Until you've had the chance to try it for yourself, it can be tricky understanding just how incredibly immersive VR can be. That's not necessarily just in the sense of hyperrealism - but the fact that you're now fully enclosed in a virtual realm, rather than beholding it on a screen, can do wonders for pulling you into the game's world. VR games are unlike anything you've played before, and that unfamiliarity can play some pretty convincing tricks on your brain.
In the lead-up to the battle between PlayStation VR, the Oculus Rift, and the HTC Vive, we've tried our fair share of immersive, impressive, and inventive VR games, and some of the standouts let us interact with virtual environments and objects in ways we never thought were possible (if we even thought of them before to begin with). Here are some of the amazingly cool, laughably ill-advised, or simply bizarre things VR has allowed us to experience, all of which came as a surprise to the parts of our brains that haven't yet fully acclimated to virtual reality in its latest forms.
Trying to nudge a virtual pinball table with my body (Pinball FX2 VR)
The game: The name may be near-impossible to say five times fast, but Pinball FX2 VR is an exciting prospect for digital pinball fans. Once you've strapped on the Oculus Rift headset, you're suddenly standing above a life-sized version of a classic Pinball FX table, which is further enhanced for VR with added effects - like meteorites swirling around you or sharks swimming within inches of your face - that simply wouldn't be possible in real life. Three tables will be available to start: space-themed Mars, nautical Secrets of the Deep, and RPG-meets-pinball Epic Quest.
The moment: Experienced pinball players are masters at nudging, the art of shifting the table just enough to influence the ball's trajectory without triggering a catastrophic Tilt state. This technique is necessary for chasing high scores, as it's the only way to reliably avoid those deadly outlanes that all but guarantee a lost ball. But while trying to save a ball in Pinball FX2 VR, my brain momentarily forgot that the table in front of me wasn't a real, physical object, or how in-game nudging is all handled with the left thumbstick. The result: me, making strange hip-jolting movements in the real world, trying to nudge a pinball table that doesn't physically exist. Rather than keep the ball in play, my momentary motions must've made me look like a complete and utter weirdo.
Moving to adjust the rear-view mirror (Project CARS)
The game: Last year's Project CARS was a worthy competitor to the Driveclubs and Forzas of the racing game world, and now it's being spruced up with VR for the Oculus Rift launch lineup. If you'd be terrified to slide into real-life hairpin turns at 110 mph, this is the perfect way to see what life is like in a professional racer's driving seat. It’s also effectively the safest, cheapest way to test drive a wide array of vehicles, ranging from go-karts and F1 rigs to BMWs and McLarens.
The moment: Old habits will die hard in VR. Moments before the race begin, I flinched in a moment of internal confusion, where my muscle memory moved to adjust the rear-view mirror while my brain insisted no, that essential piece of the driving puzzle isn't real. It's also incredibly bizarre to be driving at full speeds in VR, yet still have the safety and freedom to look around and behind you even while flooring it. NPCs must assume you have a death wish, or you're the world's most idiotic racer.
Lighting a cigar with a laser beam (I Expect You to Die)
The game: If you're a fan of James Bond - or any '70s-era spy intrigue - then I Expect You to Die is an absolute joy (even with the expectations of impending death). As so often happens to 007, you regain consciousness to find yourself seated in a series of increasingly complex death traps, and must puzzle your way to a hasty escape or die trying. Fortunately, your telepathic powers let you manipulate distant objects from your seated position, and comical death is just part of the learning process as you slowly piece together the correct sequence of actions that'll deliver your secret agent self to freedom.
The moment: On your first field mission, you wind up stuck in the driver's seat of the main villain's most prized vehicle, which in turn is trapped in the cargo of a moving plane. In case you're not in a particular hurry, you can play around with the various doodads lying around the car: a switchblade, a revolver, a lighter and cigar combo, and so on. I won't reveal your method for escape, but at one point, you need to physically move your head to dodge a deadly laser. And if you're feeling brave enough, you can use the lethal heat ray to light the end of the cigar you're chewing on, pulling off one of the fanciest, most dangerous stogie-lighting methods imaginable.
Pouring an entire shaker's worth of salt down my throat (Job Simulator)
The game: Job Simulator transports the player to the not-so-distant future of 2050, where nearly every job in existence is now handled by robots - particularly adorable ones, looking just like floating versions of those old CRT computer monitors you used to have. In this light-hearted utopia of laziness, humans can now visit museums that simulate (through the magic of VR) what it might've been like to work such now-defunct human jobs as line cook or convenience store clerk... all of which have been hilariously misconstrued by robot-kind.
The moment: While whipping up meals in the 'Gourmet Chef' simulation (which boots up off of an NES-style cartridge), I was encouraged to stuff my face with every object in arm's reach. This led to me taking a huge, apple-sized bite out of a fresh lemon, chewing on raw bacon, and eventually building up the nerve to shake the contents of a salt shaker straight down my gullet. Even when you know it's not real, rattling a salt shaker above your virtual mouth and hearing the pained gulping that follows makes your heart skip a beat, probably in fear of your now terribly unhealthy sodium levels.
Catching a bullet (Bullet Train)
The game: This isn't so much a game as it is an intoxicating power fantasy, turning you into the kind of invincible, reality-warping, one-person army you've always wanted to be ever since you first saw The Matrix. With barely any explanation, Bullet Train gives you the power to teleport and thrusts you into a spacious train station, rendered in Unreal Engine 4 and chock-full of brain-dead soldiers who don't have a chance of stopping you. What follows is an intense supernatural shootout that makes you feel like the protege of Neo, Nightcrawler, and Chow Yun-fat.
