I'd like to thank Valve for reminding me that virtual reality exists. Tucked away, deep in the cupboard under the stairs, lies my original Oculus Rift, complete with a pair of Touch controllers and all the various paraphernalia required to actually experience virtual reality in the home. It had been gathering dust for a year or so, untouched since that first wave of big virtual reality titles launched, but the allure of Half-Life: Alyx was too much for this old Valve fan.
So out came the OG Oculus, ready for me to dive back into a world of headcrabs and zombies. But actually, what I found inside that VR headset wasn't just the burst of nostalgia that I thought I was craving. Instead, it was a form of ultimate, totally absorbing, isolation.
In this current climate that we suddenly find ourselves in, I have to count myself lucky that I live with my partner in a house with a garden. I'm not having to endure all of this on my own, or dealing with being cooped up in an apartment with no outside space. But what I am struggling with is an unexpected amount of anxiety. I worry for my parents, my team members, the state of the world, the publishing and gaming industries, and what exactly is going to lie on the other side of this pandemic – what the world will eventually look like.
There are few things that really, truly distract me from that anxious noise inside my head either. Yes, there's Animal Crossing: New Horizons, and my regular go-to distractors of cleaning and baking (although, honestly, I don't think I can eat any more banana bread), and there's even a little nagging tug in the back of my head to turn on the news. But when I put on that VR headset it's like the outside world, and all its negative energy, is completely silenced.
Fitness first, games later
From the moment I booted up Half-Life Alyx, it was clear that it's a marvel of video game engineering, capable of imbuing me with a sense of fear I never thought I'd experience in a digital world. I am genuinely terrified of the headcrabs, and running out of ammo is a horror in itself. Despite the fact that I'm basically swapping one anxiety for another, it came as a welcome relief to have such an absorbing distraction.
However, what started out as a mission to reconnect with Alyx Vance and co quickly transformed into something else entirely – it's everything else VR has to offer that has become its true appeal. And it started with Beat Saber. Despite all the recommendations from friends, I'd stupidly slept on the rhythm-action dance game, and yet my first session with the game lasted over three hours and my arms ached for longer than I'd like to admit.
Beat Saber's particular brand of colourful excursion, and the gloriously sweat-inducing BoxVR, have become my daily fitness routine – in lieu of, you know, being able to go outside or go to a gym. The ability to jump into a session of either of these fantastic games has become the next best thing. I've got instant access to trainer-created workouts with BoxVR, and working my way through the Beat Saber campaign has proved a serious challenge – one I aim to beat by the time we're out of this isolation period.
Virtual reality has proven an oddly focusing fetish. Its ability to blind me to reality has become a powerful motivator to get fitter, and explore more digital worlds than ever before. It's a way for me to control how much of reality I can be exposed to, making me feel calmer and strangely more capable of dealing with everything else that's going on once the headset comes off. If you're lucky, like me, to have a VR headset in your household, dust it off and get it reconnected. There's so much more to explore – so many fantastic games offering a variety of experiences and opportunities – and it's a relief to know that there's plenty to keep my mind occupied bar the anxieties of current everyday life.