I’m writing this with a very specific kind of headache. It’s the kind you get after playing about forty minutes of Arkham VR, a game for the Playstation VR virtual reality headset. The goal of Arkham VR is to make you really feel like Batman by giving you a first-person, 360 degree view of his ugly, violent world, and it works better than I ever could have expected. This is probably the same kind of headache Batman has all the time, since he’s a guy who gets punched in the face for a living.
I don’t normally have to worry about motion sickness. Roller coasters don’t mess me up. Boats and planes are a breeze. I might get woozy if I try to read something in the car, but pretty much only on surface streets, when red lights and turns are constantly disrupting my trajectory. I have a sturdy head, but virtual reality almost always mucks it up within a half-hour.
Headaches and motion sickness are only two of the big problems with virtual reality, though. It’s hard to see who VR will wind up appealing to now that it’s left the future world of tech and game shows and entered the home. PSVR will be a cheaper, easier to manage option than the Oculus Rift or HTC Vive, but it will still cost over $800 total for the equipment needed to handle every PSVR game. That’s $300 for a Playstation 4, $400 for the PSVR headset, $60 for the Playstation 4 camera (which is mandatory) and $100 for a two-pack of Playstation Move controllers, which are needed for certain games (you can technically play Arkham VR without ‘em, if you have two standard controllers, but it’s not recommended). If you already own the console, the camera and the Move controllers, you’re still looking at $400 for the most important piece of the puzzle, and that’s before you even start buying games. Even though this is cheaper than the Rift or Vive, it’s still a lot of money to shell out, and almost guarantees the PSVR’s biggest market at launch will be videogame-obsessed early adopters.
That demographic might be a problem for this particular product. The so-called “hardcore gamer” who sees nothing wrong with dropping hundreds of dollars on new tech, who prioritizes complex action games that take a lot of time to complete, who values cutting-edge graphics over inspired art design, and who might look askance at smaller, shorter, more experimental games, may not feel satisfied by what they’ll be able to play on their Playstation VR next week. Arkham VR is one of the biggest carrots for that audience at launch, and it’s so structurally different from the traditional Arkham games that it might leave some fans disappointed.
The limitations of virtual reality strip away the intricate combat the Arkham games are known for. The result is essentially a VR version of an old point-and-click adventure game. You enter a new area that’s split up between a few fixed camera angles, look for clues or interact with the environment, and then move on to the next scene after satisfying the necessary storyline requirement. Fans who always hoped for a more detective-based Batman game might be excited, and aesthetically it’s of a piece with the rest of the series, but it doesn’t play anything like the Arkham games you’re used to.
A vocal segment of the player base most likely to spring for a PSVR openly mocks and derides games that don’t fit their limited concept of what a “videogame” should be. Will the players who dismiss quieter, story-focused games as “walking simulators,” or who complain every month about the “indie games” added to the Playstation Plus line-up, be content with a PSVR line-up light on the kinds of games they enjoy? The “traditional” big-budget games that do meet their requirements and also support PSVR, like Rise of the Tomb Raider: Blood Ties and the upcoming Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, tend to do so through optional side missions that branch off from the main game. Probably the biggest draw for this crowd will be Eve: Valkyrie, a space dogfighting game that makes a great first impression but garnered middling reviews when it was released for the Rift and Vive. It’s hard to see Valkyrie and tacked-on VR missions for the next Call of Duty placating the hardcore gamer who just dropped $400 for the promise of hanging out inside their videogames, especially if they have to take a break every twenty or thirty minutes to stave off motion sickness.
I’ve spent time with a dozen or so PSVR games over the last week, and the ones that work the best have a few traits in common. They tend to have graphics that eschew any attempt at realism, with aesthetics that range from Tron-style computer minimalism to psychedelic explosions of color. They all limit the player’s range of motion, either locking the game on rails or existing as a series of tableaux or dioramas that the player has no direct control over. They all facilitate short play sessions, letting you get in and out before the discomfort truly seeps in. They are all at least as concerned with creating an all-encompassing sensory experience as they are with play, prioritizing VR’s legitimate ability to shock and overwhelm us through sound and images.
They also all fail to convince me that virtual reality’s moment has truly arrived, or that any such moment will ever exist.
Thumper VR is the best PSVR game I’ve played, by a pretty significant margin, and yet it’s probably better on a regular TV. The “rhythm violence” game from two former Harmonix employees (including a member of pivotal noise duo Lightning Bolt) gets an immediate jolt when you strap on the headset and headphones. It’s an intentionally claustrophobic and foreboding game, with a brutal difficulty level and a soundtrack built on primal drums and metallic shrieks, and those elements are initially enhanced with VR. The fixed camera perspective, locked tight behind the scarab-like ship that you control, minimizes the motion sickness, even as your vessel rockets eternally forward on a track that sometimes dips and rises like a roller coaster. Thumper VR is a powerful, overwhelming, unforgettable experience, and yet eventually my head would start to hurt and I’d have to take off the headset. Without that strapped to my face I quickly realized that the standard version is almost as effective while causing no pain and feeling more precise and responsive. Rez Infinite, the latest remake of the 2001 classic, similarly succeeds in VR without quite eclipsing the regular version.
The other games that most resonated with me are locked to virtual reality. Harmonix Music VR resembles the company’s excellent Fantasia: Music Evolved, with psychedelic cartoon landscapes that pulse and change in response to music. It’s the kind of all-encompassing visual splendor that momentarily makes VR feel vital, but likely won’t appeal to gamers looking for more challenge and interaction. SuperHyperCube is a clever puzzle game where you have to maneuver an increasingly convoluted object through a hole in a wall that is quickly speeding towards you. The game is dependent on the spatial aspect inherent to VR: you can gauge the distance between you and the oncoming wall just by looking at it as you flip and turn the cube to the right position. They both accentuate the strengths of virtual reality, without quite convincing me that it’s worth the hundreds of dollars necessary to enjoy it.
Through virtual reality these four games offer memorable experiences in a way that otherwise wouldn’t be possible. They all meant something to me, something that other games couldn’t replicate. As powerful as they are, though, they can’t balance out everything that doesn’t work with VR. They can’t justify the expense, or the discomfort, or the inconvenience of having to strap on a headset and a pair of headphones in order to play a game for about 20 minutes. They don’t make virtual reality or the PSVR feel like something you absolutely have to own if games and interactive experiences are important to you. They can’t shake the feeling that VR is a gimmick that most excites an audience that will be even less satisfied with the actual games available for VR than I am.
After almost a week of playing a number of different games for the Playstation VR, I’m left with a few great memories along with a recurring low-grade headache and a general sense of confusion over who virtual reality is for. Despite the current hype around it, and the support of some of the leading companies in games and tech, virtual reality simply doesn’t feel necessary. Sony might have released the best consumer version of VR on the market so far, but that’s an accolade as illusory as virtual reality itself.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s games and comedy sections. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.