VR games tend to focus on one thing—shooting a gun, piloting a mech, hitting a baseball—but Twisted Pixel's next game kicks specialization aside with the variety of a Mission Impossible movie. In my brief demo, which you can watch above, I threw coffee at tough guys, got patted down, interrogated a man while throwing fruit at him, learned to shoot, and jumped out of an airplane (onto another airplane). Note that the video has been edited to cut out a couple retries and shorten bits of my goofing around. Any frame drops are a product of the video, not what I saw while playing.
After I finished the demo, Twisted Pixel gameplay programmer Jim Shea brought up Mission Impossible, Black Widow, and Jason Bourne as inspirations, but Defector instantly reminded me of No One Lives Forever, too. I'm glad it takes itself lightly. A 'serious' spy action game in VR would be tough considering the first thing I, and probably just about anyone, wanted to do was start picking things up and chucking them at heads. I was told that had I continued throwing coffee at people, there would've been a more serious reaction, but for the most part I got away with my hijinx. I even chucked fruit at the super-criminal on whose plane I was a guest.
The control scheme I chose let me walk around freely with one of the Oculus Touch controller's analog sticks. That freedom of movement may not be comfortable for those who get motion sick, but Shea says the decision against teleportation comes in part from feedback after Wilson's Heart.
"We got a lot of feedback from fans [of Wilson's Heart]: 'We really want to be able to move around and see your environments,'" said Shea. "Instead of warping, you have more area to move around, we give actual full motion controls, there's different ways you can approach different problems ... We really want to get the TIE Fighter aspect of 'there's primary objectives, there's secondary objectives, there's bonus objectives' and you're going to want to replay the levels over and over again."
The control scheme I used confused me at first, because pushing forward would always move me in the same direction, rather than the direction my (actual) head and body were turned—as if I were a turret on a tank. I got used to it, and I could've had it the other way, with 'forward' moving me in the direction my head was facing. To help with motion sickness, it's also possible to have the analog stick turn you in 30-degree increments rather than smoothly. First-person walking is a tricky thing in VR, and the best a dev can do is offer lots of choice.
You'll notice that during the interrogation scene in the video, I fail a couple of those sub-goals Shea mentioned. In an earlier attempt (which wasn't worth showing because it's just me bumbling around), I got Mr. Villain to leave the room, and during that time I was supposed to get up and steal a ring from his briefcase. I failed because I was still fumbling with it when he returned. I didn't love that. Movement in VR can be disorienting whatever control scheme you're using, and it often took me a couple attempts to handle small objects without dropping them, so a timed search while I was still figuring out what the hell was going on felt a little too punishing. If I'd been able to play another hour I'm sure I'd have acclimatized myself better to the controls, though, and Defector is all about replayability.
There were two significantly different paths I could've taken in this demo. Instead of jumping out of the plane, I could've gotten into a firefight, shot the "conspicuous red fire extinguisher" to blow a hole in the plane, done a bit of fisticuffs, and then driven a car out of the plane.
The multi-path approach strikes me as wise. I don't know how long Defector will be—Twisted Pixel is still "blocking out" the rest of the game—but I can't imagine it'll be a 30 hour game, and I wouldn't want it to be. Even though I don't get motion sick easily, I do have to take breaks at least every hour or so when playing VR games, and I'd probably burn out on any VR campaign that required 30 one-hour sessions of me. I like finishing games, so I hope the idea is that I'll be able to finish Defector in a reasonable amount of time and then have the option to replay it with a bunch of different scenes.
When it came time to exit the plane, I opted for the direct approach like I did in the interrogation and just hopped out. On my first leap, I failed because I was trying to shoot at a guy, and wasn't ready to grab on to the fuselage when prompted.
Failing on the first try was a theme of my experience. Twisted Pixel has given itself a hard task. Telegraph everything too much (eg, by flashing 'get ready to grab the fuselage!' in front of my face) would break the illusion. At the same time, players need some things spelled out, because there's so much to pay attention to and do in VR that distraction is part of the experience. You have to account for goofing off, and frequent misunderstandings. Early in the demo, for example, I was supposed to put an earpiece up to the side of my head, but I had to be told to do that by a dev because it didn't immediately register as an earpiece to me. I imagine it'll take a ton of play testing to identify every little issue, because what's obvious to one player might totally baffle another.
Trying to demand just about everything you can demand of a VR player—spatial awareness, object manipulation, shooting, melee fighting, dialogue puzzles, one-off action scenes—without confusing or frustrating them is ambitious. But despite my quibbles, what I played felt close to the mark. I bet there'll be at least one stand-out scene—hopefully something no one's tried yet in VR—that we'll be talking about when Defector releases.
"Twisted Pixel as a studio tends to go all in on one-offs, and that can be really tough as a programmer, but I think that we end up on the other end with something that really impresses people," said Shea. "It gets really crazy, Bourne chase kind of stuff. We want you to feel like you're in these action movies."
Twisted Pixel aims to release Defector for the Oculus Rift sometime before the end of this year.