Gamers have a deep fascination with shooting things. The more realistic it feels the better. Sure, we’ve always had standard controllers and been further enabled by light guns, motion controls, and Kinect technology, but modern VR headsets like the Oculus Rift and HTC HTCCY +% Vive are allowing developers to create incredibly realistic and immersive experiences. We don’t want to merely control the hero. We want to be the hero.
I’ll always have fond memories of old shooting gallery games like Duck Hunt, House of the Dead, Virtua Cop, and Time Crisis because they were tactile approximations of the actual shooting experience. They sent us just a little deeper into our power fantasy. At GDC this year, I played several upcoming games on HTC Vive that transformed me into a giddy little kid, squealing with delight at the pure fun that can be had with today’s modern VR tech. One of them was The Brookhaven Experiment.
Jeremy Chapman, animator at Phosphor Games, was bored over his Thanksgiving 2015 break until a friend suggested something to fill his time. “He basically told me ‘You know there’s going to be a ton of shooting gallery games for VR…'” Chapman recalls while chatting about The Brookhaven Experiment in the developer’s San Francisco hotel room at GDC.
“So over that weekend I prototyped this shooting gallery game and it was scary and fun!” he says. “I took some old assets Phosphor had from other games, put it all together, and brought the demo into the office on Monday morning.” Chapman says the feedback from his colleagues was overwhelmingly positive, but they wanted to take it to a local Chicago VR meetup to get some unbiased feedback.
“We had a line out the door all night long! We had brought 2 other VR demos we were developing but everyone just kept saying ‘I want to play the one where you shoot the monsters,’ and that was sort of our wake up call,” he said. “People were walking away saying it was the coolest thing they’d ever done in VR. We’re still getting that reaction from people.”
Obviously we expect that kind of enthusiasm from developers when referencing their own products, so I decided to see if I’d be giving them a similar reaction.
The premise for The Brookhaven Experiment is simple. It’s the beginning of the end of the world, and monsters are running amok in Chicago. It’s your job to eradicate them. The game uses the HTC Vive’s room scale technology, although for now the developers had me contained to a small circle of space given the dimensions of their hotel room. I still had some room to maneuver, and I would need to be aware of the entire 360 area around me as monsters would be charging from all sides in wave-based survival levels.
I bent down to pick up a flashlight for my left hand, and examined the gun in my right from all angles. I chose an upgrade (explosive bullets, obviously!) and then was dropped into a dark clearing, as silhouettes emerged in front of me. What made it feel so instantly realistic is that I was scanning the area with my flashlight, physically moving my arm in an arc to spot any threats. Finding one, I aimed carefully and took the monster’s arm off, just in time to hear another creature approaching from behind. I whirled around and took out a few more of the grotesque baddies with my pistol, then spun back around to finish off that first monster with a headshot just before it swung a massive arm at my face.
Things got very intense very quickly, and I was keenly aware of the sweat forming on my brow and of panic setting in. Sometimes while I reloaded I’d have to bash the monsters with the large flashlight in my left hand, and later I discovered that my ammunition was limited (for now, anyway — you’ll be able to scavenge for supplies down the road) and that every shot had to count.
After I finished the level, a giant Kaiju crashed through the clearing and I gazed up in some combination of horror and wonder. “Do I have to fight that?” I asked the devs. “Not right now, but you will,” said Bowler with a laugh.
The 1:1 Magic Of HTC Vive
It’s difficult to describe how great it felt just squeezing the trigger though. The Vive’s haptic-enabled, extremely accurate motion controllers sell the experience. And VR just grants you a more intimate connection with the tools in your environment, whether it’s a gun or a paint brush or a longbow. For better or for worse, it’s also a realistic connection. Lead designer Steve Bowler sensed my frustration as I kept missing headshots.
“If you miss in Brookhaven, you missed in real life,” said Bowler. “You have to use realistic aiming with the weapons, because this is a horror survival game.”
As Bowler explained, in real life just the act of pulling the trigger will pull your gun out of alignment. What actually happens when you’re squeezing the trigger on the controller is the same thing that happens on a real pistol. You’re pulling the gun one quarter to one half of a degree up and to the right (if you’re right handed). So if you want extreme accuracy, you have to practice, compensate, and practice some more.
If you look at all the VR coverage emerging from GDC this year, you’ll see the word “presence” being used liberally. Provided the developers harness it properly, the technology we have in 2016 allows not just for immersion, but for players to be properly and believable inserted into the world.
“The joke is that immersion is ‘I can lose myself in this game’, while presence is ‘someone has to pull me out of this game,” Bowler tells me as our meeting concludes.
Of course I know these malformed, towering, groaning monsters aren’t real. But that didn’t stop me from working up a sweat trying to defend myself. It didn’t subdue the steadily rising fear. And it didn’t do anything to diminish the sheer excitement of popping round after round into their flesh in a quest not only to survive, but to improve for the next round.
The Brookhaven Experiment will ship in late April for $20 on the HTC Vive, and will include half a dozen various guns, grenades, C4, baseball bats, machetes, and other implementations of destruction. Chapman also teased the idea of being able to find gas gans in the environment, throw them into the air, and shoot them to cause satisfying carnage.
Phosphor Games is entertaining a port for Oculus Rift, although it will require some adjusted play mechanics to account for the lack of room scale.
The Brookhaven Experiment also represents an important trend I’m seeing in VR game development. What I played represented a product in earnest development for less than two months, by only two guys. Sure it’s simplistic, and there’s a lot of polish to apply, but that didn’t negate the fun factor, and it proves that these wholly immersive experiences can be obtained without large development studios sinking millions of dollars into the game.
Indies are going to thrive on VR platforms.