I'm stood in line at Boots, patiently waiting for the pharmacist to pop some antibiotics in a bag, feeling utterly loathsome and wondering if the workmen who've been noisily drilling in the recesses of my mind will permit me some respite from this godawful migraine, when my phone buzzes. It turns out that a space has opened up at noon for a chance to go hands-on with Loading Human -- the deliciously ambitious sci-fi adventure game that was revealed only a few days ago, and makes use of the Oculus Rift and the Hydra motion controller. I have an hour and a half to rush back home, grab my stuff, and then race across town. I slap myself in the face, grab the bag of prescription drugs, and run my arse off... for about 100 metres before collapsing in a coughing fit.
I made it in the end, though.
How could I not, in truth. When I made my predictions for 2014, I stated confidently that this year would herald a great shift as VR would become a consumer reality, and spoke about how the recent wave of experiential titles -- games such as Dear Esther and Gone Home -- would be most gloriously served by the the increased prospects for immersive gaming presented by devices such as the Oculus Rift. Step forward, then, Loading Human -- described by developers Untold Games as "an old-school adventure game" that certainly fits the mould, but is inspired by sci-fi pillars such as The Matrix and Strange Days as much as it is by Monkey Island.
The concept behind Loading Human is deliciously meta in nature. You play Andre -- a man dying of Alzheimer's diseased -- who finds himself placed into a virtual world by his Nobel Prize-winning genius wife Michelle, so that he might relive his memories and recover himself. The Oculus Rift will immerse you in the virtual world within the virtual world of the game itself (INCEPTION GAMING!), and motion controls such as the Razer Hydra or Sixense STEM will be the tools by which you interact with the world around you. Just as Andre is rediscovering himself, so too will we be rediscovering a means of interacting with virtual worlds.
Where I'd felt nauseous almost instantly playing Doom with an Xbox 360 controller during my first hands-on with the Rift back in 2012, there was little of that here, and that was largely thanks to the Hydra. There were glitches and stutters, and occasional physical disconnections that pulled me out of the experience from time to time, but the game is in very early stages, and the Hydra is relatively old tech by industry standards. It was easy to forgive certain things.
Motion control takes on a new life when you find your eyes and ears totally immersed in a game world. You're not simply watching an avatar across a distance copy your movements, there's no way of seeing how ridiculous you look in reality, indeed reality becomes something of an abstract concept, particularly when playing something with a first-person view. Stepping into Andre's shoes, I found myself picking up as many things as I could, playing with the physics of the world, grabbing books off of shelves and throwing them as far as possible. Had I been at home rather than pressed for time in an office in Holborn, I might have spent a good half hour trying to juggle. There's a joy in discovering a new level of synchronicity in terms of physical and virtual synesthesia that leads you to simply play.
What followed was a path of following clues and finding hidden items. Taking a clock down from the wall and turning it over in my hands, discovering a key on the back and using it to open a box with vinyl record inside, then taking the record and placing it on a gramophone's turntable -- simple tasks, yes, but conducted in a fashion previously beyond us in a virtual space in terms of consumer technology. The stick on the left hand controller directs the movement of Andre's feet, but everything is governed by body position and gesticulation, with the triggers on the controllers used to pick up and drop items. I was being led through the narrative of the demo by staff on hand, just to speed things along as much as anything else, but I could happily have explored every nook and cranny and interactive object for ages. Flavio Parenti, the creative lead on this project and the man behind the central idea for Loading Human, said that there will be books filled with information on Andre's life that player's will be able to read amongst other items that provide extra shades of colour to the character's existence and place in the world. The parallel between protagonist and player -- exploring parts of this virtual world to expand their knowledge and understanding -- presents some tantalising narrative possibilities.
Adventure games never went away, whatever Double Fine might have said; the genre simply evolved. Before, the clearest route to interaction was a mouse and a cursor. But Loading Human, whilst built upon those principles, trades a cursor for your hand, whilst further removing obstacles to immersion via sensory submersion thanks to a Rift and some headphones. If they can make the experience a smooth one, it can only make the emotional impact of the story more keenly felt, and our relationship with the virtual world they've created that much stronger.
But that's a tall task, and this is new ground. As much as I'd like to say that everything was seamless, it really wasn't. The Hydra needed recalibration several times, it took five minutes to put an object in a frying pan and place it upon a stove thanks to some awkward mechanics and the Hydra's limitations, and there were constant little glitches and bugs that broke the illusion of immersion. Parenti and fellow developer Elisa DiLorenzo were honest about the early build, though, saying that they're learning enormous amounts from player feedback (this was the first time the game had been played outside of the dev studio) and that was I played was really a very early prototype build ahead of full production. Issues were certainly to be expected, and by the time the game is out at the end of this year or in early 2015, it is hoped that the Sixense STEM motion control setup will allow for much greater fidelity and smoother running in terms of 1:1 feedback. Sixense provided the tech behind the Hydra, after all; STEM is looking far more advanced.
There's a huge amount of work to be done; what exists currently is really nothing more than a proof of concept. But it's enough to have me enormously excited. Motion control has long been something of a joke -- a gimmick that has failed to deliver in meaningful fashion outside of party games because of inaccurate tech and disconnected experiences. But Loading Human is the first in what will surely become a wave of games for which the inverse true. Playing this game with a standard controller would feel all kinds of wrong. That won't go for all experiences with a VR headset -- cockpits and driving seats and other fixed-position titles will do fine with gamepads and joysticks and wheels -- but motion control doesn't just let us stand in the shoes and look out of the eyes of Andre, when combined with audio-visual immersion it lets us become him in a way we've only really dreamed of before.
Untold Games are pointing the way forwards for adventure games with Loading Human; this is a tantalising possible future for the genre and for interactive storytelling in general. But whether or not it takes off sooner rather than later will all come down to execution. We're on the cusp of having the most immersive interactive narrative experiences any of us have ever seen; fingers crossed that the tech holds up.