In a small art gallery near the Staples Convention Center in downtown LA, Minority Media (Papo & Yo, Spirit of Spring) demoed their new game, simply called "Time Machine VR," to me. After strapping on the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset and having a DualShock 4 placed in my hand, I was quickly whisked away to the Jurassic Period to explore the strange and exotic lifeforms that once populated Earth's early oceans.
As my virtual time machine came to a stop and I opened its shutters, I gasped at the breathtaking sight before me: the precursors to today's sea turtles swimming in a large group as a pliosaurus chased after them, snatching a few up in its monstrous jaws. Using my time dilation ability (see: slow-mo mode), I was able to avoid becoming prehistoric lunch, but the experience still set my heart aflutter.
And yet, once I had escaped to a safe distance, I wanted to turn around and head back so that I could use my time machine's various scientific instruments (probes, trackers, scanners, a device that used soundwaves to render the insides of creatures) to learn more about these animals.
And learn I did. I learned how species of the pliosaurus genus are suspected to have given birth to live young instead of eggs, that leedsichthys was the largest fish of all time, and that ichthyosaurus had bones in its eyes, likely to keep the soft tissue from deforming at deep sea pressures. And once I'd completed a mission, I could learn even more about what I'd seen, including mating habits, diet and physiology.
All of the information used to inform the game's missions and animal behavior is as scientifically accurate as possible. "We want to blindside you with education," lead programmer Julien Barnoin told me. While the game is inspired by the nature documentaries that creative director Vander Caballero watched as a child, Time Machine VR is still meant to be an entertainment product.
Indeed, the close of my demo had my time machine malfunction and send me tumbling through space and time, and even before that I was greeted in video form by a woman who remarks sadly that she "always thought [she'd] make the journey [herself]." There are clearly story threads dangling here, waiting to be grasped.
Still, it's hard to understate how prominently my mind thought about utilizing Time Machine VR in classrooms and museums. If a simulation like Time Machine VR had existed when I was still deep in my "I love paleontology" phase, I'm not sure I would be here writing about games at all. Maybe I would be digging up bones, studying ancient life, and teaching the world about the history of our planet.
Still, Caballero and Barnoin want their game to appeal to a wide audience, and that means crafting an experience that excites and entertains. I just hope they won't be too offended when I choose to not be "blindsided" by Time Machine VRs educational aspects, but instead embrace them head-on.
Minority Media aims to have Time Machine VR completed in time to launch with virtual reality headsets like Valve's Vive VR and the Oculus Rift. A PS4 version compatible with Project Morpheus is also in development.