Look: we are in early days of VR. It is a wild wild wonderland of experimentation and boundary-breaking. Developers in the VR space are trying new genres and inventing new ways to look at the world. New ways to touch the human soul!
Aaaand some developers are just making shooting galleries. This is okay. I figure, when I do finally get a VR headset, I am going to buy at least one shooting gallery game. This is the kind of genre I have always expected to appear in VR. When I first imagined HMD VR technology, I think I imagined a cool 90s-style gamer-kid playing a shooting-gallery game with a gigantic visor-helmet kind of a thing screwed on over his face. It’s okay: not every VR game necessarily has to be some whole-new-world!!-kinda-thing. Some of them can be point-and-click bullet-nonsense.
Croteam’s Serious Sam VR: The Last Hope is definitely some kinda point-and-click bullet nonsense. It’s currently very early, in pre-early-acess, and it’s not terribly great-looking yet: you stand in one spot and peer around at a lot of pretty simple environments while tons and tons of classic grotesue-as-hell Serious Sam enemies run directly at you. If they reach you, they line up in a circle and perform their attack animations over and over again until you die. Some of them shoot missiles, which you can hit with your guns and destroy. Oh, and there’s a bunch of those Serious Sam guns.
How did it feel? Well, let me tell you another story first. In college, I temporarily joined a large, student-run fencing club. The first class was PURE TERROR: people were constantly lunging at me WITH WEAPONS, and I was not allowed to just get out of the damn way. The instructor told all of us– and then me, personally, several times– that in order to do fencing at all, you have to let yourself get hit sometimes. You have to let people stab your face. You have to see the sword coming for you and think: yes, okay, this is part of the game. There’s a certain kind of lizard-brain terror that you’ve got to conquer in yourself.
Serious Sam VR was the first time I’d played a VR game where enemies actually fly up in your face and try to mess you up in melee range. The whole thing was just huge monsters running up extremely close to me all the time, extremely angry, and giant flaming balls flying at me, and skeletons running at me, and other monsters I don’t even know the names for trying to bowl me over with bullets the size of my head. I was using the Vive, and the Vive’s hand controllers lend such a wonderful degree of extra embodiment that– you must get tired of hearing this– I really felt like I was there, you know. I felt like I really was holding a chainsaw in one hand and a laser gun in the other. I felt like gigantic hideous monsters were really leaping out at me, and I was actually struggling to suppress the feeling that I was in danger.
Because– just like getting stabbed in the face with a fencing sword– getting shot at in Serious Sam VR “felt real,” and for the first couple minutes I really was leaning from side to side and yelping and shouting “FUCK” and wondering if I was allowed to just take the headset off and calm down somewhere in a quiet corner. There were a lot of bullets flying directly at my face, and I was flinching a lot, and my heart rate was up, and it felt intense, man, even though it’s very early and rough isn’t terribly complex or realistic or even, really, like, good yet.
So: VR can take even something which is still fundamentally, like, not the greatest, and make it feel like a significant, pulse-raising experience. Of course, after a few minutes I was just gritting my teeth and powering through it, and once I had struggled into a state of mind where I could recognize that I was just playing a simple shooting-gallery game, a certain amount of that intensity drained away. But it had to drain away, you know? Otherwise I would have just taken that headset off and found something to do which felt less like being stabbed in the face. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy it; it’s that it was simple and uncomplicated gameplay (at this early early stage, with so many features missing from the demo, even somewhat uninteresting gameplay) paired with an overwhelming intensity of my VR-newbie emotion, and that didn’t feel quite fair. I felt like my brainstem had been hijacked. I felt like VR had tricked me into feeling very, very strong feelings about something that was fundamentally, like I’ve said, not-great.
I’ve always assumed that shooting-gallery games have GOT to be a part of the VR experience, because that’s the story we always told ourselves about head-mounted VR experiences in the 80s and 90s. But after playing Serious Sam VR‘s early build, I started asking myself: is that really what I want to do in VR? Is it worth spending a lot of time in experiences where you’re totally amped up and fearing for your life for the first five minutes, but you spend the rest of your time trying to master your lizard-brain terror, trying to make yourself less excited and less freaked-out? Is getting used to VR going to mean getting less excited by it?
I know there are shooting games in VR which experiment with the terms of a shooting-gallery setup– I’m aware it isn’t just all bullets-and-crude-skeleton-monsters-flying-DIRECTLY-at-your-face, like Serious Sam VR is. Unfortunately, I haven’t tried those games out. I want to, though. I don’t yet know whether the thrilled-but-kind-of-pissed feeling I had after Serious Sam VR is even common in VR. Are there ways to present this kind of gameplay which inspire less of a sweat-and-spittle fight-or-flight reaction, and feel more like a regular old game that I can keep my distance from, keep my brainstem free and proud and civilized? Will Serious Sam VR eventually become that kind of game? Because personally, that’s the kind of VR shooting game I’d like to play.
Serious Sam VR is in early development. It will hit Early Access in Summer 2016.