The Gallery — Episode 1: Call of the Starseed may have a terrible name, but the $29.99 HTC Vive game excels at providing the sort of quiet, hallucinatory moments of joy and wonder that are missing in so many of the early virtual reality games. Its world is beautiful but recognizable, which is one of the reasons it's so successful at making you feel as if you've gone someplace else.
You're introduced to the game's "blink" mechanic as a voice explains the process of walking around your play space, while also teaching you to teleport to move greater distances, while also using your hands to interact with the environment. It's a bit tricky to explain in text, so watch the below video if you're curious about how it all works or the thinking behind it.
The voice acting and writing give what should be a very artificial method of locomotion a sense of humanity and accessibility. While the early moments of The Gallery are grounded in reality, the fact you're teleporting from place to place establishes this as a world where magic is possible. You're not just in a virtual version of our reality, you're in a world where the normal rules don't have to apply at all.
It's not like Cloudhead Games decided to go with teleportation to add this surreal level to the game — the question of how to travel large distances in room-scale VR is often answered with teleportation — but it's very likely the rest of the game was informed by this subtle sense of unease and power.
And there's no rush to get anywhere, even through you're given a clear reason to be in the game's environments early on. This invitation to explore and interact, to sit down and relax, goes a long way to locking you into the sense of being someplace else.
I came upon a campsite and lit roman candles on the open flames of the bonfire, aiming the streaking fireworks at the seagulls that flew overhead. Every aspect of this interaction, from picking up the fireworks to watching the light from the explosions on the bodies of the flying gulls above me, felt "real." It's not that the world has been modeled perfectly, it's more like the internal sense of logic made sense. It's a neat trick on the part of the developer: If it can make you feel like you're really there for the mundane things, you'll buy the possibility of the later oddities much faster.
That sense of exploration and safe experimentation is why The Gallery is so good at what it does. You'll pick up notes to read them, or put tapes in your virtual Walk Man to hear the voices of characters as they fill in bits of the story. The mystery of your surroundings is one thing, but the bigger question is your missing sister. That's why you're drawn deeper into these mysteries instead of doing the rational thing and turning around to leave the way you came.
We've seen many VR games that are great for a round or two, or that benefit from playing and taking turns with friends, but The Gallery is an experience that invites you to play for hours, by yourself, and get lost in this world. It's not enhanced by virtual reality; the game wouldn't make sense without it.
My basement in Ohio was completely lost to me
You're half explorer and half detective through the few hours it takes to finish the episode, and things get stranger and stranger until as you dig into what's going on, none of which I'm going to ruin for you. But you'll take advantage of the virtual reality headset and motion controllers in every moment of the game. This is the closest we're going to come to a VR version of Myst any time soon, and the puzzles benefit from the added layer of physical reality that come from touching each piece.
All this is great, and interesting, but my favorite moment came early in the game's introduction. There is a tent off to the side of the campsite and, while I couldn't teleport directly inside of it, I could bring myself right to its flap and then, on my physical hands and knees, crawl inside.
Once inside I flipped over onto my back and laid there for a few minutes, completely lost in the sense that I was physically inside a tent by the beach as the birds cried to each other overhead. The game ends quickly, although a few of the puzzles nearly stumped me. But those few minutes I decided to spend inside the tent are what sold me on the game.
My basement in Ohio was completely lost to me, I was locked into this other world.