Do you quake at the thought of mixing chemicals? Memorizing the periodic table? Remembering your safety goggles and close-toed shoes? HoloLAB Champions is here to help soothe those chemistry-related anxieties.
HoloLAB Champions is a gameshow-style virtual reality game by Schell Games that is meant to help students master chemistry skills, from the basics of safety procedures up through actual experimentation.
I admit that I went into this game with trepidation, having failed the chemistry unit in general high school science. I couldn’t even make it to a real chemistry class. But it started slow, and my nerves were soothed quickly. First of all, the game show setting is fun, the host Earl is big and bright and reminds me a bit of the host in the Quiplash games.
Earl has a partner in the camera bot, Meyer, who makes little unintelligible electronic quips for Earl to play off of. Meyer appears to offer a video feed for a situation where a class might be called to observe one students’ actions; he provided video of player’s in-game actions for a TV at the booth. Although Harley Baldwin and Jesse Schell discussed a certain performance anxiety with the game at their panel, knowing Meyer’s role didn’t make me nervous at all. Of course, I was in a very different setting than the students who expressed such feelings, and besides, I had already told every single person at the booth that I had failed high school chem. I knew I couldn’t possibly do worse than the expectations I had given them!
The first few tasks are basic safety and reading comprehension skills. Step one was literally getting your safety goggles on, a task that I’ve always managed to excel at. Then you show how well you can handle your science notebook, which starts with very basic matching tasks in identifying unknowns. You match colors, and then check if the unknown objects or solids and liquids. There’s an insolubility test, and then a test that has you combining the skills from previous tests. You’re identifying based on visual information and the insolubility tests, and so on. There were ten rounds in the demo altogether, but I was only able to complete five before my interview with Jesse Schell about the game was scheduled to begin.
Obviously, I was playing the very beginning of the game, so I didn’t find the tasks challenging, even though I could tell that the difficulty level was steadily increasing as expertise in skills was proven. Better yet, because it had the game show angle, there was a little bit of fanfare when I completed tasks correctly. Positive reinforcement never hurts!
The VR world was convincing, as well. There is a comical, stylized look to the in-game aesthetic. Obviously things like floating brains in safety goggles aren’t common in real life. But the environment in my direct vicinity worked well. It felt like there was a weight to the items I was around and interacting with. I, for one, kept on moving to lean on the science table, though I always caught myself well ahead of time, when I noticed my elbow wasn’t connecting physically to what I could see in the goggles.
Part of this had to do with solid controls. For example, when you focus your controllers on an object you can interact with, not only does the item light up, the controller gives a tiny, unobtrusive vibration. It’s similar to the vibration a Surface pen gives when it hovers over an on-screen interactive, so it felt very natural to me. This was the first game I’ve ever played on the Vive, so I don’t know if such controls are the norm for that rig. Either way, it was very smooth.
That said, when I didn’t have my eyes on parts of the table, I did get into trouble. Once your eyes are off something, you don’t have that same sense of physical space because in a simulation, all of your information about the world really comes from visual cues. For example, I was holding an Erlenmeyer flask in my right hand, but trying to get a look at something on the left side of my table. All of a sudden, I heard an alert and looked over to find broken glass. I hadn’t been able to sense my space and had smashed my flask rather spectacularly. However, I would imagine that this is a problem common with all VR, not just in this specific game.
HoloLAB Champions will be released on July 10 on Steam. For more information on this game, you can check out our interview with Jesse Schell, CEO and founder of Schell Games, and our report on HoloLAB Champions‘ game development panel from Games For Change Festival 2018.