My Baffling Japanese PlayStation VR Experience

by Matt Miller on Sep 18, 2015 at 10:21 AM

Sony graciously set aside some time for me to come by their large TGS booth earlier today to try out the newly renamed PlayStation VR, previously codenamed Morpheus. While I’ve had some brief demos of other VR hardware, this was the first time I’d tried on Sony’s headset. Unfortunately for me, I knew next to nothing about the games I was set to play, they were all in Japanese, and the kind Japanese women manning each station stubbornly refused to understand English, almost as stubbornly as I have failed to learn Japanese in the last 30-plus years. The result was a surreal adventure, and I came away both oddly fascinated with the potential of the device, and with more than a little bit of a headache.

I stopped first at The Playroom, a piece of software clearly meant to ease one into the VR mindset with simple mini-games. As a hulking VR monster rampaging through a city, I was encouraged repeatedly (in Japanese) to do something with my head by the attending demo minders, but my total lack of local language skills left me confused, and an elderly Japanese man in a business suit giggled on the seat next to me as he soundly beat me with his tiny power ranger-esque robots. The exchange left me appropriately humbled, but it did communicate how well PlayStation VR is able to play with shifting a sense of size and scale. As a kaiju-like monster, I genuinely felt larger than the tiny robots scurrying away from me, and the sense of power as my rotating head brought down buildings was invigorating. 

Next, I was off to Joysound VR, which I learned was a karaoke game far too late. The headpiece was already strapped to my head when the enthusiastic young woman in front of me thrust a microphone into my hand. Within the virtual reality recreation, I was suddenly part of an all-girl J-Pop band as it rushed out onto stage and began to sing. Japanese kanji scrolled across the bottom of the screen, which needless to say, did not help me to successfully wow the enthusiastic crowd. Even so, the live action experience of the demo was impressive. It genuinely felt like I was an embarrassed man standing on stage with a gaggle of bopping girls on either side. The biggest problem in these live action sequences continues to be the fidelity of the visuals, which looked grainy and pixelated in my headset. 

With my singing career in ruins, I headed next door to attend to the  Aquarion Evol demo, an anime-themed mecha game based on the animated show of the same name. Like many American gamers, I have a modest enthusiasm and knowledge of anime, but this particular show had passed me by unnoticed. So I had little context when the VR set slipped over my head, and I found myself on a ship launching forth from a tube to join my wingmates in the sky. The sense of immersion here was impressive. The distant view of the surrounding clouds made me feel like I was high in the air, and the animated characters would pop up in my HUD to issue directives and storytelling, the content of which was of course completely lost on me. 

It came as something of a surprise when my NPC female wingmates began to earnestly shout at one another, and my ship moved into formation with them, so that we could combine into a giant robot. In a somewhat troubling sequence, my HUD video cut to these other pilots as the mechanical parts of our ships slotted together, and their seemingly naked forms arched their backs and screamed, an ecstatic response that apparently occurs when your giant mechanized ship meets another mechanized ship in midair. I’m afraid I wouldn’t know. 

Nonetheless, once combined, we descended into a city, and faced off with an opposing robot, and had the chance to fire a shot at it before the on-rails demo came to a close. Despite the oddly sexualized combining sequence, the demo impressed upon me the potential for PlayStation VR to offer up gameplay experiences different from what I’m used to on a TV. The three-dimensional space felt real, and the sense of being suspended within my mechanized ship was potent. I’d love to experience a full game in a similar format.

Next Page: I'm pulled on stage with Hatsune Miku

Bandai Namco’s Summer Lesson demo was next up, and as the attendant strapped the PS VR headset on, it was the first time I began to notice my head beginning to hurt. In order to stay on your head, the heavily front-weighted unit must be quite secure, especially where it straps to the back of your head. Moreover, the actual eye goggles need to be as close to your eyes as possible, or the picture is even more blurry than it would otherwise be. Sony’s headset offers an experience that is fascinating in short bursts, but it’s hard for me to imagine how I’d keep the headset on for any long periods of play without some significant discomfort. 

Summer Lesson has been used at a few different previous conventions to show off the narrative potential and character potential of the device, and it certainly succeeds at communicating things you're not used to getting from a game. It’s a strong demonstration of the way you can feel like you’re genuinely interacting with another person within the VR world, in a way that traditional games have not managed. With that said, the pre-scripted exchange of Summer is more than a little bit voyeuristic , with you taking on the role of a Japanese teacher, and a young blonde girl eagerly waiting to get your tutelage. Over the course of the demo, she leans across you and sits just a bit too close, and the sensation is an odd one – as you’re forced to lean in to read a book she is offering, you genuinely get the sense of invading another person’s personal space. 

Summer Lesson is also notable for its remarkable sound design, which responds to your head movement to change the volume of the distant ocean waves, the sound of the girl’s voice, and more. 

Despite the urgings of my colleagues, Kim Wallace and Joe Juba, I have as yet failed to try out the Danganronpa games. Thus, when I headed over to try out Cyber Danganronpa, I was at a double disadvantage. The game’s quirky concept was largely lost on me (a mean teddy bear is holding court in a school, I think?) and the Japanese dialogue at the center of the gameplay was a mystery. At certain points throughout the demo, I was meant to shoot a weapon at the surrounding students being judged. The woman manning the station aimed to do me a favor by letting me know when to shoot by tapping on my shoulder, but every time she did so it made me jump, and I missed my shots. The mean bear eventually declared game over and murdered me with a  trash compactor, which was appropriately terrifying. 

Despite my failure, Danganronpa further instilled in me the promise presented not only by PS VR, but the broader VR experience. During the demo, I genuinely felt like I was in a 3D space with these animated characters on either side. That’s not something I ever get out of a TV-based or mobile platform, where the characters are always one level removed in my visual framework.

My day would not have been complete without a trip to visit Japan’s own virtual pop star, Hatsune Miku. The irony was not lost on me that I was about to encounter a virtual singer in a virtual reality world. The game turned out to be an appropriately bizarre end to my already strange experience with PlayStation VR. The demo began with me joinging the thousands of adoring fans in a stadium, feverishly waving light sticks as Hatsune flitted about the raised stage ahead. My light stick was a Move controller placed into my hand, and as I matched the movements of the surrounding crowd with my arm, flashing effects appeared on screen, presumably lauding my rhythmic acumen. Suddenly, I was transported on stage with Hatsune herself, who pranced in front of me while repeatedly singing “Happy, Happy, Happy, Viva, Viva, Viva.” She seemed pleased that I was there, and I suppose I was pleased to see her as well, and the infectious absurdity of the situation made me laugh out loud. 

PlayStation VR undoubtedly has a hard road to walk in competition with Oculus Rift. The comfort factor is a big issue for me, and I hope that Sony finds some way to keep things a little less blurry in final game launches. I wouldn’t dare to make any judgments about the software I played – my lack of Japanese language knowledge has no bearing on the game quality. With that said, everything I played felt distinctly like a tech demo, and nothing I played felt like something I’d want to pay for. The headset definitely needs  one or more serious games on deck before it’s going to be an appealing purchase option. Even so, I can’t deny PlayStation VR’s potential to provide something entirely new to Sony gamers, and I left the booth bemused, but excited about the future of the medium.