How often do we really stop and appreciate the little things in VR? The tiny details that developers slave over, from character animations to richly layered environments? We can easily overlook these aspects while we gun down robots or hide from monsters, and it’s a real shame. But Frontier VR isn’t something that will let you skim over those tiny treasures. In fact, it’s all about them.
A VR experience that celebrates the wilderness, Frontier is the second VR experience that got me to do something very peculiar in VR: lay down. The first time it was to take cover in John Wick, but here it was completely out of choice. I crawled down onto my belly and just sat and watched, wanting to make as little disturbance as I could to the impossibly tranquil scene around me. I gazed in wonder as nature hopped, trotted, and flew past me, feeling like a privileged trespasser in its world.
Eventually I turned onto my back and gazed up into the evening’s sky, watching the white tree tops sway in the cold air. I’d follow birds with my eyes as they skirted along the skyline, oblivious to my onlooking. After a few minutes, I heard the grunt and thuds of an approaching grizzly bear, and I began to curl up in concern, worried that my new found peace was about to be ripped to shreds. Indeed, the beast towered above me, but it was not here to cause harm, and I wasn’t either, at least not at this moment.
Frontier VR is a collection of three spaces designed by New Zealand-based Gaugepunk Games. These are some of the most memorable and, yes, immersive locations I’ve seen in VR, reminding me of the kiddish joy I experienced the very first time I put on a headset and found myself in a virtual world. Back then I thought just an Oculus Rift DK1 and a gamepad would be enough to change the future, and our expectations have grown considerably since then, but this back-to-basics app recaptured that initial magic.
I tell the developer’s Jack Huygens about my experience lying on the floor, forgetting that hard, laminate wood that was really beneath me and trading it for soft, snowy grass. “I swear lying down next to a tent blowing in the wind at night in the snow is one of our favorite VR experiences to date,” he says, explaining that the developers like to do the exact same thing.
“Our goal with the game was just to create an actually unique and stylized world for people to spend time in, since I swear almost every other VR game we were seeing was trying to make just classic ‘video games’ with scores, levels etc,” Huygens adds. “Every game we played felt like, ‘Yeah it’s fun for a while, but this place just feels like a stage for the ‘video game’ and just doesn’t seem to have any soul.'”
While I can’t deny my love for Robo Recall, Powers VR, and others, I know where Huygens is coming from. In fact, recently I’ve been thinking about similar quotes from Hideo Kojima about how some developers are mistaking VR as an extension of traditional games. Frontier VR isn’t even technically a game — in fact Gaugepunk intentionally kept it away from being one — and the way it’s designed makes it clear they didn’t view it as extension of our existing medium while they were making it.
The other locations hold similar marvels. Sitting by the side of a railway and watching Buffalo run across the plains is a sight to be savored, whiled luring deer over to greet you in a rockier landscape is a rightly slight and cautious affair. I don’t even know if my trepidation affected their behavior, but I wasn’t willing to risk experimenting.
And I haven’t even mentioned Frontier’s other major feature yet: guns. In each level you can pick up weapons and shoot the critters around you. It sounds violent and, if you make it so, it is; when I’m in a slightly more playful mood I shoot at birds as they fly past. In a moment of panic, I dive for a pistol and gun down the first bear that struts up to me. But, strangely, it’s not at odds with that initial calm. We’re in the frontier, here, and it feels like there is a general understanding that in this world man is doing what he must to survive. There’s nothing in the game to judge you, you’re just doing what comes naturally to you.
Frontier VR is quite fascinating, then, in how much it does with so little. I’m the last person to jump into VR relaxation experiences, but this grabbed my attention and kept it for long past the value of the $4.99 required to see it. Gaugepunk has another experience coming, set in World War II with some “mini-narrative elements”, and I can’t wait to see what comes of it. Frontier itself it coming to get more updates in the future, too.