Opaque Media Group must have underestimated the demand for their demo at PAX – when I approached their booth for my scheduled meeting just prior to lunch on the Sunday, they were turning away disgruntled attendees, telling them that all sessions were already booked for the day. As a result, my session was rushed through in an attempt to stay on top of appointments, and my interview was cut (very) short due to multiple bookings all demanding the attention of Norman Wang, project lead for Eathlight. But you can’t begrudge them for it – I was surprised myself. Considering the subject matter and the hardware that has been utilised, it wasn’t hard to understand why it was so popular.
Earthlight is a forthcoming Virtual Reality game, coming to oculus, Steam VR, and PlayStation VR. However, to pitch it as a game is to possibly misrepresent both the experience itself, and its intention. At is most general, it should be considered an Astronaut simulator – utilising VR to put players in the shoes of an Astronaut as they go about their space business.
The demo, for example, is set on the International Space Station – players are put in the role of a female Astronaut (an Aussie, no less – but that’s not surprising given the developers are themselves Australian). Viewing your environment from within the VR headset (the unit onsite was the HTC Vive), players are able to simulate movement by grabbing at handholds in front of them. The grabbing motion was performed in the demo by using the Vive VR controllers – essentially hangrips with triggers. By reaching out and pulling the trigger, your simulated self would reach out on screen and grasp at what was in front of them. And that was the extent of the control mechanism, beyond head turning, of course.
Starting within the Space Station, players wait for decompression before climbing a ladder to the outside. At this point, the view is obscured by the large station in front of you, and as much as you turn your head to peek and peer, you can only see so much, which I expect represents the experience of being within a spacesuit – I can’t imagine them having much flexibility in the neck. In fact, the only way to see far to any direction was to reach out with your hand (which was necessary to grab certain handholds while navigating around the ship). When you did so, the field of view would shift in that direction, as if the whole body was turning, and at this point I really began to understand navigation in this unusual environment.
The demo had players exiting the space station in order to find the source of a gas leak – I unfortunately could not hear the sound as well as I would have liked to, but I got the gist of things soon enough. Players use the aforementioned handholds to climb their way around the ship – and I was advised that the ISS was modelled exactly on the real thing, so this represented the actual manner in which Astronauts navigate outside. In fact, the demo was modelled on an actual mission – at some point in the past, one member of the ISS had to disembark in order to investigate a leakage.
Of course, it wouldn’t be an exciting demo if all you did was fix a gas leak and return to the safety of the ISS (which is what happened in the real mission). At the end of the demo, players are encouraged to reach out and grab the pipe that is causing problems. At this point, there is a mild explosion, causing the player to let go and be blasted away from the ISS, spinning off into space. At this point, the Earth comes clearly into view, and looks as amazing as you would expect… While slowly drifting and spiralling away from the ISS.
The demo was short and sweet, demonstrating the capabilities of VR, while at the same time being extremely immersive – it very much felt like I was passing hand over hand, grabbing handholds in order to move myself about in zero gravity (although perhaps the fact that I was sitting firmly on a chair at the time had a negative effect on this immersion). The whole thing felt great – up until the point I was blasted off the space station. At this point, the disparity between what my eyes were seeing and what the rest of my body was experiencing was too large, and I began to feel dizzy. Speaking with Opaque, I was advised that this is something they are working very hard to reduce or eliminate – many people get dizzy or nauseous while playing VR, as their brain can’t process the conflicts in perception.
The rest of the game is said to involve certain training simulations that Astronauts undergo, but it’s unclear as to exactly what the finished product will be at this stage (and I didn’t get the chance to ask). I was impressed by what was on show, and I definitely look forward to experiencing things even further in future. Earthlight is expected to be released on multiple VR platforms in 2016.