Rifting To A New Reality by Bobby Blackwolf

How I Became A VR Hipster Thanks To Zelda VR

How I Became A VR Hipster Thanks To Zelda VR

Whenever I talk about the Oculus Rift, the first thing anybody says to me is "Oh, I'd love to play *insert favorite old game* in the Rift!" My first response is always "No, you wouldn't," and then I'd explain all the reasons why. They'd always shake their heads, tell me how wrong I am, and how I'm just not seeing the awesomeness of whatever they're imagining in their heads.

This week, "Ubiquitron", a 31 year old independent game developer from Oakland (source), released a small demo using assets from the NES classic The Legend of Zelda, creating a massive news frenzy in the gaming media. Looking at the responses, I've realized something - I've become the kind of person I make fun of.

I've become a VR Hipster.

Why I Hate Shoehorning Old Games Into VR

A good VR experience is one that is designed for VR, not one that is shoehorned from a previous design. Sure, you can take Skyrim, throw in some injection drivers (there are several - TriDef, Vireio Perception, and VorpX, all with varying degrees of success depending on the title) and jump in the world, but you wouldn't want to actually PLAY the game for long periods of time this way. You might be able to mod the game extensively to play it, but then you're not playing the game that you initially fell in love with in the first place.

The games you love were designed for a flat 2D monitor, even "3D" masterpieces like Skyrim. This means that they can put UI elements on the edges of the screen, out of the way of the action. When you take that experience into VR, you now lose all of those UI elements, because they are on the corners of your vision. If there is text in the CENTER of the screen, chances are it is scaled down to work well on a monitor one foot away from your face, but in the conversion process, it is too small to read.

Example #1 - Skyrim

Beautiful, isn't it? It really is, I'm not going to lie. Granted, I had to go into various INI files to disable shadows and other effects so the injection drivers could do their thing, but once you go through that hassle, it is, indeed beautiful.

Then, you try to play.

I probably shouldn't have attacked the giant, but he was the first creature I saw. It's for science, anyway. But hey, let's take a look at my inventory and see if I have anything that I could use that's better...

Okay, now let me explain how the Oculus Rift in particular works. What you see here is software warping of the screen - this is done because there are lenses in the Rift that help your eyes "focus into infinity", which allows the 3D stereoscopic image to work. Inside the Rift is one screen that looks a lot like your cell phone screen, showing this exact image. The lenses warp the image back into proper viewing for your eyes, and that's how the immersiveness happens.

You notice, in this screenshot, you can't read the words on the edge of the screen. Well, you can't read them in the Rift either, because not only are they really outside of your peripheral vision, but because the Rift's lenses don't put back pixels that don't exist. If the word is unreadable in a screenshot before you look through the lenses, it's going to be unreadable when you're looking at the Rift.

To be fair, VorpX in particular does some tricks to help with this. One trick is the "Edge Peek" feature, where holding down the middle mouse button allows you to move your head to see the corners of the screen. This is designed to be able to see these menu items, but then you can't actually use the mouse to navigate the menus until you snap back to the center of your screen.

Another trick it does is allow you to "move" farther away from the screen - but then you're really just playing the game on a big floating monitor in front of you, losing the reason of WHY you wanted to play it in the Rift in the first place!

Example #2 - Borderlands 2

Another "well-supported" game is Borderlands 2. This had potential specifically because of the UI features that Gearbox Software decided to use. Unfortunately, even with some of those enhancements, the game is still unplayable, even if it is very beautiful.

Yes, I'm out of ammo. The only way I know I'm out of ammo is because it's telling me that in the center of the screen. If you look closely, in the bottom right, you MIGHT be able to make out that I am indeed out of ammo, but it's not something I can see without the Edge Peek feature, which is not really easy to do in combat.

Remember when I said it was promising because of some UI features?  I'm specifically talking about this one:

You can't tell in this screenshot, but you can set horizontal and vertical bounds for the HUD. Theoretically, you could put all of the HUD elements inside a certain area, and you could put them in far enough for you to be able to see them in the Rift.

Unfortunately, even the lowest bounds you can set (85%) isn't usable enough for the Rift.

The other nifty idea they had was that any shop would show up in a floating box over the environment. This works well, unless you want to switch tabs - in this screenshot, YOU can see the "purchase" tab at the top, but in the Rift, it's just a tiny bit too high out of your peripheral vision, and looking up doesn't help at all.

Could these issues been remedied by Gearbox if they wanted to? ABSOLUTELY. They're on the right track with some ideas, and the Rift was not available to developers when Borderlands 2 was developed. This just goes to show that there's a different design mindset required for VR than there is for TV or monitor-based gameplay.

