Spearmint 1‘s inspirations is Palace Games, which develops real-world escape rooms with a current set-up at San Francisco’s Palace of Fine Arts. “What I liked about [Palace Games’ escape rooms] is that they were less-focused on traditional logic puzzles and puzzles on sheets of paper, and more focused on the physical interaction of being in a space,” said Goldsmith. “So they ended up building things that are really cool, where the rooms are basically machines.” For Spearmint 1, Goldsmith channeled the physicality of those puzzles, versus the simple puzzles from other escape rooms. But making an escape room was only one sliver of Goldsmith’s grander idea. After all, even the game’s Dr. Strangelove-inspired narrative of launching a nuke mostly fell to the wayside as development progressed.

“I don’t have the budget to make big long experiences full of worlds and wonder, but the goal is to make stuff that is focused and impactful enough for other developers to pick up on,” Goldsmith told me. Goldsmith is looking at all the dozens of unanswered questions about interactivity in VR, and making the answers he discovers accessible for everyone else. Scenarios in which developers can rework his ideas into their own work. “So that would be my goal, doing the weird stuff and making it for other developers,” he said.

“doing the weird stuff and making it for other developers”

Goldsmith is publicly posting the source code for everything in the Spearmint series—even though there’s only one so far—and writing detailed post-mortems in his blog about the development process. Whether detailing the project’s positive surprises or accidental failures, Goldsmith’s being as candid as possible in his write-ups. For example, like how Spearmint 1 took around 70 days to complete, instead of its intended 30 days, or how a door swinging open provided an accidental jump scare for players, something he feels a little bit bad about.

“That sort of presence is the stuff that was the most exciting thing about VR about a year and a half ago,” explained Goldsmith. “And I don’t wanna phrase this as a knock on other developers because it’s not that, but the trend I’ve noticed so far has been a way for those embodied experiences to become less embodied experiences.” Goldsmith noted that a lot of the games being made for virtual reality right now are games that could be made without it—no one’s really taking advantage newer sensations that you can only get from VR. He wants to do the opposite.

An early prototype of Spearmint 1.
An early prototype of Spearmint 1.

While Spearmint 1 dealt with the idea of what a player does when constrained in a tight space, his next projects tackle more intricate ideas, as he hopes to dabble in both nonphysical VR (and broadening that idea beyond psychedelia and visualizers) and emulating theatrical mask work. “There’s a set of traditions in theater where actors put on masks, look in the mirror, and through really simple instructions, end up really embodying the mask they put on,” explained Goldsmith. “It’s this almost supernatural power where you go from acting to just being the character.” 

You can download Spearmint 1 for free on itch.io, and read Goldsmith’s blog for more post-mortems.

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