As I strapped on an Oculus Rift and the looming enormity of EVE Valkyrie's space engulfed me, I realized something was wrong. "Hey," I thought, "where are all the enemies?"
For the uninitiated, EVE Valkyrie is an Oculus-Rift/PlayStation Morpheus-exclusive (because people don't understand the definition of "exclusive" anymore) virtual reality space shooter. Traditionally, this means there is a heavy component of flying around in a space ship and, you know, shooting things.
In fact, that's all there is to it right now. Just a quick three-or-so-minute demo, a few ships, and a cool mechanic where you have to look directly at an enemy ship to target it with lock-on missiles. There will be much, much more (think modes, customization, etc) in the future, but for now that's it.
Needless to say, I was a bit surprised when my most recent Valkyrie demo session provided me with nothing to blast, fry, boil, or even hurl passive-aggressive slow-burn insults at. I rocketed out of a sleepy cavern of a hangar into... nothing. The vacuum. The void.
No, I'm not going to ramble into a Star Trek opening, though I am extremely tempted right now. But I was hit by that sublimely overwhelming feeling I think we all, at least on some level, seek when we delve into colossal sci-fi universes. I completely forgot that the Rift strapped to my face was a little loose under my right eye, allowing a faint glint of light to obscure the vision of space attached to my face. I was just... there. Present. Sucking in the thin, stale air of my comfortably worn-and-torn cockpit.
By this point I had more or less figured out what was going on. EVE Online and EVE Valkyrie developer CCP had forgotten to enable AI enemies in my demo, so it was just me and the stars. At first I thought to complain, but then I decided to just go with it, not giving CCP any inkling of my laser-and-bullet-free paradise lest they yank it away from me. I had all of space (or at least, what certainly felt like it) tickling my eyelashes. No distractions, no pesky AI ships buzzing around me like filthy flies. Who'd say no to that?
I'm utterly terrified of the real reality of space - the whole "no air or control over my own forward motion" thing, especially, is a big sticking point for me - but goodness have I always yearned to explore it. I probably read too much sci-fi as a kid, but that kind of makes Oculus Rift (and also Morpheus) a brilliantly circuitous realization of all our nerdiest fantasies. We have torn one technology straight out of science fiction, and now we're using it to chart a course to another technomagical fever dream.
And you know what? Despite EVE Valkyrie's true nature as a series of closed-off combat arenas, the environment I secretly explored while CCP thought I was murdering dozens of enemies like a good little video game starship pilot was actually very nicely detailed. It oozed enormity, with objects that were mere twinkles in the night growing into giants that I could only skitter between the toes of. I could get right up next to them and examine their most minimal of dimples and curves, nearly reach out and touch them - all of which was accentuated by the brand new Oculus Rift Devkit 2, a massive step up from blurry, laggy old Devkit 1.
I came across what appeared to be a derelict space station, and I soared between two massive metal prongs while wondering who previously inhabited them, what sort of purpose they served. I stared up and down, out every window of my cockpit, like an excited child in the backseat of a car passing Disneyworld.
I think what I'm saying is I want a walking simulator in space. I think that'd be pretty neat.
Seriously though, as I closed in on a warp gate the size of a small moon, yellow rays of energy seeping from its core, I dreamed of a game in which this was only the beginning. Where I could strap on a VR headset and just hurtle through the cosmos, stopping to smell the space roses as I pleased. Maybe I'd stumble across the silently sizzling aftermath of one of EVE Online's infamous 4000-person wars, or maybe I'd simply drift in perfect peace and solitude.
I soared toward the center of the gate like an arrow aimed at a man's heart, breath held, controller gripped so tightly I'm surprised it didn't leave a mark.
Come onnnnnnnnnn. Please, please, please, please, please. Make my starry eyed dreams of infinite exploration come true.
I passed through the gate's crackling midpoint aaaaaaaaaaaand... nothing happened. I emerged on the other side - at a point, incidentally, where space suddenly became remarkably less detailed. I don't really know what else I was expecting, honestly.
It was nice to dream, though. And while EVE Valkyrie may not be the game to let me realize my fantasy of lazily drifting through the universe's endless reaches as VR convinces me I'm not horribly alone in my dark bedroom, more fleshed out space games like Elite Dangerous might. With time, anyway. And in the meantime, there are tech demos like Titans of Space aim to capture space's sheer enormity up-close-and-personal. There is, then, a future for this kind of thing. Or at least something vaguely resembling one.
I sometimes worry that VR (at least, in gaming) will fizzle because developers might end up focusing too much on gimmicky "be in that one place from the thing!" experiences, but I can't deny the allure when it's something as unreachable and unknowable as outer space. And even beyond the fictional universes of games like EVE and Elite, imagine if someone painstakingly replicated our own galaxy using actual data or otherwise offered a means of taking a virtual trip into actual space. Oh the possibilities. The mind, it boggles.