Friday, December 29, 2017

Adventures in VR: Dead Secret (2016)


It's been a long time, more than a year.  But while I haven't been writing much about games of late, I have had time to play a few and to goof around with virtual reality using the HTC Vive platform.  This is exciting stuff, actually, and reminds me a lot of the pioneering days of video games I have so often written about; conventions for movement and interaction are still evolving, the technology is here but has definite room for improvement, and interesting gameplay experiments are happening.  Its immersive qualities are great for adventure games, and while I tend to favor the "theatre of the mind" created by classic text adventures, this technology is taking us to some fascinating new places.

This past fall, I played through Robot Invader's 2016 indie adventure game, Dead Secret.  The game also supports standard PC mouse-and-keyboard play, but I'm going to focus on its virtual reality mode here and what that brings to the experience.  I played it on the Vive; it also supports the Oculus Rift, and a Playstation VR version is expected soon.   

I haven't mastered figured out even started to work out a reliable way to capture decent screenshots from VR games yet -- the projections and distortions applied to the image to make it look "real" in a headset don't translate very well to flat images.  And my attempts so far tend to look a little inebriated at best:

Since this is a recent game, I'm going to do my best not to spoil the plot, which is in many ways this game's best feature.  But I will be citing some specific examples from my experience with this adventure, so there may still be a few...

***** SPOILERS AHEAD *****

Dead Secret is a mystery adventure game set in and around an old house whose owner, a professor, recently died or was perhaps murdered.  As a reporter with one arm stuck in a cast, it's the player's job to explore the area, find clues and evidence, and figure out what really happened.

Let's start by talking about the game's VR interface.  Virtual reality's biggest strength is its ability to put the player inside the game's world, and Dead Secret does a good job of this in the basic sense.  We can look freely around the world, texture resolution is sufficient to avoid obvious pixellation, and items of interest are sometimes hidden in areas we'll only spot if we peer under the furniture or behind a prop.  Locomotion is handled by pointing a cursor at a possible destination, then clicking; we slide slowly to the new area, and are free to look around while we're moving, as if riding on a conveyor belt.  (There is a comfort mode that limits the field of view during motion, for players prone to motion sickness in VR -- I am building a tolerance for it, but my brain still doesn't like it when I seem to be walking or tilting quickly and my body is not doing the same.  I had no problems with Dead Secret's default movement speed.)  Doors and transition points like stairs are identified with icons, and the world fades out and back in at the new location, a VR convention that works well here. 

Text is nicely presented, anchored within the world rather than floating in front of the player's face -- descriptions of items are presented on surfaces nearby, museum-style, and the many printed clues we find are rendered as folders we can hold in our hand and read.  I was happy to see that the font handling supports up-close viewing, so everything is clearly readable and there are no obvious bitmaps visible.  And when something scary is happening, being "there" definitely heightens the impact.

Unfortunately, the interface betrays its non-VR origins in a lot of ways, probably due to the game's support for both desktop and headset play.  The game is running on a point-and-click engine, which means that even though we feel very present in the environment, we can't simply pick up and manipulate objects at will -- we have to click on a limited set of movable items, using a floating pointer rather than an in-game hand, and the inventory system takes us out of the game world into a menu system where we have to point and click the old-fashioned way.  (Other VR adventures I have played use a backpack or a belt to provide a more "realistic" approach to inventory handling, though scale is always a little weird when we can SEE that we're carrying all this stuff with us.  Text adventures had their awkward conventions too!) 

Using an object where interaction is supported also feels artificial; we have to access the item in inventory, then point at the intended location and click, at which time a scripted animation plays out.  We don't get to really fit things into place, turn keys or open drawers directly, and Dead Secret's approach robs the game of some of the immediacy important to VR.  In the most egregious case, when we are tasked with solving a puzzle involving weighted bottles and a scale, it feels like we are manipulating icons rather than really weighing bottles on a scale.  We want to lift and drop bottles and shuffle them around in real time, even with only one workable hand (a limitation that serves the game's drama well at times), but we're only able to "click" them into predetermined slots, severely breaking the reality for the duration of that puzzle.

The game's plotting is well handled -- there are moments that might be paranormal in nature, or might not be, and the story behind the professor's death is revealed in small, interesting revelations as we discover clues.  Seeing our character in a mirror early in the game was surprisingly effective -- I'm so used to being anonymous in adventure games that I thought this would seem like an imposition, but in a world that feels this real it was satisfying to inhabit a character with defined limitations, goals and (as we discover during the game) dreams and emotions.  There are a number of scary surprises, mostly involving a masked, robed figure that lurks and attacks at key moments in the story, and much of the game's drama comes from the rush of desperate escape and concealment.  VR and horror are remarkably effective in combination -- without the distance that a screen provides, even simple "jump scares" can be unsettling.  Dead Secret uses the medium very well in this regard, with measured pacing to convey approaching menace and jeopardy.  Part of my brain knew it was just a game -- but part of it didn't, and I found my heart pounding and breathing rapid several times along the way.

Multiple endings provide a little bit of extended play value -- one is accessible at the very beginning, if we opt to just leave the house rather than investigating, but the others depend on choices made near the very end, and the game generously allows us to restart just before that point to discover the alternatives.  I was so involved in experiencing the environment and events of the story that I didn't do a great job of finding and making sense of all the clues, so I wasn't at all sure about my factual determinations, and this design concession to the player hours invested up to this point was greatly appreciated.

Dead Secret is not a perfect adventure game, and its VR implementation misses some opportunities.  But the experience stuck with me -- not just the eerie moments, but the discoveries of new spaces and clues in a virtually real environment.  Immersion to this degree is perfect for old-fashioned adventure games, where methodical examination and consideration is of more importance than fast action, and I look forward to seeing what else the nascent VR game industry produces along these lines.