“This is your apartment,” Russ tells me as I start to get accustomed to the HTC Vive headset resting comfortably over my glasses. Having only used the Google Cardboard setup to look at concerts and a few pre-planned videos on YouTube, I wasn’t sure what to be prepared for. Hardware firmly in place, I took my first steps into the virtual environment of The Unwelcomed.
Nathan and Russ both assured me that even the most sensitive of testers were fine, so an Ace Combat junkie like myself would have an easy time with the virtual environment. The paddles that work with the Vive sit well in my hand and display my new, fancy, virtual hands that will be my points to interact with throughout the demo session.
To interact with items within The Unwelcomed I have to be touching them with my ring and middle fingers. It’s awkward at first, but soon I’m turning the lights on and off, and wishing the team had implemented the funny movement mechanic requiring users to pump their arms like a runner. I guess the treadmill in the corner will have to wait for another time.
While the mechanic for interacting did make sense, my first challenge would come in the form of exiting the entire apartment. Of course, like any person enamored by VR, I had to throw literally everything I could get my virtual hands on. This only became problematic when flat objects like paper, slices of pizza, and the key I needed to escape the room with, landed on similar flat surfaces, like the floor. I was able to remedy the situation by using a plate to wedge and lift beneath the key until I could grab it with a free hand. Russ tells me that the configuration for floor depth sensitivity I saw before entering the actual game would help address this issue.
I can sense Russ’ grin as I attempt to walk through the door with the key in hand. Pro tip: it doesn’t work. If you act logically and put the key to the keyhole while trying to get through the door, you’ll be fine.
From what I felt through the playthrough, the team wanted players to interact with the environment in ways that made sense, but did not hold the player’s hand by snapping items into place by simply being near them. It was both refreshing and a little frustrating.
I didn’t even know I had a great uncle
Having successfully navigated my way through rescuing a room key with a plate, I reached the foyer to the mansion I seemingly inherited from my great uncle. The audio line goes off in my ear about expecting a butler here to greet me. Jeeves does not seem to be present, however.
At the moment, the foyer I find myself in is lavishly decorated with wood carved columns and wall panels with stone floors which would be the envy of McMansions anywhere. At the time of playing, not all of the entryways actually connect to other rooms for the game, but Russ assures me there will be plenty to explore later.
An object I wasn’t expecting to see draws me in for a few minutes- a chess board, complete with the pieces for a game. I’m sure it looks odd outside the Vive, but I crouch and examine the table and the pieces. “The queen should be on black, shouldn’t it?” I inquire. I get a slight chuckle out of Russ and Nathan. It’s definitely not a game breaker, but if you ever want to play chess against yourself in The Unwelcomed, you certainly could.
There is an upper level to the mansion which reminds me of the staircase in Princess Peach’s castle and I think better of advancing on the door leading to what I would assume could become home to the hardest of the puzzles the team is cooking up.
After enough looking around this space, Russ guides me to a table with two keys. On either side of the table is a door.
“If you would please pick up the key on the left and proceed through the door on the left… and don’t drop the key.”
Creepy, but a good creepy
“Well this just got creepy,” I say as the room loads. The only light is coming from a window with a teddy bear sitting on the sill. The bed is in shambles. There is a bookcase with scattered books, and thankfully, a flashlight. Russ and the team decided players wouldn’t need to constantly hold the buttons on the Vive controllers to hold onto the flashlight. Instead, a toggle works to turn the light on and off.
I’m also thankful for other choices the team has decided to make in gameplay- No jumpscares. While the thought of me jumping out of my skin or having the panicked, heart gripping, emotional roller-coaster that is common from most of the horror genre is something I have experienced, I’ve seen enough let’s play videos and played a few horror games to know that it is not for me.
The real focus of The Unwelcomed is its puzzles. As I rummage through a room, my light scans over a wall and writing I couldn’t see before appears. The books on the shelf are out of order. It’s a good thing I threw just about every book off of the only bookshelf in the room. There were sticky notes about order on the shelves too. In perusing some unique books (and with a few hints from Nathan and Russ), I uncovered a keypad which needed a code.
I mentioned it would be cool to be able to write some of this info down somewhere, and Russ reveals that he’d like to work on some kind of wall marker for players to write on the walls. A scene from Saw pops into my head. Thankfully, The Unwelcomed doesn’t bring in bodily torture. The emphasis is on the creep factor coupled with your ability to think. When I asked about the approach, Nathan admitted that “Shooters aren’t really what I’m good at. What is something I can’t really do in other games- something I can think my way through?”
This is one of the reasons for no jump scares. From the different notes, players find that things are amiss, and these are usually clues to get themselves closer to escaping rooms inside the mansion.
Inside the Vive, time was flying by, but I didn’t realize just how fast. By the time I had escaped the first room with a bit of guidance and had proceeded to the second at least 45 minutes had passed. The second room I was introduced to was a little dastardly. Let’s just say that having more pieces than available spots can get kind of tricky. It’s a little unnerving with a mask in a fireplace staring at you the entire time as well. Russ and Nathan led me on a tour through the room as it was incomplete at the time. When you get to it, don’t say you haven’t been warned.
How hard is it to make a VR game?
After I remove the Vive and hand back the paddles, I already have the feeling of wanting to jump back into the universe the team has created. Instead of diving back in, I found myself with an opportunity to follow up on what brought The Unwelcomed into existence.
I’m not privy to the secrets of game development, and, certainly, many of the games we have come to play started spontaneously. How spontaneously is always the proper question. There were talks over dinner, and before the week was out, Russ had secured a domain, email, and twitter handle. Choosing Unity as their engine, the four man team has built the game, which is now available in Steam’s early access.
One of the most surprising pieces of the process for the team was being Greenlit on Steam- in four days. Having experienced it myself, I can see why The Unwelcomed would garner such attention.
The Unwelcomed is a perfect “escape the room” title for those looking for a game to challenge their capacity to complete puzzles and riddles, with a bit of horror flair mixed in. The VR experience is sound, with new experiences being developed and deployed even as you read this. The Unity engine allows the team to create a play space which looks great. You’re not going to confuse it with the real world by any means, but it is a game you can play and not be distracted by lack of textures and graphics.
For those of you feeling left out of the stylings of virtual reality- don’t worry. Russ tells me the team is looking to support keyboard and mouse before long, as he would like to see the game accessible to everyone.
The Unwelcomed is currently available on Steam Early Access. If trying games early isn’t your cup of tea, don’t worry. The team is planning to release The Unwelcomed soon, so expect to be stiffed by your own absent virtual butler in no time.