I was trying in vain to hit a goblin with a fireball when I heard the familiar voice behind me, "Is that Kat Bailey?"
Brian Fargo, founder of inXile Entertainment and the man behind classics like Wasteland and Bard's Tale, as well as the newly-released Torment: Tides of Numenera, was bobbing in to check on his studio's latest creation: Mage's Tale, a VR spinoff of his famous classic.
Fargo is the latest developer to be seduced by the siren song of VR, which is getting its hooks deeper and deeper into the medium. Once I was extricated from the Oculus headset (no easy process), he shared why he had decided to embrace the nascent technology. "Oculus used to be in Irvine. I went over to their office, got a bunch of demos, saw the dinosaur coming down the hallway, and I thought, 'I've gotta do a dungeon crawl.' The ecosystem isn't really big enough to support this, but thankfully Oculus was greatly supportive and they liked what we were proposing and here we are."
The game he and his team have come up with is a first-person dungeon crawler in the classic sense. You are a spellcaster exploring dank ruins crawling with monsters—an old concept with a new VR spin. You use a spell shield to block projectiles with one hand, and you toss spells with the other (an admittedly cumbersome process that can result in a lot of off-target fireballs). Fargo likens it to his own formative experiences as a gamer, "I like to talk about how I was a kid with the graph paper before Bard's Tale, and now here I am in the dungeon. It's the ultimate leap from where I've always wanted to be."
Your guide on your adventure is a snarky little creature named Crux—a floating goblin who spends most of his time chastising you for your meager abilities. I tried to throw a fireball at him, but it sadly went right through him. Fargo laughed when I told him about my impulse, "We might have to let people throw a fireball at him. That's one thing a lot of people want to do."
That's one little way in which VR comes into play, but what's really interesting about Mage's Tale is the way it visualizes the usual mechanics associated with the roleplaying genre. When you level up, for instance, you raise your hands to teleport back to your cauldron, where you're given a choice between a handful of vials. You throw one of the vials into a cauldron and poof, you have a brand new spell at your disposal. In effect, you've just navigated a skill tree without even knowing it.
Other aspects of Mage's Tales are more mechanical, of course. Enemies still take a fixed amount of damage, for instance, which is visualized by a certain number. Specific feedback is important in RPGs, Fargo says, and that is reflected in Mage's Tale even if it's not entirely natural.
The end result is yet another interesting little experiment in VR gameplay—a game that reflects the development community's growing understanding of how to engage with the new medium. As an indie developer, Fargo acknowledges that it's still extremely early days for the medium. "I know it will be many years before it will be self-sustaining in terms of major efforts, so it's no surprise to me where it's at now," he says.
Still, he's intrigued. You can hear it in the way he talks about how VR can impact RPG narrative. VR might be very different from Torment: Tides of Numenera ("You're not going to be reading a lot," Fargo says), but it has its own strengths. "In a lot of ways you're living the story rather than reading the story, so it's ripe for super great narrative moments. And there are things you can do in VR like proximity. When a character gets up close to you and looks you in the eye, your primal brain is wired to think, 'This person is looking me in the eye!' So those powerful little moments make a big difference. Sense of scale, knowing things are behind you."
This is just the beginning for inXile in the VR space. The company has a new studio in New Orleans, and they've been steadily building up institutional knowledge for the space. Mage's Tale represents their first step, featuring 10 dungeons and roughly 10 hours of gameplay.
Will VR ultimately be a good platform for RPGs? It's easy to wonder whether anyone will ever want to go that deep for a hundred hours or more. But Fargo is a legend who has been around the industry for a long time, and he tends to have a keen eye for this sort of thing. If he's intrigued, then it's certainly worth paying attention.