Virtual reality demos have appeared at different locations in Ottawa over the past year to offer two extremes: one was a nerve-racking underwater shark tank at the Rideau Centre, and another was clearing ice (snooze…) with a virtual Zamboni at Lansdowne Park.
Ottawa’s first virtual reality escape room, DE-COMPOSED, offers a comfortable middle-ground between those two extremes, allowing up to six players to safely explore virtual collaborative environments and to embrace the new technology for about an hour.
“You get to experience different kinds of immersive environments,” says Qi Hu, co-founder of Breakscape Games who worked with developers for Halo and BioShock (both hugely popular videogames) to create DE-COMPOSED.
“It has the polish and feel of a professional video game — while also being an escape room first,” he adds.
Located in a dark room on the upper level of Room Escape Ottawa, DE-COMPOSED opens to the public on Friday June 9 and Apt613 was invited for a preview.
“We can make a [virtual] world as intricate, large, or as confusing as we want without having to deal with real-world limitations,” Hu explains, noting that the new escape room allows players to reach beyond the physical confines of a small room to explore an elaborate virtual maze, interact with a variety of musical instruments and to battle a bad guy with virtual swords.
After each player is seated in a swivel chair that turns 360 degrees, an Oculus Rift headset is handed over from an overhead pulley system along with headphones, a microphone, and tracked controllers for each hand. The gear fits snug and filters out the physical world. All that remains in your field of view (initially) is a light grey abyss. But as you look down to your hands, only the black controllers appear – and soon transform into astonishingly vivid digital hands.
“We’re going to put you in the virtual demo room first so you can play around a bit and get used to everything,” says the Game Master while standing nearby.
Each of us clumsily navigates around the virtual space with our avatars, distinguished by a primary colour such as red, blue, and green. We quickly learn how to open doors and pick up objects with the movement of our hands and two buttons on each controller. And while two buttons may seem reminiscent of the NES and novice by today’s gaming standards, they were oddly reassuring when faced with the complexity of experiencing a new dimension — and the added pressure of solving puzzles with limited time.
PROS AND CONS
The stereo sound quality is superb, allowing players to feel immersed in the virtual environment while also revealing important game clues. The sound was so good that I felt compelled to apologize after dropping a porcelain teacup. It fell from my virtual hands and shattered on the floor.
“Did you break something?” asked my teammate, who heard the smash in his headset while looking in another corner of the room for clues. Similar to traditional escape rooms, communication is often key to solving puzzles and the virtual realm is no exception.
What’s remarkable about the DE-COMPOSED experience is the paradox of feeling isolated and lost while exploring the labyrinth of a virtual mansion, knowing that your physical body is sitting in close proximity to your friends seated beside you.
Like an elephant in the room that no one wants to mention, the most apparent drawback is the human-machine interface that can lead to feeling nauseous. Virtual reality sickness remains an unfortunate byproduct of the experience and I started to feel the effects after about 20 minutes, as did my teammates at different stages.
“We’re using the highest generation of graphics cards, computers, and headsets to eliminate a lot of these issues,” says Hu, emphasizing that virtual reality technology has come a long way and that moving around [in the virtual space] while sitting stationary can take time to get used to.
Tip: Avoid nausea by using the “transport” button to zoom from Point A to Point B in the game. It looks like you’re pointing a laser across the room from your virtual fingertips and quickly moves your avatar to where you want to go (much like Google Street View).
“No one has puked yet,” says one of the staff members, reassuringly, as we take a short, optional break between the two virtual reality sessions. As I looked around the small real-world room, I couldn’t help but think back to Morpheus’s advice about The Matrix and how the key to success is thinking beyond our own worldly constraints when playing in the virtual space.
“We need to run hundreds of people through [the game] before we have an idea for how to best deliver the product,” says Hu, noting that a few details still need to be worked out and that customer feedback is really helpful – not only for improving DE-COMPOSED but also more games planned for the future.
Virtual reality escape rooms are appearing elsewhere in the world such as the USA and Bulgaria but this is a first for Canada. And while real-world escape rooms still have their charm, what appeals most about this virtual installment of adventure gaming is the enormous possibilities it represents for the future.
Room Escape Ottawa (1860 Bank St) offers a variety of entertainment including archery games, several traditional escape rooms and the new virtual reality escape room ($29 per person) from Breakscape Games. Booking and additional information is on their website.