The moment: In the demo version I played, you simply couldn't be killed, no matter how many goons emptied machine gun clips in your direction. Bullets all slow to a crawl as they get closer, to the point that you can gingerly pluck one out of the air, admire its golden sheen, and then fling it back at the person who shot it for a fatal, immensely satisfying reunion. Eventually, I was content to simply chuck the dual pistols I was wielding and rely solely on this incredibly fun method of murder to wipe out my enemies.
Freaking out at my flipped hands (Willow's Pillow)
The game: Willow's Pillow is a short and simple demo made to show off the Manus VR gloves, a promising peripheral idea where your controllers simply fit over your hand like a glove. The gloves can detect the movement of each finger (I'd like to think I'm the first person to ever do Viewtiful Joe's 'HENSHIN-A-GO-GO, BABY!' hand gesture in VR), and are far more responsive and form-fitting than the Power Glove. Using the Manus VR gloves, you guide the tiny heroine Willow past a series of straightforward obstacles as she makes her way through a dollhouse-esque diorama.
The moment: This one happened purely by accident, and wasn't the fault of the Manus VR gloves themselves - but boy, did it feel weird. For the gloves to function properly, you also need to attach sensors along your wrists and forearms; at some point in my setup process, those sensors were placed on the wrong corresponding arm. This resulted in the demo booting up, me looking down, and my brain figuratively soiling itself at the fact that my fidgeting right hand was now on my left side, and vice versa. It was nothing a quick switch of the sensors couldn't fix, but that initial reaction was quite the out-of-body experience.
Looking down the barrel of a lightsaber, then powering it up (Trials on Tatooine)
The game: For Star Wars fans - which at this point seems to be just about everyone - the Trials on Tatooine demo is a brief but joyous highlight reel of empowering Jedi moments. Within moments of the demo booting up and dropping you onto the surface of Tatooine, the Millennium Falcon appears overhead, landing just next to you in need of some emergency repairs (as ordered by a gruff Han Solo soundalike). No sooner do you and R2D2 finish your troubleshooting than a bunch of TIE Fighters and Stormtroopers show up - at which point it's time to bust out your lightsaber and reflect lasers like a true Force-wielding warrior. Then the demo's over, and you slowly start to realize just how much dopamine has washed over the entirety of your geeked-out brain.
The moment: Listen, some Padawans must learn faster than others. And if I feel like roleplaying a Force-sensitive simpleton, who's going to stop me? Being able to wield a lightsaber in VR is an absolute rush, but it also presents the opportunity to do that which should never be done: peer down the hilt to check the crystal color, before suddenly powering the thing on and skewering yourself right through the eyeball. Unsurprisingly, nothing happened, as the Trials on Tatooine designers probably assumed that no sane person would ever do such a thing.
Grabbing a shotgun with both hands and CHU-CHURKing it (Raw Data VR)
The game: Raw Data puts you in the center of a futuristic room that's filled with human-sized pods containing different types of humanoid robots. You select from a variety of weapons available in an armory console, flip a switch and the robots come alive, then proceed to try to kill you.
The moment: There are a lot of weapon choices in Raw Data. You could gun down robots with a pistol or chop them in half with a laser katana, but the real fun happens when you pick up the shotgun. Grabbing the weapon just felt so natural. With your right hand you grab the pistol-grip handle and with your left hand you hold the pump-action slide. Then, like instinct, you naturally chu-churk the first round into the chamber fulfilling that badass '90s action hero fantasy of holding a big gun and spouting out your ridiculous catch phrase of choice.
Feeling like Legolas while defending a castle (The Lab VR)
The game: Valve's The Lab is a collection of Portal-themed VR minigames that has you do everything from play a VR Angry Birds clone to stare at vast mountain vistas. Most of the minigames are just proof of concepts that don't have much depth to them behind the basic gameplay mechanics. But those VR game mechanics sure do show you just how promising VR gaming is.
The moment: One minigame has you defending a medieval castle from stick figure invaders. Your weapon: a bow and unlimited arrows. It sounds basic, but the VR elements of being able to peer over the ramparts in 3D space, and nock arrows before pulling the string back and firing really changes the virtual shooter experience. Leading the target before loosing the arrow, bullseyeing distant red balloons for extra points, and even rotating your bow so to not bump it against the wall that doesn't exist, is an absolutely surreal experience.
Trying not to get eaten by an angry mama dino (Time Machine VR)
The game: You are in a time machine capable of observing ancient underwater life for the purpose of scientific discovery. As you investigate some of the now-extinct wildlife, you have the ability to scan the animal's anatomy, tag specimens for observation, and even freeze time in order to get a closer (and safer) look. Yeah, it sounds like a trip to a museum, but when you're seeing dinosaurs up close and personal and you have a good chance at becoming their lunch, the experience gets incredibly intense.
The moment: While investigating the mating activities of a giant, toothy, and very irritable swimming dino, you're required to scan the female of the group's reproductive organs to see if it is carrying fertilized eggs. The thing is, to do that, you have to get really, really close, which requires precise timing with your time freezing ability. It took about twenty minutes to rustle up the courage to freeze time, zoom up to that sea monster, scan it, then narrowly escape. You don't realize your fear of getting eaten by a dinosaur until you face one in VR, I suppose.