Example #3: Zelda VR

This is where I seem to diverge with a lot of people - both people who have never played the Rift, as well as Rift enthusiasts. The vast majority of comments about this demo (really, a beta) have been overwhelmingly positive. I don't share their views, but I want to unequivocally state that I DON'T blame Ubiquitron or think he's "Bad At VR," because I don't believe he is. There are indeed technical flaws and bugs - I fell through the world going up the stairs after getting the bow, the Xbox 360 Gamepad doesn't work (buttons are mapped incorrectly), and the overhead text of the wise old man doesn't show properly. This is, however, a beta, and NONE of my feelings about Zelda VR is based on any of that, because trust me, I understand.

The issue here is that he tried to make a faithful recreation of brilliant 2D game design, and throw it into first person. It doesn't work. Yes, it tickles your nostalgia bone, but that's it.

For one thing, there's the first dungeon. Easy to spot from the air (as you did in the 80's), but unless you know what you're looking for, it'd be hard to find it in VR without some design rewrites. A lot of the puzzles in Zelda games are the same - you know how to solve the puzzle by looking at the entire room from above. Your strategy comes from what's behind Link as well as what's in front of him. Speaking of which...

Okay, that looks cool. The problem is, you, and I, don't see that there's another skeleton behind me, backstabbing me in the same way you think I'm backstabbing your hopes and dreams. This is a constant problem, because unlike the original game, you can't see all around you. In fact, I was never able to make it to the boss room, because I would always be carried away by the Giant Hands That I Hate So Much as they came up behind me and took me back to the entrance. In the NES game, I can avoid them, because I can see the entire room - because that's the way the game was designed.

Another issue with Zelda VR is nausea. It's VERY nausea inducing, because it's retaining the fast feel of the original. Moving around with the mouse is very fast, which is what people are used to playing FPS's on a monitor, but once it takes over your whole vision, it messes with your brain. (Team Fortress 2 suffers from the same problem, and it's officially supported by Valve with SteamVR!)

The biggest offender, however, is movement speed. In sprite based games, when you hit right on the d-pad, your character moves to the right at full speed. Period. In VR, though, doing the exact same type of movement causes VR sickness, because you are essentially going from zero to sixty miles per hour immediately, whereas your brain WANTS you to gradually work up. When I played Zelda VR again, I DID notice that it wasn't an immediate jump to full speed, but it was still a little bit faster than I'd like. I've been using an Oculus Rift since August, and I was getting sick playing Zelda VR.

The Hype Is The Problem

The issue I have, mostly, is with the hype. Gaming news sites ran with the Zelda story, and I saw a lot of my friends jump on the hype train. They assumed this was an officially licensed Nintendo product, and universally I heard "Now, I am finally interested in an Oculus Rift." I confronted one of my friends about this, and told him there were great VR experiences out there that were fifty times better than this, and he basically told me that he didn't really care. The other experiences did not interest him, but the nostalgia of playing a GREAT game from his childhood is what has sold him on the Rift.

Which means that his first experience in the Rift is most likely going to be a vomit-inducing frustrating nausea-ride, which he will then say "Meh, I guess the Rift sucks after all" and never touch it again.

The hype train is driven by people who have never used the Rift, or maybe only used one once or twice. When I discussed this on Twitter (the bastion of intelligent conversation, obviously) I had responses of "Well, I'm betting it's a lot different if you're actually playing it" - even though I had just played it before deciding Twitter needed multiple tweets of my thoughts, causing unfollowers. (Because that's how Twitter works, y'all.)

That's when I learned I was a VR Hipster, though. If I take off the fedora or monocle or whatever, I can see that things like this are EXACTLY what the VR movement needs to be successful outside of the enthusiasts. Hook them with the ports of games they loved playing on a monitor, and then hit them with the true awesome experiences designed for VR. It's why a lot of people clamor for backwards compatibility on their consoles - they want to play the old stuff in a higher resolution, and then eventually they'll start playing games designed for that higher resolution.

My Final Word

When The Fullbright Company announced in January that they had canceled Oculus Rift development for their hit 2013 game Gone Home, I was both sad and thrilled. Sad because I really enjoyed Gone Home and felt that it would be a perfect experience in VR, but thrilled because they actually took the time to look at their game, how it performed in a VR mindset, and realized that they would have to redesign too much to get it to work in a way that was rewarding to players. They realized there was way too much UI pasted on the screen that would have to be redone, as well as there being no "body awareness" - which basically means if you look down, you can't see your body.

