I reach out to touch the wall and steady myself, but my hands are not my hands. They are robotic, complete with working tendons and empty sections that I can look through. I push myself off the wall and float in space, before twisting my body around and grabbing the corner of the wall on the other side of the room. My hand wraps around it, and I push off again to explore what it’s like to be in space.
Lone Echo puts you inside what seems to be a sentient robot in deep space, and the entire movement system is based on grabbing walls and other structures and pulling yourself along, or using the jets on your wrists to get around. You see some gnarly things in the demo I played, including a stressful rescue mission and some moments out in deep space, but I never felt ill. It was like magic.
"In space you get around with your hands. If you use your arm, you grab things and you move, and your head is aware that there’s a one-to-one relationship between where your hand is and where we’re then moving your head in opposition in virtual reality. It seems to think that’s correct," Dana Jan, Lone Echo's game director, told me. "We’ve cheated, essentially."
It’s a neat trick, and it works. Since my brain links the movement of my arm and hands with the movement of my entire body, it feels "right," and natural, even though I’m in a virtual weightless environment that may make you a bit sick in real life.
"Comfort is the highest priority of the game," said Nathan Phail-Liff, Lone Echo’s art director. "There’s a lot of little tricks we constantly tweak to make sure comfort is at the forefront."
I played a single-player portion of the game, including a tutorial that taught me how to move with my hands. There will also be a multiplayer mode, but we’ll explore that later. A game where you take control of a robot, with a full in-game body, and explore space in virtual reality is delightfully futuristic while also being tactile. You’ll be touching and feeling much of the world.
"Everything about this game, since it is [an Oculus] Touch exclusive, needs to leverage the hands," Jan explained. "Hands are going to be the thing you’re using through the entire experience. We needed to find a way to not have your immersion broken when you contact corners and things like that. We spent a lot of time engineering a dynamic hand system that whatever you grab, it will contour to."
Reaching out to touch different things, only to to see your robot hands react to each surface and shape differently and realistically, was wonderful. I could look up into space, see the asteroids in the distance and feel completely at ease. I found myself pushing off and floating around to see things from a different perspective, while enjoying the bit of story in the demo.
Creating the movement for a whole body when the hardware is only tracking your head and hands was one of the biggest challenges of the game. Ready at Dawn also had to make sure the arm length worked for everyone. A tall person holding the controllers will have a tall version of the robot; a short person will have a shorter robot avatar.
You’re a sentient robot, and you see your full robot body as well — everything from the shadows to your arms with working tendons in it. The game works hard to make sure you don’t notice it. You just feel like a robot.
"We’ve tested a lot to get to this point," Jan said when I asked about the disquieting, body horror aspect to this illusion. "Instantly, [players] gravitate towards looking at their hands, saying they’re a robot. There are holes in it, it’s not organic. People look at it and go, ‘Oh man, I’ve always wanted to be some advanced cybernetic organism!’"
Lone Echo isn’t just a Rift exclusive, it’s a Touch exclusive. The game is built around using your hands to move around space, and the comfort level of the game depends on it. This is one of the best movement systems I’ve ever seen in virtual reality, and I can’t wait to get back in to explore more. I want to be that robot.
Phail-Liff explained the need to have that sentient avatar be the star of the show: Anyone can jump in and take control. "This isn’t me," he said. "But it isn’t anyone."