Virtual-reality gaming in perfect bite-sized portions

At places like Breakout VR, you can discover the kinds of games on the market and get a brief taste of the current state of VR without spending a bundle

Virtual-reality gaming has always vaguely piqued my curiosity but the technology hasn’t yet demanded my attention. Having your own virtual reality (VR) system is pricey, and there’s a visual and physical disconnect between you and anyone else in the room.

I love playing games with other people, sharing the experience. Playing online with others is great, but sitting on the same couch with my brothers, friends or partner is far better. Even if it’s a single-player game, going on that adventure, exploring, laughing (sometimes being terrified) and making choices together all build a wonderful shared experience that has resulted in some of my favourite memories.

So the apparent visual and physical disconnects of VR worried me.

That was before I discovered Breakout VR. It offers you an assortment of VR experiences in bite-sized chunks while saving you from having to drop hundreds of dollars buying your own set-up.

I tried their location in Edmonton (they also have one in Vancouver). You pay $25 to strap on a headset (we used the HTC Vive) and play a library of games for one hour. You’re connected to the Steam store, which means all these games could be accessible to you at home if you had a headset.

They set us up with microphones and headphones, so even though my girlfriend and I were a few feet away and couldn’t see each other, we were still talking, laughing and exploring together.

I’ve tried VR at arcades, where you climb into a capsule, put on a headset and play a game designed specifically for that setup. Although they’re briefly fun, it always felt like a gimmick. The games had no lasting appeal.

But at Breakout VR, you play games that are actually available to consumers now, not just a gimmicky arcade game.

It’s a great way to experience the kinds of games on the market. And it gave me a very brief taste of the current technical state of VR.

I had a few worries going in and some were validated. I sometimes bumped into a wall and had to untangle from the cable from my Vive and headphones. Some game controls weren’t great and gameplay slowed down when I tried to pick up the same virtual spear three times.

But to me this spoke to the important role Breakout VR and other places like it play. I wanted to experience VR without blowing hundreds of dollars. I wanted to dip my toes in without risk. This is the perfect way to find out if it’s something you’re into and, if so, how into?

It might be good for the VR industry as well. How many people like me are interested but don’t know if they want to invest? They have no friends who have a system and so no way to find out what they’re missing.

If I don’t know what I’m really buying, I’ll never buy it!

My girlfriend and I played mostly multiplayer games, some of which were online as well, so we were hooked up with people all over the world. In one, we were paired with a very kind and patient man from Scotland. Let me tell you, his patience was necessary. The controls for each new game always took a little getting used to, but he happily laughed off our lack of skill and helped guide us through. We lost thoroughly but had lots of fun losing.

One of the best games we played wasn’t really a game at all: Google Earth. You can zip around a polygonal version of our planet but the closer you get, the more chunky everything looks. Then you switch to Street View. Suddenly you’re standing in an Italian market, with the crowd all around you, frozen in the moment when the Google cameras passed through. Or you’re overlooking a vast forested valley, or standing atop a New York skyscraper – if you have the courage.

And that brings up a big question we had going in. Were we going to experience motion sickness or vertigo?

I’m rarely bothered by motion sickness and I was fine. My girlfriend, who does get motion sickness, felt ill once, when the game she was playing started to glitch; the screen jittered and displayed things it wasn’t supposed to. But when the games worked properly, we were both okay.

The staff at Breakout VR were very kind and helpful, adding to our enjoyment. Time was added to the end of our session to make up for technical problems.

We went there for a date and again for my birthday. And I’ll definitely return to Breakout VR.

Virtual reality isn’t at the point where I would be willing to invest in a system of my own, and some of the games we played were clunky. But we had a blast playing the good ones and it was fascinating to explore the worlds created in the games.

Businesses like Breakout VR offer a perfect way to dip your toes in without having to drop huge cash.

Sam Stewart, has a diploma in theatre studies, a degree film studies and has worked professionally in both areas. He also works in the tech industry and loves to indulge his lifelong passion for video games, from the classics to new releases.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

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