The first time I ever played Thumper, upstairs in a restaurant a few blocks from last year's Game Developers Conference, I was struck by a few things about it: primarily, the powerful sense of isolation, adrenaline and existential dread the game was able to instill in me, even while playing it in a sandwich shop on a stranger's laptop with a huge pair of headphones on. After finishing my first session with the game and taking off my headphones, one of the first questions I asked Thumper's creators was: "Have you considered virtual reality for this?"
It's Thumper, but played at 90 FPS on a bright OLED screen inches from your face
At the time, the answer was no, but in the year since that meeting, Thumper was announced as PlayStation VR-compatible. The announcement had me thrilled — ever since I first played it, I've never been been able to shake the idea of how great Thumper in virtual reality could be, and hearing that it was coming true was genuinely super exciting.
Now, having played the PlayStation VR version of Thumper at this year's GDC, I'm super relieved to report that it's exactly what I hoped it would be: Thumper, but played at 90 frames per second on a bright OLED screen a few inches from your face.
At first blush, Thumper could seem like an odd fit for VR — after all, it's not the type of game that requires you to crane your neck and look around at all while playing, and indeed, the 2D version of Thumper has no camera controls to speak of. But while most VR games we've seen so far use the technology to let you look around and explore a world from every angle, Thumper uses it for something much simpler: immersion.
Thumper uses VR as headphones for your eyes
Before now, the most important thing about playing Thumper was having a big pair of loud headphones to immerse you in its bassy, kaleidoscopic world. Thumper works as a VR game because it removes one more layer between you and its world, allowing you to easily immerse yourself in the intense, brutal audiovisual experience that is playing Thumper. No, you won't spend much of your time in Thumper's VR mode looking above, below, or behind you (although you're free to), because that's not why the feature exists — instead, Thumper uses the PlayStation VR as headphones for your eyes, and that's exactly what a game like Thumper needs.
Another thing Thumper's PlayStation VR mode exposes is how little the general public knows about predicting what will and won't be nauseating in virtual reality. Thumper's PlayStation VR announcement was met online with comments — some joking, some not — suggesting that the game would be nauseating or even seizure-inducing in virtual reality. While it's easy to understand why folks who haven't played Thumper could make that assumption, the experience of actually playing Thumper in VR is entirely non-sickening — perhaps because most VR-induced nausea is created by acceleration and deceleration, and Thumper's movement speed, while breakneck, is also highly consistent. Whatever the reason, after my first VR session with Thumper was over, not only did I feel totally fine, I was ready to hop back in and play it again — which is exactly what I did.
Thumper in VR is fascinating because it's one of the first examples of a non-VR game retrofitted into virtual reality in a way that actually makes perfect sense. It's funny: while the benefits of playing Thumper in VR are relatively subtle compared to most VR games, they're also completely undeniable. From the ultra-smooth framerate to the subtle head tracking, it's hands-down the most immersive way to play Thumper, and the experience almost single-handedly converted me from a PlayStation VR skeptic to a possible day-one adopter.
For more from the 2016 Game Developers Conference, check out Polygon's StoryStream of all the big news from this year's show.