BBC Earth: Life in VR is a series intended to be “a new way to experience stories for the natural world.” The demo on show at last week’s Games for Change Festival was of its California Coast part specifically, taking a player underwater to learn about ocean life near the West Coast.
You start the game bobbing at the water’s surface while a voice gives a brief overview of the area, then directs your attention to the sea otters playing around you. You’re then invited to focus your controller on an otter, which “links” you to him as he dives underwater. Things like white circles or diamond shapes may appear, which allow you to change course or interact with a new object to learn more about it. This first part of the game is very forgiving: should you break your link with the otter to check something else in the area, he waits around for you, swimming back to you and looking at you as if he’s really trying to figure out the new creature in his environment.
While you’re with the otters, a flurry of squids swims by, and you’re moved, quite naturally, to an informational section about the squids and you’re invited to link onto one of them. From here, things move deeper into the depths and eventually you are linked to a sperm whale as it dives into the deepest parts of the ocean in search of meals.
This VR experience exists somewhere between a game and an interactive educational experience. I love learning about animals and visiting establishments like aquariums, so I genuinely had fun in this experience, even though it wasn’t designed to be a highly active game with goals and tasks, etc. The experience was also sort of magical–it was an opportunity to explore an underwater world which I’ve only seen on television or in the artificial frame of an aquarium. I was really excited to be exploring this underwater world that was hidden to me, especially without having to take the baggage of my fears along that would keep from doing something similar in real life, like my fear of sharks.
This game struck me as a great interactive learning tool, for adults and kids alike. First, it has the potential benefit of being more accessible than a scuba diving experience. It also balances a narrator talking and potential interactions well, creating a less passive experience. Interaction tends to lean to learning things more effectively, so this has the potential to benefit as much if not more than a television show, and maybe even better than a book for young minds. The game also has a cute art style, cartoony in a way that doesn’t detract from the experience and information presented. At times, it was downright beautiful.
The controls are also simple, consisting of two buttons and a scheme that was explained before I put the VR rig on. It would be simple for even the most technologically challenged.
I think the only thing I had trouble with began in the last third of the experience, around when I linked to a squid. I kept on getting “For your safety, return to the experience” messages, even though I was doing what I had been directed in linking to the squid. An arrow was showing me where to turn to reorient myself, but it was always backwards. Once I was turned around, I would get the message again, because I was no longer involved with the correct part of the experience. There didn’t seem to be a way to make it go away until I resurfaced at the end of the demo, as I was technically still in the experience that I was being directed to return to. For right now I’ve chalked it up to the demo bugging out a little because of limitations placed on the full game’s software.
There were also some feelings of disorientation during the simulation, but nothing worse than, say, putting on glasses that don’t match your specific prescription. I only felt a little “off” at times when the ground in the simulation didn’t match visually with what I could feel–when the ground appeared to be around my waist rather than under my feet.
This is one of those games I think could make a big splash (pun intended) in the market. If the commercial market isn’t there yet, it would still be an awesome resource in schools or libraries, or even as a part of an aquarium outreach program.