I didn't expect fantasy adventure Vanishing Realms, in development for the HTC Vive, to send me jumping half a foot into the air — but that's exactly what happened during my demo of the game at the 2016 Game Developers Conference.
The jump scare happened toward the end of my time with the VR title, which is otherwise familiar and a bit unspectacular. In fact, that I had this visceral reaction at all might stand out as the one true highlight of the Vive fantasy game.
Despite Vanishing Realms being made specifically for HTC's hardware, which affords players both head and positional tracking so that they can stumble around their living rooms for greater immersion within games, it doesn't feel especially different from a standard, non-virtual reality video game. Drawing inspiration from the fantastical world of Dungeons and Dragons, players assume the role of a knight as they unlock doors and discover items in a nondescript magical world.
As is common with Vive games, each of the controllers is used as a hand; players can wield a sword in their right while grabbing items with their left, or vice versa. The various buttons on the controllers are used for performing actions, which doesn't quite feel intuitive. I repeatedly struggled to grab certain items properly or place them into assigned areas using the awkward buttons on the Vive's peripherals.
Worse was using the D-pad to move around the castle that I explored in the demo. Vanishing Realms might be a Vive game, but it's far easier — even recommended — for players to stand completely still; they can instead choose a spot in the environment to teleport toward, in lieu of actually moving their bodies around the room.
This helps Vanishing Realms feel more like a traditional game than the "experiences" common on VR hardware at this stage. But that raises the question: If Vanishing Realms is comfortable being a "traditional game," why use the Vive hardware at all?
I didn't have an answer for this until I was nearly finished with our demo. After opening a door by clumsily inserting a key I'd scoured the castle to find, I was suddenly overwhelmed by a gigantic, sword-wielding skeleton monster. With the headset on, this skeleton appeared to be nearly 6 feet tall — and its weapon was swinging mere inches from my face.
With a yelp, I jumped up and backed away from the monster. Vanishing Realms' developer, Kelly Bailey, a former Valve employee who worked on the Half-Life games, laughed at me through the headphones we could hear him with; he sat in the room with me, watching my playthrough.
when I won, I felt like an actual hero
"Time to go buy a sword!" he said. I didn't have a sword yet; the game thus far had solely been about collecting items and solving simple puzzles in order to progress. Turning around — not just in the game, but within the room too — I found a selection of swords in another room. After buying and grabbing the cheapest one, I trudged back toward the skeleton monster with trepidation.
Unlike the rest of the demo, where it was possible to statically press buttons to pick up objects, I had to swing my arms to attack with my sword and protect myself from the skeleton's counterattacks. It was exhilarating and scary and, when I won, it made me feel like an actual hero.
That short boss battle illustrated what the Vive does best. I felt like I'd physically accomplished something by warding off a monster that appeared taller than me. In finding the balance between conventional game and unconventional experience, I hope that when Vanishing Realms launches April 5, it offers more unique moments that fall closer to the latter.