20 July 2013

People Inside the Oculus Rift

Owning an Oculus Rift means that people start gathering around it to play. Here are a series of what our afternoons usually look like.

Becky exploring the garden.
Eve in engineering.
Will, Adrian and Stanley (playing) in Proton Pulse.
Eve, Alex, Becky, Adrian and Holly (playing) in Blue Marble.

The engine wing of Indefatigable modelled by Innes Blomberg.

16 July 2013

Oculus Rift, Post University and Proton Pulse

After my recent graduation from university, I've been spending most of my hours toying with this device, the Oculus Rift. In a team of four we are developing games for the new virtual reality.

Current workstation: a wall of computer screens.

Owning an oculus also means playing it a whole lot. I've explored underwater, seen the earth from space and had everyone in Half-Life 2 stare me straight into the eye. So far my favourite of all VR games has been Proton Pulse. I've beaten the giant face boss about four times by now and had friends play it many more.

Alex playing Proton Pulse in the Rift.
There are lot of things that game does right with the Oculus Rift:

1. No walking means no stillness illness. A huge problem with the Oculus is the nauseating feeling of your eyes telling you you're moving when your body isn't. By simply not having to walk, this uncalibrated sensation is no problem at all.
2. Space perception as a game mechanic. What the Oculus does really well is the perception of space and depth. When you are in a tunnel, you feel like you are actually in one. So when Proton Pulse places its blocks further and closer away, you can tell the distance it is from you and react accordingly. (Also when they decide to twist the tunnel it is awe-striking.)
3. The Oculus as the controller, looking as the game mechanic. The thing about 3D space is that you can tell when an object is flying straight towards your face. By simply looking at it, you bring the paddle up to stop it from hitting you. Simple, intuitive, no explanations needed.
4. Unrealistic realism. Another problem with the first Developer Kit version of the Oculus Rift is the wire mesh sensation. Due to the screen not being in HD, realism is shattered through pixels. Proton Pulse doesn't try to look real, it sits happily in an 80's world of pulsing and pixelated lights that through it's consistency becomes immersive.

Let's not forget the amazing music of Proton Pulse that keeps you on your feet and dancing with the Oculus.

Based on these observations I have decided to work on a little side project in Unity with the help of Adrian May. It is a first person SuperHexagon type game where you must escape closing in walls. Five minutes into building it we found the walls made really cool patterns when viewed from above.

A lot of my hours are now spent building models for the main game and I'll be keeping this blog updated on my side of the ups and downs. The Oculus Rift is an amazing piece of technology and what is even cooler than jumping in VR is to be a part of its construction.

1 July 2013

Observing Immersion: Antichamber and Dear Esther

Christopher W. Totten's thesis describes a distinction between videogames designed around a game mechanic versus those designed around a narrative. When I picked up Antichamber and Dear Esther on the same day, Totten's words ricocheted through my mind. The internet is filled with debates about which version makes a true game, but I am not here to discuss what validates gameplay. Rather how these two seemingly different games create immersion. All videogames, raging from experimental indies to triple A FPS's, aim towards giving the users an experience and to achieve this a certain level of immersion is required from the player.

Michael Benedikt describes that immersion only happens when believing in an environment's constraints rewards the user with their desires. An immersive experience therefore has to internalise its goals in the player and reduce the number of interference. Interference are obstacles that break from the experience. A game can transform an interference into an obstacle if the desire of the game and the desire of the player are in sync.

Both Antichamber and Dear Esther deconstruct what a traditional game is. They reduce the action and increase the need for observation, weather that is to fully engage the player in the narrative or decide on the next puzzle-solving move. The goal of Antichamber can be understood as that of mastering puzzles. Players believe in the utilitarian lab-maze in order to gain the feeling of progress from outsmarting the environment. Dear Esther takes a more emotionally evocative goal with players being strung in a visual and auditory narrative. It stands at the edge of exploration to be able to look back at the structure of games and look forward at the goal-lessness of life and compare the two with nihilistic poetry.

Dear Esther received criticism on a lack of immersion because of an expectant interactivity between players and the world that went unsatisfied. The restriction in mechanics, while being an artistic comment, becomes an interference to those that expect certain rules from the world. The player must then be shown that accepting these restrictions will reward them with the touching story of the island and its narrator and in turn the restrictions make a comment on the world.

A question to then ask is: if Dear Esther were to be transformed into a movie, would it still have the same immersion? The ability to move the camera and the shift of the world in response is the necessary level of control to make a player believe they and not someone else are the ones on the island. It is the equivalent of seeing someone play Antichamber and toying with the obstacles of the game space yourself. If books are a stream of consciousness, and movies are a stream of visual consciousness, games are a stream of visual consciousness that one can gain control over.

Both designing around a game mechanic and designing around a narrative should not be considered as two separate forms of design. In Antichamber and Dear Esther while at first glance seem to have a dominant form of design, mechanics and narrative work in unison to create a truly immersive game.