Yahtzee reviews Wilson's Heart.
People often say to me, "Yahtzee, your support of VR as a concept seems rather incongruous with your established tendency to near-phobically reject gimmicky hardware. It seems odd that someone usually so mindful of the slightest flaws in games can figure a gaming system whose fancy plastic eye trough could be repurposed as a sick bucket at any moment; also, Veni, Vidi, Vici." And I say, "Well, the ghost of Julius Caesar, have you ever thought that maybe we're the ones who aren't meeting VR halfway? We're going to have to suck up this whole vomiting nonsense if we want to be serious about immersion tech. When the hyper-intelligent alien whales declare war on our society and we have to assault their undersea cities in a giant, torpedo-equipped mecha-squid, the remote-control operators in their sensory deprivation pods aren't going to be able to turn over and complain that their tummy hurts."
So I've been fiddling with the Oculus Rift lately, and I've been playing a new game that the Oculus people seem to be really trying to push, Wilson's Heart, not to be confused with Wilson's hearth, which is the fireplace especially for former presidents named Woodrow. That wasn't exactly A-material, was it? Fuck it; move on! This was also my first time using the motion controls, or to use the proper name, the fucking motion controls. I'll admit the touch devices are an improvement on waving dildos around because the Oculus constantly tracks your hand and finger positions rather than trying to interpret the spastic flails as they come, but at the end of the day, whatever buttons you're pushing or titties you're fondling in VR Magic Land, you're still groping empty air and getting constant reminders of the real world, where you're just a twat on a couch with bills to pay and two pounds of plastic strapped to your eyeballs.
But immersion aside, so you're looking down and seeing your hands inside the VR world reacting and moving in perfect synchronicity with your meat-space ones. What then? You're still rooted to the spot and can't even rotate without the risk of making a confession to the Church of Armitage Shanks, so the potential for deep gameplay is limited. It's more suited to the sort of thing that's used mystically billed as an "experience" rather than a game, where there's a fruit bowl, and you pick up a banana, and then you look at the banana, and then I guess that's where you're supposed to reach orgasm.
Wilson's Heart is an attempt to get a full-on narrative adventure game out of that setup: it's a horror game where you wake up in an abandoned hospital with no memory of how you got there. What bold new strides we're taking with this new technology; next, you'll be telling me it's dark and raining outside and the electrics are on the futz! Oh, wow, I didn't even mention the lightning storm; I think that fills out my bingo card! To its credit, though, the game's not asking to be taken seriously, which is just as well; it's all in black-and-white, and it's deliberately evoking old horror B-movies in the Universal Monsters sort of area. Think vampires, werewolves, the creatures from the African American lagoon.
The main character is Wilson, cantankerous old fart and former neighbor to Dennis the Menace, who acquires a whole new suite of problems when he discovers his heart has been removed and replaced with a weird mechanical device that looks like the puzzle box from Hellraiser had sex with a Magic 8-Ball. This device has many strange, gameplay-convenient powers, such as the ability to fix malfunctioning light fittings. "What do you mean, call an electrician? How's that easier than selling my body and soul to channel the forces of the capricious, ethereal netherworld?"
All right, how do we play this game, then? "Well, first, you need to stand up in the middle of your living room--" Let me stop you there, game, with a hearty "bollocks to you!" I went through this already with Rise of Nightmares; I'll only stand around getting my feet sore for hours if I'm at a rock concert, or a cattle auction, or anywhere else where there's a non-zero chance of getting laid. I'm going to sit on my nice, comfy couch, tell the game that I'm standing, and we can just role-play that I'm sitting in a very high wheelchair, okay? "Okay, but don't come crying to me next time we need you to open a drawer on a low desk and you crack your knuckles on your coffee table."
So there we are, sitting three feet off the ground in an abandoned hospital, and the true horror grips us as we look around the room and see a number of ghosts peering interestedly at doors and furniture, until we realize, "Oh, wait, that's the user interface." This is how we're bypassing the motion sickness problem: instead of free movement, we jump from position to position like the original Myst. But, hey, there are people who still think of Myst as a classic, generally people who haven't played it lately, but I don't feel nauseous! I'm just getting a headache like I'm stuck in a metal lift with a concert brass section. I think that's because I'm constantly having to twist my neck around to look for travel points behind me. "Guess you should have stood up after all, Yahtz." Oh, sure, if I was standing, I could have turned all the way around and then throttled myself with the Oculus cord!
So the puzzles are pretty standard time-wasting fare for a modern adventure game: there's an obstacle with at best three rooms to explore and the solution for each obstacle is obvious as soon as you've explored everything. There's a randy stallion in one room and a pair of sturdy wanking gloves in the other, that sort of thing. I guess it's the "experience" thing again that's less for the intellectual challenge; we're supposed to still be creaming ourselves over the fact that we're actually using our own hands to jerk off a horse!
There's also the occasional combat section, the mechanics for which change from battle to battle, but they generally start with you getting insta-killed three or four times before you figure out what particular gang sign you need to throw up to deflect the attacks. I suppose there's some catharsis in repeatedly punching the air as the air squeaks and makes fleshy noises, but things fall down a bit whenever you're called upon to accurately throw something. Throwing accurately with motion controls is more art than science. I watched my missile bounce off the ground three feet away and I'm right back in middle school rounders practice; terrifying, yes, but not in the right way.
Wilson's Heart, in summary, is harmless enough with decent production value, but will seem adorably quaint when/if - and that's a massive, pulsating "if" - VR moves out of the experimental phase, like watching a 3D movie from the 80's without the 3D on, so you're left wondering why the actors keep pointing things at the camera and acting like you're meant to be shitting yourself. With that in mind, making the rest of the game as quaint as possible was smart, although not as smart as it thinks it is. Spoiler warning! You know the drill: buckets on heads. Throughout the game, we find bodies drained of blood and conclude there's a vampire about. Now, one of the NPCs is tall, thin, with a widow's peak and pointy ears, and is named "Bela", as in "Lugosi". No, seriously. Of course, he's not the vampire, but what bothers me is how, after that's revealed, the game seems so fucking pleased with itself. "Bet you thought he was the vampire, you silly sausage! Har, har, crow, crow!" Actually, I didn't, Wilson's Heart, because I was giving you one nano-angstrom of credit. And now to solve the mystery of Mr. W. Erewolf and his fondness for tennis balls!
- Heart of darkness: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- I'm sure VR will become mainstream just as soon as they attach a head-mounted Dramamine dispenser as standard
- Anyway Bela is a girl's name