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Vanishing Realms on the HTC Vive didn't make me a hero

How an ostensibly cute game almost made me crap myself

Simone de Rochefort has been producing & hosting YouTube videos for Polygon since 2016. She co-directed the upcoming documentary The Great Game: The Making of Spycraft.

It's 2 a.m., the day of the HTC Vive's release, and I'm about to go on a dungeon crawl.

It's a game called Vanishing Realms. It's a fantasy RPG, and the scrolls of lore tell me that the I'm going to fight the Undead King, clear the Sacred Temple, and get some gold.

So far, so good. It's a classic fantasy set-up, and it's nothing I haven't seen before.

Then I'm dropped into the first chamber of the temple. It's hard to explain to someone who hasn't tried room-scale VR before what it feels like to suddenly be transported. I know I'm in a tiny office, with maybe three feet in every direction to walk. But I'm looking at a huge room, with stone columns stretching up to the ceiling.

And I believe in it.

It feels truly possible that I could just keep walking and never bump into that obnoxious lamp that I really should've moved out of my play area. Instead, I teleport using the touchpad on the HTC Vive's controllers.

I feel like Indiana Jones, but like if Indiana Jones was a huge coward

It took me a while to get used to this. When I first started using the HTC Vive I wanted to walk everywhere. Now I carefully mix teleporting and walking, exploring small areas before leaping forward to my next goal.

In this case, my goal is evading some floating spirits and making it to the end of a hallway, where a torch burns brightly in a wall bracket. I can pick the torch up and hold it in my hand, illuminating the dark corners of the temple. I feel like Indiana Jones, but like if Indiana Jones was a huge coward.

The art of Vanishing Realms is clean, colorful and a little cartoonish. None of that matters when I'm brandishing a torch and peering around corners — what in the world is making that creepy sound? The game might as well be photorealistic. The monsters I'm imagining sure are.

And maybe I'm not cut out for dungeoneering, because I'm absolutely paralyzed. If this were a 2D game and I were shepherding an avatar through the temple I wouldn't be standing stock-still with my heart in my throat. I wouldn't be clutching this key — in real life I'm holding a controller, but it's definitely a key — in sweaty hands and waiting for something horrible to come around the corner.

Finally, I get the creaky door open and the sounds stop. The next room is empty so I ease in and take a look around.

And there he is, peering back through a hole in the wall at me. A cartoonish skeleton with a blocky head and glowing eyes. It's the kind of art that would make me go aww in any other context. And so I tell myself it's fine. Look at him. He's cute.

And then the skeleton screams and runs out of frame. I'm fumbling for the pause button and tearing the headset off with the full knowledge that a cute cartoon skeleton is about to burst through the door and attack me and I am not cut out for this shit.

I watched the video, and I guess it didn't even take me a second to get the headset off. Believe me when I tell you it felt like an eternity, and I was pretty sure I was about to die.

It sounds silly, but that's the magic of virtual reality — and the HTC Vive in particular. What you're watching now as a 2D video was an environment that I felt all around me, with a palpable belief that I was truly there. It's unspeakably cool, and it's the freaking future.

Vanishing Realms is available on Steam and comes out April 5.

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