Virtual Reality Adventures: Safe Pod Play

Sandbox VR provides a COVID-friendly diversion that showcases the possibilities of the format.

The promise of virtual reality has long outpaced what the format has actually been able to deliver. Remember The Lawnmower Man?

Still, with the advances made by the likes of the Facebook-owned Oculus system, and the low barrier to entry offered by Google Cardboard, VR has more recently seemed imminently poised to produce a monumental shift in video gaming — the same way talkies did in the movie industry during the early 1900s.

We still haven’t reached that tipping point, but many who consider themselves believers can agree that the problem isn’t the product. VR itself has already seen a handful of solid games that justify its existence, the most recent being Valve’s critically lauded creepy shooter, Half-Life: Alyx.

At home VR solutions have been trickling onto the market for almost a decade, but for many people they’re just too much of an investment right now. Most headsets either require a beefy computer set-up to run, a ton of space, or, in the case of Playstation VR, a hefty additional purchase on top of your expensive game console. 

Hiccups or no, virtual reality can make a game’s design really sing. In 2017, Resident Evil 7 took the survival horror genre it popularized in the mid-’90s, and changed it in a way that made it straight-up too scary for some people to play. By placing the player in an oppressive haunted house and taking away the ability to look away from the screen, it revealed just how much those nervous glances over to your friend help in relieving the tension.

Companies like Sandbox VR have absorbed these lessons and thought up their own solution to VR’s unique problem of startup cost. Through its network of brick and mortar facilities — each housing multiple rooms outfitted with beefy VR set-ups — Sandbox VR removes the need to purchase and maintain your own headset or system.

Once visitors and their friends are equipped with headsets, trackers, vests, plastic guns, and an extra processing unit, they are moved into a room that operates like the Holodeck from Star Trek.

In the age of COVID-19, this could be where some readers take pause. However, face masks are required for the duration every game and each piece of equipment is sanitized in between uses. These factors, combined with copious amounts of hand sanitizer for guests to use before and after their session, put my mind at ease.

Once a group of up to six people are geared up, the entire Holodeck-like space becomes a 360 degree play area to move around in. What that space looks like is decided by which of the five available games was chosen beforehand. The different games range from Sci-fi and horror to pirates and a combat-focused player-versus-player experience. They even have an officially licensed Star Trek game in there for those really stuck on the Holodeck metaphor. 

In lieu of a trip to a corn maze Halloween season, my friends and I decided to go with the horror themed Deadwood Mansion. This game definitely wears its influences on its sleeve. A couple of zombie archetypes that players will recognize from Resident Evil rear their ugly heads, along with a familiar, creepy dilapidated mansion and deadly red lasers. The game does a really nice job of ramping you up through a half-hour session that gradually introduces new mechanics to change the experience.

Once you’ve killed some basic zombies, infected rats come scampering in. These pesky pests can latch onto your vest and deal damage over time. Before long you’ve got these and a handful of other mechanics all oscillating on and off to change what your team needs to do to survive. Sophisticated tracking allows players to see and interact with each other inside the game, so it’s easy to form impromptu strategies when the situation changes.

And even as someone who’s been fortunate enough to play most of the tentpole VR horror releases, this game scared me. I can’t tell you how many times I would turn around to find a zombie standing two or three inches away from me ready to attack. It made me scream more than once.

Unfortunately, despite being lucky enough to glimpse the boss, we didn’t survive to see the end of the round. The amount of stuff the game throws at you in the final moments just made me wish I had recruited a bigger group of friends so we could go back in and give it another shot. In my experience though, walking away from a “Game Over” screen wanting more is always the mark of a good experience.

Sandbox VR is located at the Hillsdale Shopping Center in San Mateo.

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