PAX EAST 2015: Pollen Preview – Space Living

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When you think about Oculus Rift, you’re invariably going to imagine something epic. It’s simply the nature of the product. After all, if the best of what virtual reality has to offer at any given time doesn’t at least show promise to trump peak immersion levels of games we already know and love, then what exactly is the point?

I’d never tried Oculus before this weekend, and am now glad I waited so long. Reports I’d heard from fellow gamers and peers in the industry have been startlingly consistent, albeit improving: it’s impressive, it has potential, it’s getting better, but it’s not quite there. After donning the black mask myself and spending time exploring Pollen’s small but activity-packed demo space, I know now that waiting to try VR was absolutely the right move. It works, it’s engaging, and it transports you to another world, fleeting though the feeling may be.

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Pollen’s premise centers on the exploration of a remote moon of Saturn, though my short demo was limited instead to the inside of a medium-sized room, presumably a place for space dwellers to inhabit. Upon securing the Rift, instantly I was there; a bright white and pastel room surrounded me. Xbox One controller in hand, I could grab items with a button tap, and look around with — you guessed it — real life movements of my head. It may sound silly, but this is especially difficult to remember at first, as muscle memory has you flicking the right analog stick for “camera control” every time it’s needed. Then you remember.

My activities in Pollen border on the mundane, which is why I find it so amusing how thoroughly absorbed in them I actually was. Items can be selected, placed, or thrown; early on I managed to secure a frozen chicken sandwich and immediately set my sights on finding a means to consume it. A brief bit of exploration later, and I’d located a microwave. I opened it with a tap, twisted the knob, reared back my chicken sandwich, and tossed — only to send the frozen brick slamming against the microwave and onto the floor. I laughed, as the virtual space is almost like a first-person film. Tossing a sandwhich I hope to eat in real life is hardly an amusing scenario, but in a virtual sandbox, it’s endless fun. I continued to toss the lifeless block against a few nearby walls for laughs and good measure.

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The Pollen developer supervising my demo encouraged me to move on with my life, so I did, grabbing a nearby mug of coffee and promptly smashing it to the ground. Shortly thereafter my gamer instincts kicked in and I decided to explore. Unfortunately, this effort was quickly stymied; a nearby door with a hand-shaped panel appeared to be a puzzle, but I was swiftly informed that the area beyond its metal frame is not accessible to PAX demoers. Slightly disappointed, I took a last look around the room, unsure when I’d see it gain. Then the mask came off.

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I’m pretty sure my experience with Pollen was unique despite its clear lack of over-the-top action or typical gamer sensory triggers. Still, the experience was compelling, and real, as I walked away from the booth I wanted nothing more than to return to the small room and explore its secrets again. Perhaps next time, instead of chicken, I’ll try the roast beef.

This is normally where I’d say something like “Mindfield Games has their work cut out for them in the coming months,” but to be honest, they really don’t. Yes, I’d rather explore Saturn’s moons than hurl frozen blocks of bread and meat, but with Oculus Rift we really are on the precipice of a new frontier. Titles like Pollen will amaze those with access upon their release, just as the mere exploration of polygonal 3D space decades ago was astounding regardless of specific challenges contained within. If Pollen wants to be remembered as trailblazing and groundbreaking, it’d best deliver on its promises and give us a moody space exploration for the ages. But if it simply wants to be impressive in the here and now? Coffee, sandwiches, and a nicely furnished room are absolutely more than enough.