Lone Echo for the Oculus Rift is the sort of virtual reality game that used to only exist in movies to show off how cool games will be in the future. It’s easy to get so wrapped up in what you’re doing inside the game that you fail to stop and realize how well it’s all working, and how hard it had to have been to pull off.
You’re Jack, an artificial intelligence working in and around a mining facility. Who you are exists in your code, not your body, as an early scene shows how you can jump to a new shell when your old self gets a little too beaten up. You can handle radiation for longer than a human, and of course you don’t need to breathe. It’s good to be a robot in space.
Things go badly, because games set in space would be boring if they didn’t. And you have to deal with it. And that’s the very basic setup for a very complicated virtual reality experience.
We all float
The way you move in Lone Echo makes sense for space, and solves a lot of VR’s biggest problems with movement. Instead of teleporting around each area or walking like a “normal” game in a way that would make you ill in VR, you either use the rockets on your wrists or grab objects around the environment to push and pull yourself around in zero gravity.
Most of us have seen this done so often in pop culture that you’ll likely know how it works innately, even though few of us have moved in this manner for the obvious reasons.
Making that movement comfortable was one of the biggest challenges of the game’s creation.
“Nearly every choice we made from the tuning of movement mechanics to the lighting of environments plays an integral role in achieving this goal,” Dan Jan, game director at Ready at Dawn, told Polygon.
Once you grab onto something in the game, your hands move your head ... and by extension your entire body. That relationship is oddly comfortable, and makes moving your character feel natural instead of alien.
“That was a real discovery for us,” Jan explained. “It's certainly surprising that you can trick your brain into thinking your ‘weightless’ VR body is moving when your real body is standing on Earth and isn't going anywhere.”
Lone Echo’s ability to create that entire robot body for you in VR using only the data points from the two motion controllers and helmet is impressive, as is the way your virtual hand adjusts its fingers to grab onto or hold different objects in the game. While you see some weird things from time to time in terms of how your wrist moves or your fingers twist, you can always explain the rare strangeness by the fact that you’re, you know, a robot.
Here’s a fun trick if you want to test the inverse-kinematics system that creates the animations for the rest of your body: Hold your arm out in front of you and try to move just your elbow. It works pretty well, despite the fact there are no sensors on your elbow. If you try this right now, in front of your computer, you’ll notice how much your hand moves when you shift your elbow, and that’s the information the game is using to “guess” how the rest of your body should be moving.
This doesn’t mean anything if the game isn’t good
Your hands are covered in jets, diagnostic tools and a laser cutter. It takes a bit of practice to figure out how to turn these on and use them effectively, as well as navigate the conversation options of the story itself.
Your relationship with Liv, the other person on the space station, is intimate and comfortable. You only have a limited time to respond to her questions or comments, and silence is absolutely an option that can have its own consequences. The environment is filled with Easter eggs and details that help make the station feel lived in and real.
The technology behind the movement system and animation is interesting, but it disappears when you’re actually inside that world. These systems exist to serve the story and experience, and they work well enough that you can ignore them all and play the game. They just work. You can use your scanner because you know where it is on your wrist, not because you’re worried about the tracking on the motion controllers.
My one complaint is that it often felt as thought I had to let go from the support structure I was holding to manipulate the menus and hardware that exist on my virtual hands, and it could be slightly annoying to float a bit away in those situations. But those are what the jets are for, right?
These sentences are so much fun to type, by the way. It feels as if I have memories of being a robot in space, not of playing a video game.
Lone Echo takes you someplace else, turns you into something else and is able to trick your brain into believing that it’s all real. The game can be a bit hard on your gut at times — so be sure to take a break if you’re feeling squeamish — but you’re put in many intense situations that would wreck you in other games and are comfortable here. The stress comes from the world and its problems, not the technology, which is the sign of good VR design.
And that comfort took more work than you may realize the first time you play.
“We worked a lot with our art team to try and reduce motion sickness by being very careful with texture and noise,” Jan said. “We tried to avoid overly repetitious geometry that created excessive parallax or contrast. It can be fine while stationary but it's something that contributes to motion sickness.”
This isn’t easy when you’re trying to create a certain mood.
“Our lighting artists had the difficult job of balancing moody, aesthetically pleasing, and informative lighting with the reality of how it relates to user comfort in VR,” Jan explained. “Harsh changes in exposure within the players [field of view], sharp specular detail on surfaces, and optical flaring of the headset lenses are just a few issues that had to be handled with a great care to reduce discomfort for the player.”
Lone Echo is out now for the Oculus Rift for $39.99.