I've Got The Magic In Me

Despite what my previous blog post might’ve led you to believe, this year’s DreamHacks at Austin had more than just a ton of intense Smash games. There were Street Fighter battles, but who would watch any fighting game other than Smash? What? Who said I’m elitist? There were Starcraft II tournaments with gigantic lights flying all over the place. It also could’ve been an NFL half time show, I didn’t really check. There were Hearthstone matches, which I got way more into than I expected. How can I get so excited at people literally playing cards!? Maybe it’s because all the cards explode when they die… I am easily entertained.

But these tournaments aren’t what made DreamHacks so memorable for me. That title falls to The Unspoken. After successfully luring Sam into watching Smash with me, I decided that I should ask what he’d like to do. He mentioned an Oculus demo that he’d tried earlier that was pretty mediocre. But I was still salty about missing an HTC Vive demo near UT campus, so I threw away my good intentions of doing what Sam wanted and dragged him back to the demo!

I shortly found out that, similar to everyday most circumstances, Sam couldn’t have been more wrong. Just after strapping myself in, I was already pretty impressed by the Oculus’s motion controls. I looked down to see my hands exactly where I expected them, just as white and pasty as ever. Who knew Oculus could analyze skin tone!? Moments after dropping my jaw at hands (again, I am easily entertained), the game thrust my virtual body right into the world of The Unspoken. As a spooky narrator conveniently informs me, this world is broken. People have somehow gained magic powers in places other than Vegas. Luckily, I can sprout fireballs from my right hand and summon a sick as shield to my left. Random narrator lady gives me a few practice dummies to hit, and I’m already starting to feel the awesomeness of The Unspoken. You might think it’s cool to press X and cast a spell on your enemy, but that doesn’t even compare to literally throwing a fireball with your hands to engulf your enemy in arcane fire. Since I’m a badass and master the arcane arts in no time, Ms. narrator lady lets me duel her butler. No problem! I think to myself… until I discover that her butler can summon giant hydra monsters. I forgot I was in a game for a bit, because these guys actually freaked me out. I felt afraid for my life in the most surreal way imaginable, which made my victory all the sweeter. Coming out of the Oculus, born anew, I felt like a god.

So why did I wait so long to write this post? Turns out Microsoft really wants to sell this game as cutting-edge eSport, because the next weekend, Microsoft held a free nation-wide Unspoken tournament. Now a seasoned mage, I was ready to conquer all feeble mortals who dared enter the tournament (including my friends Sam and Alvin). Shortly after we step onto the scene, the tournament begins. No warm ups, no tutorials, nothing. Players are thrown straight in, which is pretty scary for all of us. Despite my intense training at DreamHacks, I don’t actually know what I’m doing. Luckily, none of us are up first, so I ask some of the more experienced players for advice… ya know… out of kindness for Sam and Alvin. Together, we learn some of the more nuanced mechanics of the game: players can teleport between platforms to move, activate certain special abilities based on their class, and can destroy a giant orb in the game to summon a powerful “Reaper.” As we absorb this new info, the first few matches of the tournament fly by. Each time, a clearly seasoned player went up against a complete newbie, and none of these matches were pretty.

Eventually, Alvin went up for his match. After an hour spent strategizing, there’s no way he could lose. He was ready. At least we thought so until we remembered that Alvin had never played… What’s important about this game? Oh right, shield! We yelled frantically until Alvin finally discovered which of the 10 buttons pulled up that essential tool. It only took a few seconds later for him to perfect his fireball throws, but by then, he was practically out of health. No matter. These matches are best out of 3, so he has another shot. This time, Alvin starts firing right off the bat. He isn’t winning, but he’s not far behind! Things are close until we realize Alvin’s opponent had summoned the reaper. We blinked and he had appeared. His gigantic creepy body descended on Alvin, who was frantically throwing every spell at this beast to keep it away. Yet much to our dismay, flailing your arms around in the air does just about as good in The Unspoken as it does in real life. After a well fought (and slightly hilarious) fight, Alvin was out.

I was up next. Hoping that these fireballs were fueled by grease, I quickly downed 5 slices of pizza and entered the match. Seeing as how Alvin’s strategy worked out so well, I was pretty confident in myself. As the match started, I looked across the virtual world at my opponent, ready to aimlessly throw fireballs for 5 straight minutes, and attacked! Unfortunately, my opponent wasn’t Alvin. He actually knew how to pull up his shield and teleport, which made things a bit trickier than I had hoped. And for some reason, since this guy had a super fancy class, some of his attacks would do massive damage and/or break my entire shield… Ms. narrator lady taught me nothing of this powerful magic! The match is a long one. After an endless chase all over the stage, I barely manage to pull out a win. It’s not over yet though, and my opponent knows it. In the second game, my opponent managed to inform officials about my pyromaniac behavior, summoning police cars to drop right over me. I’m a privileged white male, how is this fair at all!? But I can’t let Ms. narrator lady’s training go to waste. I channel Ice Cube’s fiery distain for the police and swiftly teleport away from the cars. I’m getting good at dodging, but the cars do way too much damage. Despite my best efforts, I lose this one. Apparently, my attitude just isn’t as great as Ice Cube’s. The third match goes a lot quicker now that the cops are on my back. I throw out all the fireballs of a crazed 5 year old on an IV of sugar, but it’s no use. I’m done for.

To make me feel a little better, my opponent mentions that he has actually played the game before. And though I obviously went easy on him (having completely mastered the arts of sorcery and all), I was actually pretty proud of how well I had done. Of course, Sam came along and crushed that pride by completely annihilating his first opponent, but even he was shortly defeated by a more experienced player right after. We didn’t leave empty-handed though! We all got a free copy of The Unspoken to play on our non-existent Oculuses (Oculi?).

Overall, I’m insanely impressed how far VR has come. Until now, every VR experience I’ve had has felt like a one-way interaction: the world shows me amazing sights gives me amazing feelings, but I’ve never been able to give back equally amazing actions. I’ve never felt agency. Of course, there’s still quite a ways to go. With so much going on, VR worlds can easily cause sensory overload and confusion. Knowing where to look next is often tricky. Moving around the world is also a big problem, since you won’t always have space to move around in the real world. But all of these problems don’t nullify the enthralling feeling of watching your pasty hands dangle in the virtual world. As the community grows and the platforms become more accessible, I have no doubt that developers will find a solution one way or another. And even if they don’t, I’m excited to see what other cool shit I can virtually throw at people. I love being easily entertained :)

Written on May 19, 2017