Some Days, You Just Can’t Get Rid of a Bomb

The other night I finally got to experience the Oculus Rift. I did so sitting down in a chair in the back of a Chinese restaurant, man-handling a bomb in a gleaming steel case. Sweating, frantic, I called out to my handlers, begging them for clarity and instruction. It was too little, too late. The bomb exploded and we all died.

Virtual reality is certainly the next wave. There’s the Rift, the HTC Vive, Google Daydream… the technology is advancing by leaps and bounds. My uncle has a space in his cellar set apart for the Vive, and I spent part of last Thanksgiving exploring “Vanishing Realms.” My head secured in a VR helmet, my forearms wrapped in motion-tracking vambraces, I yelped in panic as a cartoony skeleton lurched out of its coffin and came for me. Eventually my flailing dispatched it and I was rewarded with a scattering of gold coins, which I had to stoop to collect. The Vive is impressive in its immersion and the complexity of its controls. I felt that I could swing and parry, thrust and dodge. My wife, more a fan of exploration than jump scares, spent her time in the hot seat looking around a lab. Oblivious, she wandered to the edge of the room, and bent down to stroke a virtual dog. “I can feel it!” she exclaimed as she caressed a beanbag chair that had been left in the corner.

Still, for all the Vive’s power and immersion, the Vanishing Realms experience is thin: it’s got the depth of a browser game, the same simplistic graphics, the same linear path. I can fight skeletons on my phone, my tablet, my PC, and at my Dungeons and Dragons table. Doing so in VR is novel, but once the novelty wears off it’s the same experience. Despite the Rift’s comparative weakness in processing power, I found its VR experience much more compelling, because it did something truly unique with the technology.

Virtual reality headsets transport you bodily into the world of your game. Back when I played WoW, I had a window into the world of Azeroth, but when I looked left and right I still saw my dresser, my desk, my window, my door. I was still in the shared human world. When I donned the Rift, I was alone in a Spartan room, trapped with a mercilessly ticking bomb. I was set apart from my companions. They lived in a world I could no longer see or touch, and I lived alone in a different one. That made our communication all the more urgent. It was a lifeline, a bridge between worlds, and we had to cross it together. That’s what VR can do. The game — Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes — centralizes communication, and the timer and bomb conceit makes it urgent.

Pressing the buttons, cutting the wires, and twisting the dials isn’t the game. The game is the frantic dialogue: “I see six wires!” “Are any of them yellow?” “Uh, two of them!” “Ok, what’s the serial number on the side?” The Rift’s control stick is a simple little thing, a thumbpad to rotate the case and a trigger to interact with the bomb’s fiddly mechanisms. It felt simple and fluid. Looking around to steer the cursor was weird, but I grew to enjoy it: it focuses my attention on the bomb, forcing me to see it as a real thing I’m interacting with, not a game board. Communication is the core of the human experience. Our ability to communicate and coordinate is the evolutionary advantage that gave us control over the planet. Basing a game around rapid, high-pressure communication between two mutually blind parties is a stroke of genius. It takes all of our problem solving ability, all of our abstract thinking, and channels it into a fast-paced dialogue with a ticking clock behind it.

Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes. That’s pretty much the 20th century in a nutshell. That was the central theme of the Cold War: Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes. And hey, it worked. Nobody exploded. It’s an ingenious proposition, and I really enjoyed how central the VR experience was to it. Theoretically I could have played on a computer screen, with my back to my interlocutors and their backs to me. But I’d still be in the same room as them. I’d still be able to turn around and see them. And the bomb would be a flat representation on a flat screen in front of me. This way is not only more fun, the isolation and urgency reinforce the themes of the game. My heart was racing by the time I finished defusing my first bomb.

I’d like to see more VR games like this. More asymmetric games, that take one player and place him or her in a virtual isolation booth, a tiny world with its own borders and its rules. Games that are about communication, that force people to share what they’re seeing and hearing with a blinded, deafened partner. I think there’s a lot of potential here, and importantly, it’s something that you NEED VR for. It’s not just bells and whistles, or a new platform for an old story. It’s something unique, something new.