We Tried Out 2 Halloween VR Experiences And Survived (After Some Screaming)
Virtual reality has a reputation for being disappointing. We want to be taken into another world, hop aboard Star Trek's holodeck, but we're not quite there. The Void's trying to change that by throwing you into a real physical environment, which you can check out locally at the Glendale Galleria.
In the Void's games, if you pick up a gun, you're holding a physical weapon — if you sit on a bench, there's an actual physical bench for you to sit on. We went to a demo of the Void's new Halloween experiences and talked with the creators behind them — here's what we learned, and what went down.
When you're about to go into the Void, you're fitted with a vest and a VR helmet. The vest vibrates when you get shot or attacked — or in the case of one of their new experiences, slimed. (Ew.)
NICODEMUS: DEMON OF EVANISHMENT
Nicodemus is driven by exploration and puzzle-solving rather than shooting at things, unlike some of the Void's other options. You're transported back in time to explore the ruins of 1893's Chicago World's Fair. You start by choosing a Victorian character for your virtual avatar, ranging from a typist to a magician, creating the version of yourself that both you and those you play with will be seeing.
While most Void experiences let you work together in teams of up to four, Nicodemus intentionally splits you up into pairs. We also ended up even more alone, as the fright was too much for our partner — who asked to be let out in the first room. But yes, if the fear of being eaten by a demon proves too great, the staff is ready to help return you to the non-virtual world.
Unlike their Star Wars or Ghostbusters experiences, Nicodemus is completely original. For those who want to dive deep, the experience's writers even wrote a novella that will be available as the experience expands to more locations this fall. And that novella includes all the guidance you need to solve the puzzles along the way — and find the alternate ending. Our group didn't find our way there, but we're hoping that version is a little less... gruesome than the one we experienced.
The storyline was created by the Void's director of story, Tracy Hickman, and chief creative officer, Curtis Hickman — they're a father/son team. Tracy has been a fantasy author with more than 70 books, known best for co-creating the Dragonlance novels — he's written all of the Void's experiences thus far.
Curtis is also an illusionist, which he said helped inspire the world of Nicodemus, along with his own fascination with the Chicago World's Fair.
"There's I guess a lot of pieces of my life, my experiences, my interests," Curtis told us, "just all coming together in a setting where it makes sense to eclectically go from one exhibit to another, and show off those different elements."
Among the many, many creepy things in this world, you get a chance to interact with robotic automatons — they're those simple mechanical robots that perform an action, move a little, and are already a little creepy even outside a horror VR experience. Having the chance to interact with those automatons was one of the first things they decided on for this experience, Tracy said.
The world is filled with small details, the idea being that they were putting in more than anyone could experience in just one time through, according to Curtis.
Meanwhile, Ghostbusters starts you out with a proton pack, including a beam in your hand, for a much more lighthearted ghostly experience. Ghostbusters: Dimension has been enhanced from its earlier version in a few ways, mostly thanks to the original Ghosbusters' Dan Aykroyd.
Aykroyd hadn't had a chance to try out the previous version of the experience, and when he did, he was so excited that he asked what he could do to help, according to the Tracy Hickman. That means the new version has Aykroyd doing the introductory video welcoming you into the action, as well as narrating the experience throughout.
In Ghostbusters: Dimension, you're put in charge of fetching Aykroyd's Ray Stantz some coffee — but are also tasked with checking out a haunted hotel on the way. You'll see some other classic Ghostbusters creatures while firing your proton packs to bust some ghosts — including one classic baddie in the Void's equivalent of a video game boss battle.
The experiences are somewhat forgiving for those who may not be expert players — they clearly know that visitors are dropping a good chunk of change for the opportunity at around $30 a pop. So don't worry, you're not going to die when your friend shoots you with a proton beam — though you'll definitely feel some deep vibrations.
HOW THE VOID DESIGNS A VR EXPERIENCE
From these experiences, to Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire, to everything else they've done and have coming up, it starts with figuring out what the physical experience will be like.
"We usually start from the very basics of the design, with the question, 'What physical properties do we want in this experience?'" Tracy said.
"The core concept, in the beginning days of the Void was, how can we make virtual reality more like the promise of VR, and less like what it came to be," Curtis said. "It's not about the technology, it's about the experience."
Some objects get repurposed, since they can be repainted in the virtual world underneath the players' VR helmets.
"So what might be fuses in one experience can be a torch in a different experience, or it can be a flashlight in a different experience, or it can be a wand," Tracy said.
As a magician, Curtis understands the bits of illusion that go into what users experience. It's a combination of illusion and design that make the impossible seem real in their experiences, he said.
Pre-production is similar to what happens in other media. But instead of storyboarding, they lay out the experience in what they call a "gray box," given how difficult it can be to lay out a three-dimensional experience with just flat images.
Then it moves into a process similar to video game development — until they reach their actual user testing, where the VR experience makes it something completely different.
"It's a nightmare, because it's unlike just having banks of computers and people all day finding bugs," Curtis said. "It's people getting dressed up, and suited up, and put onto the stage, and cycled through, and finding people who've never been to the Void before, and getting them in, and then interviewing them."
WHAT'S NEXT FOR THE VOID
Their upcoming projects are under wraps, though they promise a variety of genres. Curtis added that he hopes they get the chance to revisit the horror genre once again.
The Void's trying to push in three different directions, Tracy said:
1. Business expansion. There are eight Void stages currently, and nine more are opening over the next year.
2. The technology. "As beautiful as the Void is, we're not satisfied with that," Tracy said. "We are the best destination virtual reality on the planet, but we want to keep pushing that forward."
3. Content. "We need to be able to provide powerful, and motivating, beautiful, rich experiences for people that are constantly pushing the boundaries of what we've done before," Tracy said.
One of those content areas that they want to move into: educational content, figuring out how to use the space to help people learn. Ideas for that include letting people see what it's like to go back to historical places, or to be at events throughout history, Curtis said.
They're also looking to keep a balance between original ideas and licensed content.
"There's so much to be said, to be going to a place that you love, a place like Star Wars, and being able to step into that universe," Curtis said. "[But] people come out of the Void all the time, they're like, 'Oh, you know what? One of my favorite experiences is Nicodemus, because it was a place I had no expectations of, and no idea what was around the next corner, and I had no concept of what this world was really about, and I got to discover that. And I think discovery, and discovering a new reality is a big part of what we're trying to provide."
You can discover the worlds of the Void at the Glendale Galleria. The Star Wars experience is also available at Downtown Disney.
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