It’s not unfair to say that, in 2016, the video game has superseded tabletop classics in popularity. Funny, then, that it’s the newfangled PlayStation VR headset which helped remind us at Polygon New York of board games’ unadultered, screenless pleasures. After several hours getting into the rhythm of the virtual reality version of Steel Crate Games’ Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes, we’d found our new favorite party game, even if most of us had more fun without using the required $400 hardware.
Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes in virtual reality plays similarly to the standard mobile and Windows PC release from last year; in fact, we’ve played several iterations of it since development began in 2014. One player — the one with that gigantic, comfy headset on their face — is designated as the bomb defuser, while the rest of the team must flip through a downloadable, 23-page manual to talk them through the timed process. But with the defuser’s screen contained within the privacy of the headset, the game gains even more tension than its standard reality versions.
It’s a bizarre experience, sitting and playing a video game without looking at a television, monitor or handheld console screen. But that’s exactly what Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes requires with PlayStation VR. The defuser looks straight at a briefcase with an increasingly intricate set of bombs, describing their view to the best of their abilities. It’s crucial that whoever has that headset on is a master of this ekphrastic process of using words to paint a picture for the blind.
Here at Polygon New York, we’re a fairly verbose and articulate bunch, but we were soon able to separate the wheat from the chaff when it comes to who’s most descriptive. The rest of the experts were left paging through the dense set of rules, making us flex our brain muscles as we brought the headset-wearer to safety.
It’s misleading to say that only one person playing this video game is looking at a screen. The bomb manual is available online, and so we all sat on our laptops to read the directions. Yet this experience felt wholly akin to a complex board or pen-and-paper game, one that involves intricate set pieces and supplementary materials. It’s just that Dungeons and Dragons doesn’t cost $400 for the privilege of wearing a monitor on your head, unable to see your fellow players.
Still, the game’s an incredible amount of fun, even if there’s a harsh learning curve. Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes has always been about trial by fire; if you’re slow to grasp its manual and concomitant puzzles within the strict time limit, the defuser is going to die. The added touch of virtual reality makes the game even more exciting (and stressful) for both parties, putting some physical distance between all players to create real anxiety.
No, it’s not the kind of immersive marvel that PSVR showpieces like Rez Infinite and Thumper are. But Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes realizes a hidden potential of the pricy virtual reality tech: As we step further into the future of games, they still retain the ability to bring us way, way back in interesting ways. A few hours of multiplayer had us harkening back to our salad days, when we’d pull out a favorite board game to play on the living room floor. That’s a nice, nostalgic feeling, and it’s one we wouldn’t expect a pricy headset to incite in us.
Maybe Dungeons and Dragons would have been cheaper, and maybe other VR games make more dazzling use of the hardware. But Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes is the accessible, nausea-free VR title that stands to be the best for bonding — and for board game night.