Minecraft's voxel-based world has never really appealed to me. I've played it some, here and there at events and at home to try it out. It's felt to me like it's one of those games that you have to at least play a little in order to have the gaming literacy to talk about the sandbox and survival genres that it helped popularize. Heck, I've played shooters based on Minecraft's visual aesthetic, and other minimalist titles aimed at world-building or game-making. However, by-and-large, Minecraft has never really grabbed me, until Oculus ran their Gear VR Minecraft event this Tuesday and turned it into a blocky VR odyssey.
I had previously tried Minecraft using the Oculus Rift, but had only come away impressed with their implementation of snap rotation, something I hadn't seen in the headset VR space that I normally report on, and I was rightfully schooled in the comments section of my article since it had been in use in the cellphone VR space for months. However, while I thought this was an excellent use of the technique to defray the dizziness and nausea that comes with turning with a controller, I didn't really care that much about the game.
At the Oculus Gear VR Minecraft event, they were showing literally the same demo they had at the Xbox preview event; targeting 60 fps (where the Rift targets 90). It was a curious experience, though; with no way to monitor what players were seeing or experiencing on the cellphone device, the handlers and developers had to guess and ask what players were seeing to guide them through the demo. I found myself suddenly getting into the game, where I had felt a sense of removal at the prior event.
The ability to turn in 360 degrees without the tether standard to VR headsets made all the difference; they had us sit in swivel chairs, and we navigated by turning in the chair and then using a Bluetooth gamepad controller to move forward, something that just felt too unwieldy with the tethered Oculus Rift VR headset I'd tried it in less than a month ago. This made interaction in the environment much more intuitive, and I think it would have been even more so if I'd been standing.
At one point I fell off the track of their on-rails demo experience and, in a panicked rush using my pickaxe, carved my way back and up through the adjacent wall. It spoke to something John Carmack said in a brief speech about the game—which he's been working on for months—that the level of immersion was greater in GEAR VR than on the Rift, due to this ability to move without a tether in all directions, and how that created a sense of presence and urgency in the procedurally generated world you didn't get any other way.
He added that this was especially true if you were deep down, low on resources, and suddenly got attacked from behind by an enemy. Later Carmack, surrounded by game and tech journalists, discussed how the next big thing for Gear VR that they were working on was positional tracking—the ability to get accurate directional movement in VR aside from rotation—and that he had several ideas for how they could do this with the devices without using the standard external camera that the larger headsets use.
I can honestly say that I don't have much interest in Minecraft in most gaming spaces, whether it's mobile, PC, or console. In the Oculus Gear VR space, though, the immediacy of the gameplay and the living environment grabbed me the most of any way that I've played it, and I can see getting lost in the world of survival and environment building, with its freedom of movement and simple environment immersion. That'd be a deep dive where I'd have to be dragged up by someone else for air.