Preview: Narcosis

Simulator sickness is a real issue. The distance between what the eye sees and the body feels is something that many have tried to tackle and newer iterations of head-mounted displays (HMDs) have managed to reduce, but eliminating this aspect of the virtual reality (VR) experience is still not within our grasp. Hardware can only do so much however, with the software developers also needed to shoulder their share of the responsibility in order to bypass this potentially damaging design flaw.

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Narcosis is one such videogame in which simulator sickness has been combated not only via the use of VR hardware, but also within the design of the gameplay itself. The player is constantly submerged in water deep at the ocean’s floor, significantly reducing their ability for quick or sudden motion. Simulator sickness occurs more readily with fast-paced movements where the latency of a display simply cannot keep pace with the software (Team Fortress 2) or where the player is forced to commit to actions with only a moment’s notice (Half-Life 2). Narcosis ably avoids both these issues simply by committing wholly to it’s own design template.

A solitary adventurer submerged deep under the Pacific Ocean, the player is given no reason nor rhyme for the action that unfolds. The story is not yet offered to the player, and yet the preview build VRFocus witnessed offered enough variety in it’s experience to encourage the player to continue without even a second thought towards plot development. There will be a story, Team Narcosis assure, but exactly how this will impact upon gameplay is not yet known.

What is evident is that Narcosis is a slow-paced adventure in the vein of BioShock. Many would consider this comparison to be based upon the fact that you are, at all times, enclosed within a heavy built contraption under the sea. However, in actuality this has more to do with the exploration aspect of the videogame. Narcosis revelled in pushing the player forward into the unknown: a dark corridor with a light at the end, a tight cliff face promising greater depths below or the all-too-obvious positioning of a man-made structure in the distance. All of these signposts have been designed to create intrigue, and in that regard they succeed entirely.

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Combat is slightly less enjoyable at this point. Rarely occurring and tense when the situations do arise, the player is armed with only a knife. The first instance VRFocus experienced offered a logic puzzle to circumvent the encounter; distraction and avoidance. The second example however, caught the player off-guard. The only option was to swipe wildly, ensuring that every blow against your equipment was met with one of greater force upon the enemy’s flesh.

The combination of slow-paced exploration and mental challenges is perfect for a modern VR experience, even when played with the original Oculus Rift development kit (aka DK1) as in VRFocus‘ experience, and Narcosis proves that intrigue is as powerful a tool as action in VR videogames. However, exactly how long the development can maintain interest in such an experience remains to be seen; after all, even BioShock had to regularly throw the player into high-octane battle sequences in order to prevent saturation of the videogame’s tempo. It’s a tough challenge for Team Narcosis to overcome, but judging by this very early demonstration they’re at least on the right path.

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