Here is a screenshot of one of the first sections of local VR company Cloudhead Games’ second game, The Gallery, Heart of the Emberstone. — Courtesy Cloudhead Games

Going deeper down virtual reality rabbit hole

Qualicum Beach’s Cloudhead Games sends players to crumbling planet in 2nd game instalment

With its first release, Qualicum Beach company Cloudhead Games gave many eager players their first few steps into virtual reality (VR).

Having a goal of putting people inside the same kind of world as their favourite movies from the ’80s (like the Goonies and Indiana Jones), The Gallery Ep. 1, Call of the Starseed is an introduction to both the interesting and sometimes creepy world created by Cloudhead Games, and the medium of virtual reality itself.

Its second episode, Heart of the Emberstone released this October, takes off the training wheels and sends players hurtling (virtually literally) onto a new planet — one with massive, crumbling constructs and huge creatures, and gives players some Jedi-like abilities, to boot.

The NEWS arranged with Cloudhead Games to try out both episodes of The Gallery (there are plans for a third), and then speak with Cloudhead CEO and co-founder Denny Unger about what he and his crew have created and where VR is going.

“The inspiration for (The Gallery) was just to somehow give a user the feeling of being injected into a beloved ’80s adventure, or a movie,” said Unger. “Give them that sense of being a part of a grander story, instead of just watching it passively. Like actually interacting and being a part of the world.”

The effort was also structured as a soft introduction to VR — a type of gaming system where, instead of controlling a virtual character’s movement with a stick or direction-pad and seeing the character move on a TV or computer screen, the player wears goggles and can walk around in the game by actually walking around.

While some, including Unger, have been pursuing this technology for years, it’s still very new to the public, with consumer VR headsets being released in 2016. That means gaming companies need to teach players how to go from sitting on their couch using a single controller, to standing and walking around a relatively small space, and using a new set of controllers that often appear as your hands in virtual reality.

Some people also get a motion-sickness response to certain movements in VR (this reporter being one of them).

But, with The Gallery, that’s not much of an issue (which this reporter can attest to).

“The adventure game genre seemed like a really good fit for virtual reality because much of adventure game logic is exploring environments and finding clues and really scrutinizing a place,” said Unger.

In that way, The Gallery is a pretty straightforward concept. It puts players in a virtual space and lets them explore. Soon enough, they find out they’ve lost their sister, and that the game’s premise is they’re looking for her. Quickly, they start finding clues, and figuring their way deeper into the game.

That way, players can go through the game at whatever speed they want, slowly learn how to move through the world and enjoy the best part of VR — feeling like they are actually in the world of the game.

What the space of the game looks like is also meant to be a slow walk into an increasingly strange world.“We wanted to kind of ground people in the experience, give them things that they recognized and understood,” said Unger. “That’s also why it was done kind of ’80s, very pedestrian, normal environments, initially.”

At the start of The Gallery Ep. 1, you’re on a beach (which is partially inspired by Vancouver Island scenery, and even includes a map that would look suspiciously familiar to locals). But the world gets consistently weirder until players are rocketed out into space via some sort of Einstein-Rosen bridge, and arrive on a crumbling alien planet where Heart of the Emberstone begins. That’s the end of The Gallery Ep. 1, Call of the Starseed.

In The Gallery Ep. 2, Heart of the Emberstone, the training wheels are off. Episode 2’s environment is immediately foreign, with odd structures with glowing stones and strange symbols cut into rock.

The player’s hand is replaced with a magical stone-mechanical one that gifts the player with a kind of Jedi force power, and the spaces get massive and imposing.

With the little time this reporter had with it, Heart of the Emberstone was exciting but in an inquisitive way, with puzzles that start off by showing the player how to use their new powers, the physics of which seem crafted to give a sense of weight and a need to develop technique.

The couple minutes of trying the game seemed to flash past.

This is part one of a two-part series on The NEWS’ interview with Cloudhead Games’ Denny Unger. See part two in the upcoming editions of The NEWS where we discuss how the VR company’s latest game has been received, where VR is at now, and where Unger sees the technology going.

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