They realized that Gone Home was designed for a monitor or a TV, and that's where they're focusing their efforts, and I give them kudos for that.

I compare the shoehorning of 2D experiences into VR the same way as you'd look at the transition from black and white movies to color. I live in Atlanta, and remember when Ted Turner "colorized" black and white classics for his superstation. Those movies were DESIGNED for the black and white palette, and colorizing them took away a lot of the magic that we remembered. The same can be said for 3D movies today - most people would rather watch something like Avatar, which was shot and designed for 3D, rather than Titanic 3D, which was converted from 2D.

But, I'm a VR Hipster. I've become the thing I make fun of. I also think I'm right - but I don't have the right to force my (correct) opinion on anyone else. All I will ask is this:

IF your main impetus for getting your hands on an Oculus Rift, either by demoing it or getting it yourself, is to play something like Zelda VR, PLEASE don't let it be the first thing you play. Ask your demo person to FIRST put you on RiftCoaster, in the Tuscany demo, or even the new "Welcome to Oculus" demo that was created in the last few weeks. THEN, once you've gotten used to the Rift, how your brain reacts to it, and how it looks, THEN go ahead and jump into Zelda VR, or Skyrim, or Borderlands 2.

Just try not to get too frustrated or nauseated.

Bobby Blackwolf is the host of The Bobby Blackwolf Show on the VOG Network, lead developer of the website, and lead GM for VOG: The Game. Follow him on Twitter at @BobbyBlackwolf

Rifting To A New Reality by - 2/23/2014 2:28 PM3744 views



2/23/2014 3:50 PM

3 0

Well done article Bobby.

I can see the biggest issue being that now that Zelda VR is being made that a whole slew of people will try to capture the nostalgia in a bottle and try to replicate it. One can only hope we don't see people making a Metroid or even worse a Sonic the Hedgehog clone for the Rift.

From the Rift games i've watched many of the better ones that have great ideas or use the Rift for interesting mechanics (Classroom Aquatic and Timerifters). What I anticipate happening is people attempting to rehash something old with Rift support. Which like you said is similar to just hitting the "Render in 3D" button for animated movies these days. Which to me is garbage excuse of 3D.

The Rift is a brilliant tool that should be used to make NEW and innovative advancements in gaming. While Zelda VR does take the essence of The Legend of Zelda and tries something different, it doesn't look like it was executed well (then again this is a beta so we'll see the final product eventually).

The main thing is people need to simmer their hype about seeing these remakes ported to the Rift. Because the lightning in that bottle was there 20-30 years ago already.
2/23/2014 4:19 PM

2 0

When you brought up the VR sickness it got me thinking that perhaps my dream game for the rift (Unreal Tournament) might not be such a good idea, considering how fast-paced it is.

And just like the Metroid Prime example that came out some months ago all these games don't really work natively not without jumping through a bunch of hoops and tweaking the interface so it actually *works* on the rift.

Although I do still kinda want HD ports of the original Virtuality lineup (Dactyl Nightmare, and there was the one other one but the name escapes me) as much as I'd want something brand new built just for the rift.
2/23/2014 7:38 PM

2 0

Oh my god I never considered playing GRID WARS, and BOXING, and DACTYL NIGHTMARE in the Rift. Yessssssssssssssssssssssssssss please!
2/23/2014 8:22 PM

0 0

oh yeah I think it was grid wars... I just remember it being a scrolling walk-and-shoot, but your headsets had a microphone for communicating with the other players.
2/23/2014 3:06 PM

1 0

This article is pretty much spot-on.

A lot people do want to experience games they love on a whole other perspective, especially immersive games like Elder Scrolls, Minecraft and probably a lot of First Person View games. But thing is that the games aren't truly optimized to support the Rift natively and pretty much rely on mods to make it work. And from streams and videos of the Rift, we can see it barely does, if at all.

Good thing there are devs that are working on games that use the Rift natively and actually look great. But we now have the Zelda VR thing and now the nostalgia factor is something to worry about.

It isn't a bad thing per say, but the Zelda VR does look like a lazy project. Granted, it is a beta but it isn't an original idea. At all.

I would love to live an experience like the original Zelda from a first person perspective and be able to feel like I'm in the game itself, but I don't want a half-assed Zelda clone. I want something original and that can truly make me feel completely immersed in the game.

In summary: Gentlemen, we can rebuild it. We have the technology. We have the capability but it doesn't necessarily mean we should. If something we should BUILD anew.
Log in to add your own voice and receive points by leaving good comments other users like!