Dabe Alan / Venture Beat

Inside the valley of death: playing Quake in virtual reality with the Oculus Rift

Inside the valley of death: playing Quake in virtual reality with the Oculus Rift

The source code for Quake has been available for some time, and an enterprising individual has made the game fully compatible with the Oculus Rift. Playing the game in virtual reality is as easy as downloading this package of files, including the free shareware episode, and typing a single command into the console. There you go.

“There are still various problems. Making the UI readable in Rift mode is a single dirty hack, some values for the eye offsets are elaborate guesses and in general this thing could have been implemented a lot cleaner,” the creator of this hack wrote. “But as far as I can tell, everything works like it should. I only tried this on Windows; my guess is that it works on OSX as well, but I haven't changed the project files to incorporate the new code.”

This was something I had to try, and the result was even better than I had hoped.

Inside the game

Quake provides an ideal environment for virtual reality. Each environment is a moderate size, giving you a good sense of scale. The game doesn’t feature high resolution textures, so you don’t notice the relatively low resolution of the hardware when you look around. Instead, Quake looks exactly how you remember, except that now you’re inside it.

The one thing about playing first-person shooters in virtual reality is that you find yourself looking up more often than you’d expect. Having a roof over your head, and being able to see just how close it is to you because of the strong 3D effect, reinforces the idea that you’re actually trapped into these dungeons. You’re not looking at a screen, you’re inside an often cramped, dark area, and there are things here that want to kill you.

In fact, my son wanted to try the game, and I thought it would be fun to place him inside one of the more formative games of my youth. Almost like a living experience. He got to the first dog that ran to attack, and “noped” himself right out of the game. This is a kid who doesn’t scare easily, but that was a bit much for him. He calmly took off the helmet, put it back on the table, and returned to watching the Avengers.

The issue of scale is part of what makes this experience so interesting. You can look up and feel the height of the ceiling while watching the purple sky move across the skylights. The first time you meet an enemy soldier, his pixelated, angry face looking like someone took a shovel to it, you’ll notice that he’s right at your level. You have to look down to shoot at the dogs, but when they jump for your throat they’re suddenly at eye level.

This idea that some things are smaller than you, and some are people-sized, is something you don’t get while playing Quake on a monitor. Once you begin seeing Ogres, and you have to look UP to see their face, the whole thing becomes even more intense. The gun is wired to your head, so you aim where you look. You have to at least glance up into the eyes of whatever you’re aiming at to get a headshot. You can look behind yourself to make sure nothing is sneaking up on you.

This is how gaming in the Rift differs from playing on a screen. When you look at the monitor, it’s like you’re taking in the entirety of the level. You don’t look back or around yourself until you hear or become aware of a threat. You look around constantly when you're actually inside the game, and you're much more aware of the walls, the floor, and the ceiling. Small spaces feel tight. You get nervous in larger areas when you're afraid of an ambush.

There are a few issues; you lose all of the UI, so you can't see your own health. Words are nearly impossible to read when they pop up on the screen. This is half an issue with how interfaces are designed for the hardware, and half due to the low resolution of the Rift.

You can feel the level wrapped around your eyes. You stare down at the ground to get a sense of what you’re walking over. When you fall into water, you feel like you have to hold your breath. You’re not looking at something, feeling both distant and safe, you’re part of the world. It contains you and keeps you there, especially if you’re using good headphones.

When you pick up the nail gun and the lights go out, you look around in a panic. You are in the dark. It's a very different thing than just looking at a screen and noticing that you can't see in front of you. You're engulfed by the darkness now, and then all of the sudden you're staring face to face with a Grunt who wants you dead.

It changes the way you play the game, although it doesn't necessarily make things easier. It's simpler and faster to aim with a mouse and keyboard, and it's less distracting. Virtual reality isn't designed for people who want high scores and to be the best. Instead it turns first-person shooters into haunted houses, and even fast-paced games can feel like survival horror. It's not for everyone, but it's a hell of a ride.