When VRFocus first heard about ViRa Games’ first virtual reality (VR) title Wheelchair Simulator it certainly sounded like a novel use of the technology, putting non-wheelchair users in a position where they would have to learn to navigate the world around them. Having now arrived on Steam Wheelchair Simulator does highlight some of the difficulties wheelchair users face but also those of Developing for VR.
The actual gameplay premise of Wheelchair Simulator is very simple, each level has a start and finish line and you have to complete each one as quickly as possible. Along the way are coins to collect to customise your wheelchair and other secret items to find. To do this you have actual control of a wheelchair, no half measures where it can be controlled remotely, you physically move the right wheel with the right controller and of course the left wheel with the left controller.
While it sounds straight forward some levels can be anything but, especially if you’re not looking. Early levels ease you in by having you merely crossing the street, which sounds mundane, yet when there’s a lorry hurtling towards you with no intention of stopping those arms start pushing those wheels in a frenzy. Or how about going down a hill, little push is needed however braking soon becomes an art form and so does avoiding obstacles.
See a piece of wood on the ground and you can choose to go round or over. Going round will slow you down yet going over it could cause you to fall out and restart from the nearest checkpoint. Falling out, taking a tumble or getting hit by a train – yes there are train tracks – are certainly moments most will want to avoid, not only for achieving maximum stars for that course but also because it can be quite nauseating. It was during these times that the screen would flip round or spin creating an uncomfortable effect that may affect those particularly prone to simulator sickness.
What Wheelchair Simulator does very well at is bringing acute observations of the world around us, and things that most able-bodied people take for granted. For example, on the grass verges it’s much more difficult to move than on a tarmacked road where you can roll along quite easily. There may only be 14 levels but you probably won’t want to (or be able to) complete them in one sitting as after a few your shoulders are going to notice it.
Wheelchair Simulator is certainly one of the most innovative use cases for VR that’s recently launched. The core ‘obstacle course’ style gameplay is fun but can be a little shallow, repetitive and frustrating at points. However, being frustrated is almost the point of the experience, ViRa Games’ title is something to learn from, an experience that could really only work in VR and that opens your eyes and creates empathy for others. It would be great to see more videogames like this, putting you in the shoes of someone who wasn’t a powerful wizard or secret agent.