Minority Media is a Montreal-based studio known for producing what it calls “empathy games” – games that tug at the heart strings instead of relying on adrenaline. While one might think, at first glance, that a VR game about dinosaurs is an odd fit for that mandate, the emotional power of the Minority brand is alive and well in Time Machine VR. As the name suggests, Time Machine VR puts the player in control of a time machine, with the task of going back to prehistoric times to study dinosaurs, up close and personal. The demo starts in calibration and training, easing you into the VR experience before giving you the first taste of the game’s fictional setting: a large, appropriately cold, lab and transportation hub where you meet the female doctor who is the head of the program. Transmissions from this doctor reminded me of the messages from characters in Myst, and it’s in this short scene that the hints of the emotional core of the game come to the surface. “I wish I could go with you.” the doctor sighs, and I immediately started wondering why she couldn’t. I suspect this is central to the story of the game.
In Time Machine VR, time travel is described as being so ugly and horrifying that the time travel pod blocks out the images in the interests of the player’s sanity. There are, therefore, moments of near-total darkness that actually work quite well in setting the stage for the marine settings to come. The targets of your research are large, hungry, aquatic dinosaurs who don’t especially like you probing and scanning them, so the game provides you with a time stop mechanic so you can get up close and scan dinosaur eyes, give a pregnant dinosaur an ultrasound, and even float into the mouth of a giant prehistoric fish to scan its gills… without ending up like some Ahab wannabe in the belly of a Jurassic whale.
It’s hard to describe the wonder-inducing quality of these dinosaur encounters. The best thing I can compare it to is to Ellen’s Energy Adventure at Walt Disney World’s EPCOT Center, where you ride a slow-moving cart through an animatronic dinosaur show. Time Machine VR also gives you moments of Jurassic Park too: predators eat prey leaving blood clouds in the water, staring down the the unnerving reptilian eye of a dinosaur which you have to scan from less than ten feet away. It’s undeniably cool and awe inspiring.
The other great thing about Time Machine VR is that, unlike other VR tech demos I tried at E3 2015, the game moves slowly and gently enough that it didn’t induce motion sickness. While the adrenaline pumping action of a virtual reality first person shooter or heist getaway car chase is thrilling, they’re also vaguely disorienting and nausea-inducing. VR that moves too fast makes me feel uncomfortably unbalanced until I adjust to the visual sensation of moving without actually moving. Time Machine VR‘s slower, floating movements were much easier on my system, and didn’t threaten to make me throw up the granola bars I survived on during E3. It will be even better with the Oculus Touch controllers, since the hand positioning of the player’s virtual body will be closer to the way you’re sitting in real life. Yes, you have a body in the game if you look down, and the hands move as you manipulate the controls. It’s all pretty cool.
The demo also throws you a curve ball at the end, teasing you with an underwater Stonehenge-style structure that the player is, according to the fictional reality of the game, not supposed to see. Moments like this are indicators that the game is actually a game, and not just a kid-friendly dinosaur viewing simulator. Essentially, Time Machine VR is a game that makes VR relevant instead of a gimmicky way to view existing game content, and it respects the players comfort enough that you won’t end a play session by reaching for the Gravol.