I can tell you about Fated, but you won't believe me.
This is the problem with writing about virtual reality experiences for an audience that largely has no way to try the newest hardware. What I'm about to describe is going to sound like empty hype, especially if you were there for the empty promises and mediocre hardware of the first VR push in the 90s.
Let's get started anyway.
Why this is so good
There are developers that are trying to create things in virtual reality, and there are developers who are true believers in the technology and take the time to do it right. Frima Studio falls into the second category, and the Fated demo I played is a comfortable, intuitive experience.
You're sitting in a cart being pulled by horses, with other characters behind you. There is little to do at first except gently guide the horses left and right using button presses on standard wired controller to pull the reins right or left. The balance here is what's key: You have to pay attention to the road and the opening scenes are interactive, but you also have enough time to get comfortable and look around to enjoy the scenery and get a sense of place.
The characters and world are slightly cartoony while retaining a good amount of detail. You can watch the leaves fall from the tree. At one point your daughter scampers next to you and has a conversation with you, filling in a bit of backstory while treating you as a real character in this world — your inability to "talk" back is also addressed directly, although you can nod or shake your head to interact with your little girl — and it's all so effective. It only takes a few minutes before you get comfortable and start to believe the world around you.
"I want you to be there, experiencing the story, feeling the emotion as if it were you that was there," Vincent Martel tells me later. He's the executive producer of the game, and we spent some time talking about the voice acting and writing, both of which are well above average for gaming in general, much less a VR experience.
"Fear is easy to achieve in VR, we want to make you feel happiness and sadness as well," he explained. "If I can make the player cry at some point, it’s going to be awesome." They even have a name for this at the studio: The reverse scuba diver. It's where all the liquid is inside the mask.
The fantasy world and stylized characters almost feel like the Fable series, and I was lulled into a false sense of safety. The game looked light and family-friendly, until the running and the screaming began. Fated is set in set in Norse land during Ragnarök, and huge beings show up. People die. The pace of the demo changes rapidly, and suddenly my only thought is to keep my daughter safe.
What I played was the farthest thing from a power fantasy: The demo ends with a mixture of natural disasters and a targeted attack by huge beings; the one character who tries to impose his will on the situation dies graphically. You're reduced to simply trying to survive. I can taste the sharp tang of panic in my mouth. The game disappears completely, and the illusion is near complete.
The demo lasts about five minutes or so. I take the headset off and I'm myself again, back in a somewhat empty room in a hotel, the smell of stale coffee in the background. It takes a minute to adjust to the mundane reality of real life again.
The shape of things to come
Fated is an episode game, with each episode expected to last from 45 minutes to an hour. The game has been built specifically for virtual reality, and will be released in the first quarter of 2016 with the team aiming for all three major platforms: Oculus Rift, PlayStation VR and the HTC Vive.
The art style itself was chosen for virtual reality. "The art style is beautiful, we think," Martel explains. "But it’s also helping us with the frame rate. Having a more stylized art style helps us bring down the polygon count. It’s running at 90 fps already, we know it’s working. We’re happy with that."
This is an episodic game, meant to be played in smaller chunks, and my short demo was enough to convince me the team is on the right track. This is what a great story-based VR game should be: intimate, convincing and comfortable for the player.
It's likely most readers will remain skeptical of this sort of experience until they can try it for themselves, and hopefully 2016 will bring more opportunities for everyone to pick up the virtual reins and see for themselves.