This past weekend, still recuperating from a kick-your-teeth-out head cold, I didn’t have much energy for anything beyond breathing, so I figured maybe I’d play Valley, the new game I’d purchased. Aside from that, my one major expense of energy would be to accompany my wife (who had also succumbed to the Killer Cold) on an errand to the mall. The mall is one of my least favorite places, but I managed to muster enough oomph to assist her, and I’m glad I did because whilst there, I was able to try out the Oculus Rift.
These two items — Valley and the Oculus — pretty much peg the spectrum of gaming costs. At an online sale price of $8, Valley was a superb bargain, while the Oculus headset rig ($499) is about as dear a peripheral as you can find, especially when you factor in the current requirements for both a high-end gaming PC (the model I used in the demo was $1499) and the Oculus Touch handsets ($99/pair).
Now, there’s no frakking way I’m going to plunk down over two grand for a gaming peripheral. Ain’t gonna happen. Nuh-unh. After spending ten minutes under the VR headset, though, I was tempted. Sorely tempted.
On the other hand, my expectations for a video game that costs eight bucks were low. Very low. Like, I expected to be bored within an hour, low. That didn’t happen, proving that even my jaded sensibilities can still be wrong.
Into the Rift
My main reservation about VR headsets has always been: Can I use them if I wear glasses?
I’m pretty damned powerless without my glasses (Fearless Fly, anyone?), which made trying it out in person a necessary first step. Thus, when I saw the young woman in the Microsoft t-shirt gyrating and flailing her arms as she “painted” a virtual 3D abstract, I whispered “Be right back” to my sweetheart and abandoned her like a Tudor wife.
The demo of the Oculus Rift began with a waiver to be signed. Seeing my grey hair and noting my hesitation, the young woman figured I was stymied by the electronic document.
“Just sign at the bottom,” she said.
“I’m reading it,” I explained. Judging by her puzzled expression, this was not an answer she’d received before.
By signing the waiver I avowed that I had discussed my intention to participate in the demo with a physician (yeah, right, like anyone has) and that I absolved Microsoft of any liability should the VR experience transform me into a fetal mass, frothing and twitching on the mall’s faux marble floor.
I chuckled as I signed. I’d take the risk.
The first challenge was getting the headset on. The Oculus headset is heftier on the back side than other rigs, which provides a more stable, cantilevered balance for the business end in front. For myopic gamers like me, you have the option of putting the headset on while wearing the glasses, or seating the glasses into the viewer first, and putting them both on as a single unit. For wide-framed spectacles like mine, the latter method worked best.
I slid my glasses into the viewer, couching them within the foam-padded sides, and then put the whole rig on like a baseball cap, back end first. It took a bit of fiddling and adjusting then, getting the spectacles and temple pieces seated and comfy. The adjustable Velcro straps caught at my hair, but for a first attempt, it was a pretty smooth go.
Then the show started (more fiddling, as I now had something on which to focus), and I was taken through a showcase of five different scenes. My reaction to standing on a platform miles above a planetscape was utterly visceral, and my acrophobia kicked in as I peered over the “edge,” heart speeding up, guts tightening. When the view changed to a model town, the young woman encouraged me to lean forward into the display, and I realized that I could change my viewpoint and see things from all sides, even looking inside objects to see items previously obscured. The final scene was of a long museum hallway with a tyrannosaurus rex coming around the corner. By this time, I’d gained enough equilibrium to begin to analyze the mechanisms of the animation. Unfocused dust motes drifted in the shafts of light, enhancing the illusion of depth, and when the tyrannosaur roared, flecks of spittle flew past my head before he stomped past/over me and on his way. Pretty damned cool.
Turning around to view the scene in 360 degrees came as second nature, due to the First Person Shooters I favor. Physically moving forward into the scene was new, though, and it was something I desperately wanted to explore, given more time. Actually manipulating objects in the VR space was another facet I dearly wanted to try, but the handsets weren’t part of the demo, leaving me as a disembodied head floating in space.
For those who do not like FPS games, this would not be pleasant. For those of you who suffer from motion sickness in FPS games, better bring a bucket because this will trigger you like nothing ever has.
The non-gaming applications of this tech are obvious, and I can envision it being used in everything from chemistry and pharmacology to manufacturing design to geological exploration. The young woman told me that Microsoft plans to release a VR-ready gaming console for the holiday season. If that’s true, Black Friday will be a mad, mad day. I won’t be a first adopter — I’m too cheap to pay that high a premium — but I very well might be in line once the price drops and the bugs shake out.
Down in the Valley
What can one expect from an $8 video game?
Not much, in my experience, and yet Valley, from Blue Isle Studios, exceeded every expectation. The game lists for $20 but was on sale for eight bucks, but even at its full price I would have considered it a fair deal.
Valley is a first-person exploration game set in a hidden valley that has some rather unusual properties. Back in the ’40s, a secret military project — rival to the Manhattan Project — was conducted here in an attempt to harness the unique energy that exists throughout the valley. The player, deposited in the valley after a canoeing incident, explores the valley with the aid of leftover government supplies, to wit, a L.E.A.F. suit that enhances leg power like a pair of kangaroo shoes, and gives the player the ability to store the quasi-magical “life energy” (called amrita), using it to bring dead things like trees, shrubs, deer, etc., back to life.
The environment in this game is beautifully rendered, and I quickly felt a protective bond for the valley which still bore scars left by the weapons program. The suit’s capabilities grow during play, as enhancement modules are discovered in old crates. A great part of my enjoyment was just bounding around the landscape, gathering amrita and using the L.E.A.F suit’s capacity to restore life to things killed off by residual military malfeasance.
Throughout the gameplay, we hear audio excerpts left by some of the previous actors, and the story of the valley unfolds. These are well written and well presented using the conflicting viewpoints of the team’s anthropologist and head of operations. Written notes are also found, providing information and insight from other characters in the project’s past.
It’s not perfect. There’s a lot of clipping that occurs if, like me, you like to explore the limits of the maps and take in vistas from hard-to-reach vantage points. And while you can die in the game, you rather have to work at it, which makes for an overly easy gameplay when there’s no way to ramp up the difficulty. And while the designers provided a way to choose the gender of your character, the only difference it makes is in the vocalizations — grunts and exhalations — you hear as you land hard or make a long jump; visually, there’s no gender difference whatsoever.
Where the game really fails, though, is in its overall narrative design. The discovery of the valley, following a canoeing mishap, is sheer serendipity, and there’s really no logical connection between the set-up and my arrival in the valley, nor any compelling reason why I get involved in uncovering (and eventually resolving) the valley’s mysteries. The presence of annoying, easily defeated foes — belligerent entities called wendigos — is unexplained, and the one “boss” that must be overcome appears so suddenly and is so out of proportion to the rest of the game’s conflict level that it seems to have been dumped in as an afterthought. “Gotta have a boss,” someone said, and so we have one. Finally, at game’s end, the resolution is wholly unsatisfactory, and even though I’d succeeded in the goal, I was not sure I’d done a good thing.
I’ve played games that had much higher price tags, more bugs, and greater narrative woes, so given the price point, these flaws are neither unexpected nor ruinous. For the hours I spent kangaroo-hopping through the woods, leaping chasms, climbing mountains, and running across the surface of a lake like a skipped stone, it was definitely worth the price.