Okay, before we begin, a bit of a history lesson. Private Eye was one of the first VR games I ever reported on all the way back in early 2014. I think I spotted it on the show floor of an indie developer event, back at a time when there might be only 5 or 6 Oculus Rifts at a show, and not the hundreds of various makes of VR headsets you’d find at them today. It was at a small booth, lined up next to other experimental games, run by a small team of developers.
Though I don’t think I personally played the game at the show, it stayed in my mind thanks to its devotion to the murky noir atmosphere, and promising story in which you play as a wheelchair-bound Detective trying to recall the accident that cost him his legs. It was one of the first examples I’d seen of a developer designing around the limitations of VR, taking a measured approach to what the Oculus Rift’s first development kit, which didn’t even feature positional tracking, could really do for gaming.
Over the next year or so I continued to run into the Private Eye development team, but in 2016 the game fell off of the radar. I had heard plans for a Kickstarter campaign that never came to fruition, and there was a 2015 Oculus Mobile Game Jam spin-off, but I was beginning to think the project might be dead.
A tease for a new trailer at the end of 2016, then, came as a pleasant surprise and today, we’ve got the full footage for you to watch. What you’re seeing here isn’t the original Private Eye, but instead the first in a prologue series of sorts, tentatively titled Private Eye: Escape. It’s one of the more psychologically threatening trailers I’ve seen for a VR game, with its hazy montage of clips sinisterly concucting a fog of dread. I compare its format to the nightmarish ending of Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream, and Creative Director Jake Slack agrees, saying it might have subconsciously had an influence.
Naturally, when I call Slack to talk about the project, I have an immeadiate question: “Where have you been?”
“Essentially, when we first started developing [Private Eye] we were targetting seated VR with a gamepad,” Slack says. “When we first started the project there wasn’t even roomscale VR.”
“Just as we were kind of getting to the point where we felt “Okay, this is a decent slice of game, let’s releases this and see if people like it, enough for us to go to Kickstarter,” I tried Budget Cuts on Vive, and I was just like “Holy shit.””
Neat Corporations’ Budget Cuts is a pretty excellent demonstration of how VR has moved on from gamepad, making full use of the HTC Vive’s room-scale tech. In 2014, we had no idea such an experience would be possible anywhere near as quickly as this. “It felt exactly like what we were trying to do with a gamepad,” Slack says.
“I was just like “Shit, we have been completelty trumped here.””
This isn’t the first time I’ve heard this story from VR devs that committed to the tech early; The Assembly developer nDreams said the same thing about motion controls late last year. VR breakthroughs have come thick and fast over the past few years, and it’s left some teams playing catch up. It’s an unfortunate side-effect of being an early believer in VR.
It’s taken a lot of extra work, then, but Private Eye and this precursor will hopefully be all the better for it. The main game will still feature the same story, but these side-stories, two of which are planned right now, will be set in the fractured mind of Sam Sutherland as he’s wheeled into hospital following his accident. Sutherland will recall one of his earlier cases, only warped by his trauma, transforming it into a surreally bleak escape room-style mission.
As you can see, the game’s now making full use of Touch, Vive wands and, the developer hopes, PlayStation Move too. Slack and co are hoping to release a first look at the prologue on Steam Early Access in late February for a low price to get feedback and shape the rest of it. The complete experience is aiming to launch in late spring or early summer.
The full game, meanwhile, is a little further off, and Slack hopes these earlier releases will help fund it. The seated VR play will remain, but the developer is hoping to create a system in which you create a space for your chair, and then stand up and move around in Sutherland’s memory sequences. It’s an intriguing thought that I’m hoping works out.
After an extended hiatus I couldn’t be happier to see Private Eye still up and running.