I'm floating through space, watching balls of water, my crew's personal belongings, and freshly sprouted plants lazily drift across one of the space station's once air-locked chambers. There's a shaft of light coming in from a broken window, making the glass shards twinkle as they rotate. Everything is more awe-inspiring in zero gravity, and the scene would be almost peaceful if I wasn't running out of air and about to suffocate to death all alone, hundreds of miles above the Earth.
Adr1ft, which comes out on Oculus Rift and non-virtual reality platforms on March 28, isn't the first game to simulate a space walk. Even Call of Duty: Ghosts, one of the worst entries in the series, shined in its first mission, a zero gravity shootout aboard a space station. But what makes Adri1ft the most convincing space experience I've had in a game yet, aside from the fact that it didn't give me a machine gun, is that I played it in virtual reality. And because it understands the limitations and advantages of this new technology, it's also the best virtual reality game I've played to date.
Adam Orth, co-founder of developer Three One Zero, describes Adr1ft as a first person experience ("FPX") in which you play a future astronaut who survives a catastrophic incident on a space station, and must work quickly to survive. Imagine the 2013 movie Gravity, and you're Sandra Bullock.
"Adr1ft is a story about a bunch of people who work in an office where something worse happens than a printer jamming," Orth told me. "It's normal human stories and they're amplified by being set in space."
Like the best virtual reality games we've seen until now, Adr1ft works first of all because it integrates and leverages the highly unusual experience of strapping a headset to your face into the game. Adr1ft takes place entirely within a claustrophobic, movement-restricting space suit, which is a lot like wearing an Oculus Rift. If I wanted to see how much air I had left, I had to look down and to the left of my heads-up display, just as I would if I was actually in that suit.
Another big issue for virtual reality is the awkward sensation of moving while your body stays still. This is one reason we haven't seen a ton of virtual reality first person shooters. If virtual reality convinces your brain that you're running down a hallway, but you're sitting in a chair, you'll feel weird. A lot of people get sick.
This feels like less of an issue in Adr1ft, a zero gravity environment I moved through much like a real astronaut would. I wasn't walking or swimming, but manipulating the controls of a propulsion system on my suit. That's not to say that I was completely immune to the effects of virtual reality. Sometimes, I would move near a broken piece of the space station that's spinning clockwise, while I was spinning counter clockwise. In those cases, I could definitely feel my vestibular system freaking out. I can see how it would make someone else throw up, but personally, that's what I want to feel. The promise of virtual reality is that it will convince me that I'm in another place, and when I feel like I'm about to fall out of my chair, I know it's working.
If you're less of a thrill seeker, Adr1ft has built-in features to help players work through the potentially nauseating bits. If I held down the B button on the Xbox One controller, the screen was matted to show only a narrow window in the middle of the screen, and my character was reoriented to the "correct" position, though technically there's no up and down in space. The narrower field of vision and the positional reset should reorient players who feel lost or nauseous.
Ultimately, the smartest thing about Adr1ft is the things it doesn't do. It's a game about being immersed in and moving through a beautiful, interesting, three-dimensional space, and not much else. I had to constantly be on the lookout for air canisters, and towards the end of my playthrough I had to be more careful about not bumping into big moving parts of the spaceship. But this isn't a fast-paced shooter. It doesn't require deadeye aim and cat-like reflex. It plays more like a space walk training simulator, only it has an interesting story that touches both on the future of space travel and the lives of the astronauts involved.
Orth started working on Adr1ft after leaving his position at Microsoft. Those who follow the games industry closely know that Orth left Microsoft following a controversy in which he riled up an internet hate mob by saying he didn't understand why people were so upset that (back in 2013) the Xbox One would need to connect to the internet in order to work properly. People were very upset. So upset that Microsoft later changed how the console worked and Orth left his position at Microsoft.
In a broader sense, Adr1ft about surviving a major disaster and slowly picking up the pieces, so it's not hard to see why Orth would view it as a very personal story.
This is in strong contrast to the AAA games Orth and Three One Zero worked on previously. The core team met while working on the Medal of Honor first person shooter series at Electronic Arts. Their goal for Three One Zero is to continue making non-violent games, not just because they're tired of shootings things in the face, but because they're tired of designing the same kind of game.Image: Three One Zero
"We made a bunch of violent games," Orth said. "There's nothing wrong with those games and we play them, but we don't want to make them. We're more interested in challenging the players in different ways."
However, Three One Zero's experience in working on the biggest, most expensive games in the industry isn't going to waste. One of the most notable aspects of Adr1ft is that—more than any other virtual reality experience I've ever had—it looks and plays like a finished, big budget game. That is to say, it's not a tech demo with only an idea for a cool game or a novelty app that gets some mileage out of running on a new-fangled technology.
Most virtual reality demos Valve, PlayStation, and Oculus offer usually last about 5-15 minutes, and by the time I walk away from them, I can't imagine why I'd want to spend a significant amount of time in virtual reality. I played Adr1ft with a consumer model of the Oculus Rift for about two continuous hours, which is by far the longest I've spent in any virtual reality headset, and I'm ready for more. The entire game is about four hours long, and I want to play it to completion in virtual reality, ideally in one sitting. I wouldn't go as far as calling it a killer app, I don't think it's something people will buy a $600-800 virtual reality headset for, but it's easily the best virtual reality game I've played.
"We've made tons of AAA games and I think what you experienced was a total ease of experience. It's a finished product, it's a finished thing," Orth said. "It's an actual game, with an actual story, an actual experience where you know how to navigate through the system."
If virtual reality had even a handful of games that took the same approach and were ready by launch, it'd be more optimistic, but so far Adr1ft is the only one I've seen.