Virtual Reality is all about immersion. You've doubtlessly watched us hacks overuse this somewhat nebulous term to within an inch of its life over the last few years, but being able to get into our games, to be absorbed by them and enter a new reality for a while, is what many of us strive for. Considering that Oculus Rift is designed to effectively create a new reality around us, it's absolutely perfect for atmospheric games.
Private Eye is all about harnessing that power for a psychological thriller set in 1950s New York, wherein players become a wheelchair-bound gumshoe forced to relive the events that led up to his disablement, all while cracking a new case. It surrounds you with the videogame equivalent of Rear Window, letting you look around the environments in 360 degrees and spy on your neighbours from an intimate new perspective, all while building a sinister and tense atmosphere around us. Considering that the pitch was created as part of a VR Jam by single developer Jake Slack, Private Eye is already rather impressive.
It also has the privilege of being my first hands-on with Oculus Rift -- should that be eyes on? -- so naturally I was nearly violently ill all over the fine folks at EGX Rezzed 2014. At least we managed to interview Slack afterwards.
We've been politely asked to keep spoilers to a minimum, so I'll focus on the experience. Opening in a seamy and dusty detective's office, players find themselves confined to a wheelchair, which neatly solves a major problem facing first-person VR titles. Sitting down in real life yet walking around in a game can quickly become disorienting, so this lack of mobility is actually a Godsend. Being able to look around this environment was a thrill, brought to life in full 3D, allowing me to look around the room from the desk in front of me to the filing cabinets at the back simply by moving my head.
Virtual Reality has come a long way since the abortive attempts of the early nineties, and Private Eye does a fantastic job of putting you directly into its seedy world with no screen in the way, filling your peripheral vision with it and creating the illusion of real three-dimensional depth. I could practically smell the cigarette smoke.
A distant memory beckoned, and I found myself sitting in a car. Not watching a character sitting in a car, mark you. To repeat: I found myself sitting in a car. The interior was modelled perfectly, allowing me to tinker with the radio or open the window with some simple controller commands, and look around the cabin as a police officer drove me around some dark and appropriately menacing backwoods. Once we'd picked up a suspect, I was able to crane my neck around and keep an eye on him in the back seat, while watching the conversation between the other two characters.
Even though I'd literally just watched a fairly uneventful car journey (for the most part... you'll see), the feeling of being there, of being connected to the increasingly sinister game world, was fantastic.
Back in the office, I then started poking and prodding around the leatherbound desk in front of me in a search for clues. Objects could be rotated and interacted with, scoured for fine detail, and pored over with a magnifying glass that realistically enlarged what I was looking at depending on the angle that I cocked my head. Suddenly a photograph caught my eye, potentially containing the face of an old friend or enemy who might shed more light on the story, and crying out for a closer look...
... at which point I felt violently ill and had to remove the headset immediately.
"Simulation sickness" is one of virtual reality's biggest stumbling blocks, and my first experience of it was an absolute doozy. The disconnect between the real and virtual world can be too much to handle as the inner ear, optic nerve and brain battle for control of your stomach - especially if you're not playing in controlled conditions. Hearing people talking behind you can be enough to break the illusion, and when it does, this fixed reference point can lead to real problems if you're supposed to be moving or travelling at speed.
But this isn't an issue with Private Eye, and neither will it be a long-term problem. Like any new technology, we just have to get used to it -- I no longer get headaches while using the 3DS stereoscopic display, for example -- and the benefits should infintely outweigh the potential hurdles. And, erm, potential steam cleaning.
Private Eye is still in earliest stages, and will naturally promise much more if a potential Kickstarter campaign results in success. We'll use a pair of binoculars to snoop on our neighbors, unlocking new memories and new pieces of the puzzle that gradually coalesce into a coherent narrative. The controls will be tweaked and refined to decrease the disconnect between your on-screen limbs and the game controller you're actually holding. Jake Slack hopes and believes that Virtual Reality is ready to support a new generation of immersive thrillers, and we're rather of the same opinion.
If you like the idea, why not check out Private Eye on Steam Greenlight?