Thumper in Virtual Reality Made Me A Believer

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E3 ’15 was an interesting one for me.  There was so much in gaming to look forward to, many things we as gamers had been waiting years for.  I couldn’t help but feel somewhat disappointed though, as it was really just that- a lot of waiting, and not much playing.  The show-floor was loaded with content, but of the playable games, not a whole ton caught my interest.  I left with a handful of games on my mind, but one stood-out as my game of the show. That game was Thumper. Thumper is an indie game brought to us by new-comer Drool, a two man dev team comprised of former Harmonix employees Brian Gibson and Marc Flury.  One thing that made this game standout was how simple it seemed at first glance.

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There was no particular booth or floor space for Thumper, just a small kiosk mixed in with all the other games in Sony’s floor space.  Being a huge rhythm game fan, it was refreshing to see a new forray into the genre.  I grabbed the controller and got lost in the game.  At first glance Thumper seems fairly basic.  Basically you’re this space beetle flying down a sort of tunnel, this serves as your rhythm highway.  You speed rapidly down this path towards a massive creature of some sort.  Patterns are thrown at you to the rhythm, that when executed properly, will fire a shot down this highway at the enemy.  If you fail to execute you will take damage.  While it’s a simple concept, there is a whole lot going on that truly elevates the experience to something special.  I loved this game.  It left a lasting impression on me and I couldn’t wait to see more.

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First the visuals.  The psychedelic imagery, coupled with the dark color palette and dense particle effects creates a truly unique world.  Everything about the visual style creates a strange sense of tension.  Not only are your surroundings abstract and unsettling, the creatures and even the “main character” if you will, are creepy.  I mean seriously, you play as a beetle… beetles are kinda creepy.  If the visuals aren’t enough to make you uneasy throw in the music.  It quickly becomes apparent where the game got it’s name.  The music is the definition of ominous.  It starts with a rumble… a thumping if you will, on what sounds like timpani drums.  Careening down the dark narrow tunnel to the music made me wonder, where am I going?  Where the hell am I?!  I liken the experience to flying down a dark stretch of highway in the middle of the night.  No cars on the road to show you what’s ahead, a fear of not being sure of what exactly is in your path, and a true sense of isolation.  When you pair this together with the torrid pace, you create an incredible sense of urgency.  It’s hard to pin down what exactly the experience is like.  It has elements of various other games I’ve played over the years- flashes of Amplitude, Rez, etc., but not quite like anything I’d ever played.  I was already sold on this experience.  Then came Thumper VR.

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VR is the latest craze on the gaming market.  For the past decade I’ve watched various gimmicks come and go, from the rise and fall of motion sensing, to the lofty promises of Kinect, which promised to “make you the controller”.  To be honest I was never thrilled with the idea of these concepts.  After all I had no issue with traditional controllers.  Don’t get me wrong I love peripherals, especially since they play such a massive role in the music genre, however far more often than not, these tend to be niche, specialized experiences.  That being said I was very skeptical about the VR experience.  As with so many passing crazes I kept hearing how this was a “game-changer” or “the future of gaming”. Needless to say I was excited when I finally got to try my hand at VR. I tried my hand at what they had to offer, and while some were better than the others, overall I came away with the same sentiment.  Is this really what all the hype was about?

Fast forward to Pax East 2016 and I hear Thumper will be present on the show floor.  Not only that, but they would be testing Thumper VR. Now as a sucker for new tech I already had my PSVR pre-ordered, because at the end of the day, at the very least it could be a portable viewing device. that being said I figured barring a Gamestop/Best Buy kiosk demo (Servin’ up free pink eye for everyone!), this would be the last chance to see if the pre-order was justified.  I sat down and fumbled a bit to get my VR mask just right.  Marc handed me the controller, which I saw virtually float in front of me inside the mask, which was a neat touch.  Finally I put the headphones on- Marc warned me that the volume was a bit low- I didn’t notice.

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That familiar feeling of unease settled right back in.  I took my time to scan my surroundings- trying out the head tracking tech.  As always I was impressed with the accuracy of the movement.  I took note of my surroundings.  I quickly grew re-accustomed to the mechanics of the game.  I carefully watched as the notes zipped by making sure to stay in rhythm.  As I properly hit the sequence, I watched as my attack took off down the winding path.  I had to look up to watch it wind its way to the enemy.  When it made contact it launched debris into the air flying past my face at incredible speed.

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Once I took care of the first “boss”, there was a stretch of calm.  No patterns coming my way, and a slight break in the music.  I took this opportunity to just take in my surroundings.  I looked to my right, watching a wall of lights flashing by  my eyes.  I looked to the left to see a similar trippy sight.  That’s when it hit me- I couldn’t see the screen. I was truly trying to see where the screen was in relation to my face.  I no longer saw the device as a TV strapped to my face, but instead I felt like I was somewhere else.  The closest experience I could liken this to was like a ride at a theme park.  It was like a revelation after all the hype and hyperbole.  All this talk of “presence” finally made sense.

I left this demo incredibly excited for the future of VR.  I understand this tech is young, some devs will grasp how to make proper use of it, and some devs will just try to tack it on to say their game has it. The guys from Drool have fully grasped how to make this tech work and they have yet again sold me on something, only this time it wasn’t just their game, it was that VR is here to stay.