I'm sat on a bench with an Oculus Rift on my head and a pair of reins in my hands. In the virtual world, I'm on a horse drawn carriage with my wife and child. It feels uncanny to look down and see my cartoonish Viking hands also holding reins. I pull the left one and the horse gently steers. I realize I'm staring at a giant horse butt and get self conscious so I look over to my wife, then to my daughter in the back of the carriage. Now it's really weird.
Fated: The Silent Oath is a story-driven VR game which will tell a mythical Viking survival tale with a variety of interactive sequences. The one I tried today is all horse steering, which would normally be done with a regular controller, but for PAX East the developer has set up a clever rein controller which sells the experience impressively well. The focus isn't on difficulty (though there's some steering around falling rocks), but on feeling like I'm in the scene, listening to my wife and daughter talk at me.
When my daughter joins me in the front of the carriage, I'm even more weirded out. The characters aren't rendered realistically or anything, but it doesn't matter. Looking at them speak lovingly at me is creepy. It's like I've just realized everyone I know is an impostor, but have to silently nod along while 'my' kid and wife chat at me. Or like some stranger's child is calling me 'dad' and I can't speak to correct her, so this is just how it is now.
To try to keep me in the story, Fated gives me a body. I can look down and see my torso, legs, and arms, and as long as I don't do anything my virtual hands aren't doing, it almost feels like they're mine. If the game had driven a stake through my left palm I probably would've felt a tingle. But having a body still wasn't quite enough to convince me I was Silent Viking Man and not me.
There's also a phenomenon I've noticed in some VR games where everything feels a little closer than it should. This was especially apparent when a couple crows landed on the carriage. I was scared of them even though I knew this wasn't the sort of game where they were going to pluck my eyes out. Their long beaks were invading my personal space. Back off, crows.
In that case, the effect was probably intentional. A pair of crows staring you down should be a little freaky. But making eye contact with my virtual daughter has a similar effect. She's inhuman and unpredictable and invisible in my periphery, like a ghost. She can see me, but I keep imagining she's seeing the me sitting in a room with a Rift on my head, just the bottom of my face showing. Who stares at a person's mouth?
Of course, it's possible I'm the only one who's distressed by a pretend family. Maybe I just have serious unresolved issues with my parents that were surfaced by the VR experience of being a father. I'm not ruling anything out.
And Fated seems pretty cool. It didn't have a lot of time to introduce me to my pretend family, but I quickly understood their personalities. Steering the carriage was fun, even though it was so easy I never had to dedicate more than a sliver of effort to it, even when the monster popped out of a canyon like one of The Hobbit's stone giants to terrorize our caravan. That's the point, though, because I'm supposed to be listening and looking around at the heavily-stylized nature, soaking in the story rather than struggling to reach checkpoints.
I wonder what the full game will be like if I'm continuously unsettled by my virtual family, but it's hard to say after such a short demo. Maybe I'll settle in, suspend disbelief and just enjoy the story. Maybe I just needed a different introduction to the characters. Or maybe I'm just freaking out about nothing and it's on me to find a bridge over the uncanny valley. The idea is to make me want to protect my family—in Fated, the end of the world is nigh—and I suppose I did. I didn't want to drive our carriage off a cliff and into the mouth of the giant trying to eat us, at least. That's good enough for now.