I was able to play through the demo during my time at GDC, and Cloudhead Games has been kind enough to share a complete play through of the short demo as well so you can see the game in action.
The game itself is driven by the motion controls; I found myself in a rather roomy cage and was able to walk around, pick up items, examine them in my hands and then see how they interacted with other objects.
How it was designed
The best way to play requires a large amount of space, my demo took place in a large white room where space was mapped perfectly to the game's environment. The developer will also include options for playing while seated.
"One of the allowances VR developers have to account for is the fact that users will have variable space constraints," Denny Unger, president and creative director of Cloudhead Games told Polygon. "So currently we're working towards a system that aims for three main accommodations: seated, standing 360 and full room scale."
You're not locked into any control scheme, either. "At any point the user should be able to switch between these modes, get up and walk around naturally, or drive the volume with a gamepad," he continued. This need to adjust both the control scheme and the amount of space different players can provide is going to be an issue moving forward.
"In practice it means allowing the user to locomote the available volume when they hit the physical edge of their play space," Unger said. "Its about figuring out clever ways to drive the physical volume deeper into virtual space. Valve, Cloudhead Games and many other developers will be experimenting with ways to handle that issue in the short term."
You hold one of the Vive's controllers in each hand, and the positional tracking allows you to manipulate objects in the game as if they were real. There's no real learning curve; you just move, grab and interact in a way that feels natural.
The Gallery demo provided one of my favorite moments of the Valve demos; I was trying to see if a piece of paper would burn on a candle and I accidentally knocked the candle over. Without thinking I was able to duck down, reach forward, and snatch the candle as it fell towards the ground. There was no abstraction between my movements in real life and how the game tracked my head and hands, my real-world reflexes translated perfectly into the game. This wasn't an accident.
"The player must feel that their interactions within the game world are natural and intuitive. Whether they are picking up a flashlight, pulling levers, climbing ladders, combining objects or interacting with their backpack, that system and that freedom creates entirely new gameplay mechanics," Unger said.
"In some cases you'll be manipulating an object with one hand while adjusting something just within reach which isnt even in your field of view. Making this type of emergent gameplay feel natural and rewarding is something we've been building towards for a long time."
The team at Cloudhead Games has been experimenting with motion controls since 2013, using Razer Hydras, but the Vive actually allowed them to tighten up the controls.
The player must feel that their interactions within the game world are natural and intuitive
"Calibrated properly, there's no reason a person couldn't juggle or throw a giant cog into Boulder's mouth with the Vive. Throwing and gross motor skills become incredibly fun because they behave how you expect them to behave," Unger said. These sorts of statements sound like hyperbole, but during my demo I spent time picking up cogs and throwing them at the glass bottles, and everything felt "real," there was no obvious video game physics.
"And that's one of the other aspects of designing for really good VR hardware, the better it is, the less wiggle room you have to skirt expected behaviors. When things feel right, the user starts expecting things to behave as they do in reality proper. You have to meet that expectation and then design systems to account for as much of it as you can."
There is no obvious video game physics
This is the fun part of virtual reality, and a big reason why the Gallery demo was so much fun. The team has spent years on these systems, and it shows. Everything I wanted to do in the demo I was able to, outside of setting that piece of paper on fire, and many of the interactions involved using both hands at once. You don't have to think about the control mechanisms for even complex interactions in the virtual reality space, you simply move as you would expect in the real world.
That sort of thoughtless interaction on the part of the player, ironically enough, takes a lot of time to get right.
"Everything needs to be rethought, every aspect of production is influenced by the fact that you are literally pulling a person into an alternate, living, breathing reality. Ensuring comfort in locomotion, visuals, motion control, and basically taking care of a persons perceptual and physical state in VR is key," Unger explained.
"If you screw any of those systems up you'll make people sick, frustrated, scared or bored. When you master those states, it becomes a question of how far to safely alter them for best effect."