A barber's diagram of head anatomy, borrowed from hairfinder.com

I snap-purchased a PSVR in early June, hours after the idea struck me that VR would transform — indeed, must have already transformed — the driving-simulator games I have always enjoyed. Two months later, I still haven’t tried any PSVR driving games. I have, though, spent enough time with the device to learn firsthand about the unexpected nature of presence it carries in two places: one on your skull, and one in your brain.

In terms how one wears the thing, one would do better to describe the device as a headband rather than goggles. It took me several play-sessions to figure out that donning it properly lies entirely with adjusting the padded plastic “crown” at a comfortable tilt. It grips your forehead in front, and in back should hug the hollow where your neck meets your occipital bone. The binocular viewscreen, as a result, does not rest on your nose like goggles at all, but simply dangles down in front of your eyes. The screen’s interior does feature a nasal cut-out between its eyepieces, but more to make room for your nose than to provide support from it.

Despite the unit’s on-board how-to-wear-me tutorials, I didn’t find any of this immediately obvious. Until I figured it out for myself, I rather wondered about the testers who found it acceptable to play video games with their nostrils pinched shut. Once I did discover the shift in perspective, I found the device perfectly comfortable.

Now that we’ve strapped it on, let me tell you that I had no idea about the core perceptive illusion that VR brings. Before trying it for the first time, I imagined that the VR experience would simply feel like having a little motion-sensitive screen mounted to my head. I’d certainly used any number of iPhone apps that responded to the phone’s orientation in space — SkyView a long-time favorite for stargazing, for example — and I assumed that the PSVR would work just like that, except freeing up my hands and blocking out other visual input.

Funnily enough, one’s first interactions with the PSVR bear this out. Once you fumble the thing on for the first time, it presents you with the ordinary PlayStation dashboard, projected onto the screen of a “virtual theater” you sit within. You can look around at the screen, and the experience replicates that of sitting very close to a large television (albeit a somewhat fuzzy one). For some moments, in fact, I wondered if I was somehow looking at my real television through the PSVR goggles. When I realized the truth of it, I quite felt impressed with the instantaneous response to my physical movement that allowed this illusion. Still, it fell within line of my expectations.

But then I loaded my first game, via the demonstration disc that ships with PSVR, and all that mundanity dropped away. I immediately discovered that properly done VR exploits your eyes and brain to convince you, from the very first moments, that the illusory landscape presented to you does not limit itself to a window in front of you, but rather literally surrounds your entire head, in all directions. This isn’t a stereogram, or something else you need to learn to see as intended; the PSVR rootkits your sight-cognition hardware instantaneously, at a biological level. You can’t not fall into it.

VR has presence, and I wasn’t prepared for that.

The totality of this illusion carries a sort of desperate reification to the objects presented within. For example, after you page through a three-ring binder to learn the play-controls at the start of Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes, the game tells you that you can review this information at any time by looking to your right. Of course, you try this immediately and — you nearly jump out of your skin to discover a wall a foot away, and taped to that wall a colorful poster summarizing the controls, just as promised. How long has that been there, and how had you not noticed it before?! Turning back to the desk in front of you (where the player-character sits throughout the game), your real-brain situational awareness circuits kick in, mapping that poster to your right in the physical space you inhabit.

Of course, playing a traditional video game simulating a 3D space uses perception and reaction much like this. Were I playing Keep Talking on a flat screen, I’d remember the poster’s location within the game-world, and know to tilt the right analog stick to rotate the camera any time I wished to regard the poster. But the first time I saw it, I wouldn’t have felt the central-nervous shock that I experienced in VR, my physical autonomous systems lighting up with alarm that something so obvious as a big solid wall with a poster on it had somehow snuck past my notice until now.

If, while I played the game on a flat screen, you were to ask me “Where is that poster?” I’d say “To the right, see?” and nudge the camera over to show you. I would use similar language were I playing Keep Talking in VR, glancing over my right shoulder… Or, just as likely, I would point that way with my hand, quite easily forgetting that, outside the headset, you can’t meaningfully follow my finger. And this is because only in VR do I succumb to accepting the poster as actually existing in space beside me, not a merely a perspective-warped picture I know how to bring into view on a screen we both gaze at.

So what have I been playing? Rez, mostly. Of all the pack-in demos I tried, that one alone made me feel good when I tried it; even when the action gets hectic, something about its neon low-poly landscape really invites the visitaton that VR affords. This is the game’s second re-release since its 2001 debut, and I daresay that VR is where it wanted to be all along — because, I discover, Rez plays better from within. I’ve enjoyed two complete playthroughs of it since picking it up, as well as plenty of time spent in its various new side-features.

On the other end of the spectrum, I tried Superhot VR and lasted about ten minutes before tearing the device from my head, flush with panicked anger. It presents a violent and difficult challenge that sends you back to the start of a long course on any misstep. I caught a glimmer of pleasure at moving my physical hands and head with increasing confidence while slowly mastering a pattern through rote practice, but in the end could not escape feeling trapped — literally, physically trapped — by an inescapable antagonistic force. I compare it to Dance Central, but with a deeply unpleasant edge. I did not like it at all, I will never play it again, and I will know to avoid any VR experience like it.

I still haven’t tried a driving game. I really ought to.

Next post: I read The Teeth of the Comb

Previous post: The Witcher 3’s meaty little adventure games float in a bland broth