At E3, we had the opportunity to play a demo of The Unspoken, an exclusive for the Oculus Rift that is slated to be released with the Touch controllers later this year. Summarized: The game is a battle between mages, with you as a spellslinger capable of hurling fireballs, summoning explosive ravens, spears of shield-shattering elements, and more. It was a thoroughly enjoyable offering for the VR headset, and tossing fireballs at enemy mages was a remarkably addictive (albeit fleeting) experience.
The Unspoken, which we previewed back in April, takes place in an urban setting, and your training begins in what looks like a construction lot, with the grungy grime of dumpsters, city streets, and debris associated with metropolitan life adding an air reminiscent of (or perhaps inspired by) World of Darkness, Blade, Underworld, and so on. The disembodied voice of a spirit guides you through the first steps, showing you how to produce shields to protect yourself, fireballs to lob at destructible objects, and how to teleport from pillar to pillar to collect soul shards to empower supporting spells such as homing explosive ravens, a shield-shattering spear, or mega-sized shield.
The Oculus Touch controllers made the actions in The Unspoken feel natural, and I found myself lost in the immersion of the game more than a few times. Holding down the trigger to build the size of the fireball, my guide told me the trick to solid aim and hitting your target was to treat it like a thrown dart, rather than a softball. The instinct I've encountered in multiple VR games where I closed one eye to aim while lining up a sight was certainly present here, though treating projectiles as casually-thrown darts did the trick for me during training.
The Unspoken can be a room-scale experience, although you are constrained to a small pillar or column with a glowing sigil inscribed on it, and you have the ability only to teleport to others. You can dodge or duck behind wooden barriers, or look around them, though in my experience I was not successfully able to dodge the chucked infernos of my eventual mage duel opponent. The game would perform well as either a standing or seated experience.
After the training was complete, you are presented with an enemy, another player ready and willing to kill you and claim the title of victor in this wizard's battle. The game went from a steady, casual progression of teaching the mechanics of spellcasting to a fight for life as my health trickled away. I teleported from pillar to pillar, collecting soul shards to power a volley of ravens, or a paper airplane I could fold into a magicked person-to-person bomber. Each blast I was able to deflect further shattered my shield, until I was holding just a faint outline in my hand to protect me. I went the "Tim" route and tried to pepper my opponent with a high volume of smaller-intensity fireballs to keep him off his game, but he got the upper hand after gaining the literal high ground, and nabbing a couple of critical soul shards.
After my playthrough, I sat down with one of the lead developers behind The Unspoken: Chad Desern, Creative Director of Insomniac Games.
Joe Pishgar, Tom's Hardware: That was the most fun death I've had in a long time. This was an extremely fun experience. I feel like I wanted a wand, or a staff. I wanted to shoot lightning, bust out tornados and ice shards.
Chad Desern, Creative Director, Insomniac Games: Yes to all of that! We have a lot of spells on the way, and I can assure you will get some, if not all, of those things before we launch the game. We all have our spellcasting fantasies.
JP: This is an experience I've always wanted to play. I've always wanted to be a mage; in every game I play the wizard, a glass cannon. I've always wanted to have that Gandalf vs. Saruman wizard battle moment, mage against mage, and this is the closest I've ever seen it.
CD: That's the epiphany we had when we saw the [Oculus] Touch controllers. We wanted to make a game about urban magic for a long time, and it wasn't until we saw our hands in VR that we thought we could actually do something like this.
JP: During the game, I wanted to gesticulate in the air. There are a few spell functions you cast where you take a big Norse hammer and bang out glyphs on an anvil, or trace out a larger version of a defensive shield with your hand. Was there any discussion about whether or not all or extra spells should be gesture-based?
CD: Yes, that exists! There is a whole other class of spells called "pose spells," or gesture spells. Like crossing your hands for a shield, or holding your hands out to make an attacking volley against an enemy.
JP: Classic. Shades of Mind's Eye Theater LARP stuff! Outstanding. So this is available for the Oculus; will it be coming out for other HMDs?
CD: This is a Rift exclusive, and Oculus is our publisher. Full-on exclusive, and we're building it around the Touch release.
JP: That brings up a good question: What is Insomniac's take on the whole exclusivity issue taking the fore right now? A lot of our readers view exclusivity in the same light as any other peripheral, and there's some noticeable dissent. The example given was if Razer came out with a mouse, and said you can only play this one specific EA game with this one specific Razer mouse.
CD: From our side, being exclusive here lets us make the game, as Oculus is our publisher. Second, it lets us focus in on this particular headset, and this particular control scheme. So it's less for us to solve for, and we can ultimately end up with a better game as a result. I totally get the discussion, but as developers, we're focused on delivering a great game experience and trying a lot of new things. I'm glad we don't have even more to experiment with, so we're not spending engineering cycles trying to solve for everything. We've got a whole lot to take in along with the new VR stuff.
JP: One thing we're asking every VR dev we can is about DPDR, Depersonalization/Derealization, where you put the headset on, you play for a while, take the headset off, and come back, like--"Oh yeah, reality." Some people experience this as sudden realization, others feel numb or detached, walking around dazed for a while. Was there any discussion in the development of The Unspoken about DPDR? Any means of keeping players grounded in reality, since this works towards the opposite end of immersion?
CD: Is there too much immersion? One of the main things we did design for was comfort. We designed the movement around teleportations. You are a magician, so you can move from one pillar to another by teleporting. We've found that this is comfortable for most users, and you aren't left with a dissonance or...a weird feeling. And we do things like constrain where you are standing on the pillar, and where you can move around in the game.
JP: Even so, I almost bit it twice there, nearly falling over when my foot went off what was a half-inch high of the edge of the rubber mat, and I felt like I was going to die. Even here in a room with two people watching me, it's a terrifying moment.
CD: I understand, and I've done the same thing a lot. I laugh! We're trying to solve for immersion, rather than being worried about too much. I'd say that from our developer-centric point of view, in VR for a while, we've been in there for many hours a day, many days, and we haven't had any negative effects. Now... I have had VR dreams, where I felt like I really had an experience, rather than playing the game, so it is really imprinting somehow.
CD: Yeah, exactly, and maybe because it's a real world setting where you are using magic and fulfilling a fantasy. I don't feel like I'm being wired in any way.
The Unspoken is due out later this year along with the Oculus Touch controllers.