Fri. Mar 24th, 2023
If you can read that little message on the right side of the screen with your face pressed right up against the screen, then I'm impressed.

If you can read that little message on the right side of the screen with your face pressed right up against the screen, then I’m impressed.

When a large portion of gamers think about the potential of virtual reality hardware for consumers, they immediately come to the idea of ​​the ultimate first-person action game. Since Before Demise, gamers have envisioned the ability to see what their character sees and move freely in a virtual environment that takes over their entire field of vision, rather than being confined to a small, flat monitor. While Oculus and others have warned that simply porting an unmodified game to run on VR hardware can lead to serious nausea and playability issues, that hasn’t stopped developers and fans from pursuing the goal of bringing virtual reality to life. games that are truly “first-person.”

Enter Techland, which announced in December it would be adding Oculus Rift support to its zombie survival-meets-parkour game Extinguishing light. This isn’t the first big budget title to feature a VR mode—Alien Isolation including Rift support via a hidden switch, for example. But Techland and publisher Warner Bros. seemed happy to use VR as a selling point Extinguishing light, going so far as to put David Belle, the creator of parkour, in a Rift headset to see what running around was like in virtual reality. “It was like being ten again,” Belle said in a promotional video. “I didn’t want to stop. … For me it was magical, amazing.”

With all due respect to Mr. Belle, we disagree with his magical impression. After a few hours of testing, we have to say that play Extinguishing light in virtual reality is a frustrating, sickening mess that leaves us wondering what kind of games are really going to work in virtual reality.

Unusable interface

For starters, getting the Oculus Rift to work Extinguishing light is not a no-nonsense prospect. There’s no menu option to activate VR mode or any kind of built-in auto-detection for the headset. Instead, as Redditors have documented, Rift users must find a configuration file and add a line in a text editor to enable virtual reality.

This process isn’t all that cumbersome, and it’s somewhat understandable that Rift units still in the “develop kit” stage need to tinker with the system at a low level to activate. Yet it is a far cry from the mass market experience that virtual reality will have to become a consumer product.

Oh, I can actually look at my feet.  That's pretty cool.
Enlarge / Oh, I can actually look at my feet. That’s pretty cool.

The more serious problems start as soon as you get into the game itself. First, the VR experience seems to introduce a lot of visual glitches that weren’t apparent in the standard version of the game, such as large black boxes appearing in the virtual rendering only to fade like raindrops on a windshield. On the other hand, the low resolution of the Rift screen really rounds out the visual details of the game’s setting and characters; facial expressions and background objects that are crystal clear on a monitor are small and blurry in virtual reality.

Techland also seems to have put very little effort into ensuring that the menu system or interface is usable in virtual reality. Subtitles and on-screen instructional instructions that are perfectly readable on a monitor are completely unreadable when squeezed onto the Rift’s tiny 1080p display. The same goes for button prompts for things like opening doors and picking up nearby objects. In-game menus are also difficult to see clearly: I had to take off the headset and look at the mirrored screen on my monitor to adjust graphics settings more than once halfway through the game.

The only real sign of accommodation to be found in VR mode is the heads-up display, which floats in place in front of the scene whichever way you look. But even here, no effort has been made to increase the size of the interface elements to be more usable in virtual reality. At its standard size, the VR mini-map is a blob that’s barely usable if you take your eyes off the action and squint directly at it. Even then, constantly shifting focus between the apparent depth of the floating HUD and the game action itself is a headache-inducing experience.

Become ill

At first I was actually pleasantly surprised by how comfortable I was navigating Extinguishing light‘s derelict world in virtual reality. Running forward – usually the most common action in most first-person games – felt perfectly comfortable, even at top speed. It was also nice to be able to easily look down and see my feet when making a difficult jump, or look up at my handles when climbing a ledge.

Even turning, usually one of the most motion sickness-inducing problems in virtual reality, wasn’t too bad, at least if you’re using a portable Xbox 360 controller. The slow rotational speed of the right analog stick is actually a boon in virtual reality, limiting the speed of my vision and reducing the difference between my stationary position in the real world. If I used the mouse instead, I had to be careful not to spin too fast or risk becoming a source of nausea.

Zombies aren't scary.  Do you know what's scary?  Get around in VR.
Enlarge / Zombies are not scary. Do you know what’s scary? Get around in VR.

The real disease-causing problem for me was getting around. Every time I darted in left or right Dying light VR, I would feel a little twinge in my stomach. Trust me, you don’t really notice how often you dodge in first-person games until you feel it in your gut every time. Looking around corners, jumping and dodging enemies all became things my stomach learned to fear in virtual reality, much more so than the attacking zombies. I found myself having to take a short break every five or ten minutes to get some air and some water to settle my stomach before continuing.

However, even this nuasea induced nuasea was nothing compared to the game’s cutscenes, where the developers take camera control completely out of the hands of the player. That’s fine on a monitor, but when your entire view is tossed around with no relation to what you’re looking at, the effect is incredibly nauseating, even if you try to keep your head perfectly still. I ended up having to close my eyes and just listen to the dialogue for these scenes or risk having to put the game down for good and find the nearest toilet.

Can it be fixed?

A lot of Extinguishing light‘s virtual reality problems can be easily solved through a mix of software and hardware changes. Better headset resolution, a more thoughtful UI, and some technical bug fixes would go a long way in making the experience more bearable.

But a lot of the problems I had playing Extinguishing light on the Rift seem depressingly tied to standard first-person game design. Just walking around freely in a virtual first-person view, while your body remains stationary in the real world, creates too much of a sensory mismatch for me, and I suspect it will for many others as well.

Oculus seems to be aware of these issues and devotes much of its 53-page VR game design best practices guide to combating them. Some promising design solutions have already come to light: adding some kind of visual frame (such as a cockpit), slowing down the maximum movement speed in the game, or restricting players from moving between preset points can all reduce the nauseating limiting effects of VR to varying degrees.

Extinguishing light however, makes it pretty clear that simply sticking a “VR mode” on top of a normal first-person game, with almost no customization, isn’t going to be enough. Virtual reality is a new platform with new design challenges, not just a checkbox to add to a list of features with minimal work. The sooner designers and players learn this, the better.

By akfire1

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