Berlin, Nov 2017
Huxley is only the second virtual reality escape game I’ve played, and so it remains a challenge to write a fair review. The aim is to assess the game, but with such a new format it’s far from straightforward to tease out what’s impressive about the game itself versus what’s impressive about the underlying technology.
Huxley is gaining a reputation as a step up in VR escaping, largely due to the way it works. Instead of sitting in a chair to play, each player has a small room within which they can freely walk around, carrying the VR peripherals in a backpack. The virtual environment provides boundaries to stop the player from bashing into a wall, and as long as you don’t attempt to walk through virtual walls or off virtual cliffs, you don’t need to worry about any physical collisions.
Up to six players can book into a slot, though in practice larger groups are split into separate teams of two or three players. Each player chooses a colour and an avatar, which consists of a simple stylised mask over a disembodied head and pair of hands, and which makes it possible to distinguish one co-player from another.
VR is an invitation to fantastical environments that could never be build for a physical game, and Huxley is set in a future where you’re returning to explore a barren Earth long since abandoned by humanity. The visuals are suitably stunning, shifting between low-orbit space-scapes to crumbling ruins and to more abstract environments.
Your first tasks are straightforward, and are clearly designed to ensure all players get the hang of basic interactions with their surroundings before the game moves on to more challenging material. It’s only a 45 minute game, to allow for briefing and setup, and it feels on the short side; but it finds time for a decent gradient of difficulty, as well as for a brief bonus mini-game at the end.
The virtual environment is instantly convincing. Even though you have a disconcerting lack of visible legs, even though your hands pass through what should be solid objects, your brain accepts the surroundings without hesitation. That includes the two floating hands, which immediately feel like a part of yourself even though you have a tactile awareness of holding a pair of controllers in a way that should be a mismatch for what you can see.
Having played a previous VR game, that didn’t come as a surprise. What did impress me was how much more natural and comfortable the experience became now that I could physically walk around. This almost totally eliminated the motion sickness that plagued the previous VR game I tried, with the only slight remnant being a section where the virtual environment moves your avatar about with no corresponding real-world motion.
Huxley was also a lot more puzzle-focused than the first VR game I played. By the standards of a normal escape game that’s still not saying a whole lot, though it had a good variety of tasks with one unexpected co-operative idea that I particularly liked.
The various stages are linked by a story involving time travel and saving the planet, but it’s a token effort that provides an excuse for the tasks and puzzles. There’s clearly an opportunity to go much further with the story-telling here, though the 45 minute game length severely limits what the game can fit in. By the time players are getting familiar with the controls and the way the virtual world works, there’s only time for a few larger puzzles before the experience ends.
Also crude is the object physics – we lost a critical item by leaving it on a moveable surface, since it then vanished when that surface moved. That seems like a surprising weakness in an escape game, but also one likely to see dramatic improvement in future games.
Huxley is a clear improvement on the earlier style of VR game, and a very pretty, immersive experience that’s worth going out of your way to try. Even so, I still feel that much of its appeal is from the novelty of the game format. If VR games spread to be as common as physical escape games, then I’m confident they will massively advance in sophistication as well, and in two or three years time Huxley may look like nothing more than an early proof of concept. And even then the best VR games will struggle to compare to the best physical games: a real world environment has a tactile charm that even the most gorgeous CGI worlds can’t beat.
In the meantime, Huxley basks in the glow of being best of class in an exciting new type of game. Being physically mobile eliminates the big problem with VR, the motion sickness, and the game is very ingenious in how it uses an array of tricks to make the relatively circumscribed space available to the player feel like a much bigger unbounded area in the virtual world. It was great fun to play through, and a particularly good way to try VR if you haven’t had a chance to do so already.