Left oar. Right oar. Left oar. Right oar.
As my small boat gently drifts downstream on the current, I pause and look above me at the tall trees that overhang the river. For a moment, I’ve completely forgotten the bustling floor of the exhibition, the Minecraft tournament and the explosive death-matches taking place not a dozen paces away from me. For just a few quiet seconds, there’s just me, my silent passenger, and the river itself.
I am the Sandman, and this is my home.
Sandman is a game currently under development by NFTS Games for the Oculus Rift, and this weekend I was lucky to have a couple of minutes to try it out at Platform X 2013, Hull’s celebration of videogames both new and old. What I found was an unexpected island of calm amidst the bustling trade floor, as the Oculus dropped me aboard a small boat, handed me an oar and pushed me out into the gentle currents.
As the titular Sandman, it is your duty in life to transport slumbering children through the land of dreams. Winding your tiny boat along mysterious canals through forests and canyons, you’ll encounter surreal sights in your exploration of an unreal land. Mainly though, you’ll just be rowing your little boat.
But in many ways, that’s enough. Not all games need to be packed with features, quick-time events and cutscenes – Sandman is quite content to let you drift on the current and pick your own course through the shallows, and I was happy to do so. As the river gently curved between overhanging branches and rocky banks, I took advantage of the Rift’s capabilities and took in the sights, admiring the beautiful and mysterious land that surrounded me.
As you row onwards, your time in the land of dreams slowly ticks down. It is only by capturing elusive hovering dragonflies can you replenish your store of precious seconds. For the impatient player, the boat is equipped with a small motor with a limited fuel supply, but I was contented enough to row my way downstream as my time ticked by.
Albert Bentall, Sandman’s creator, is promising a randomly generated river-scape that will allow for multiple playthroughs, claiming that the river will twist and wind differently every time you play. This approach will hopefully mean that the feeling of exploration will stay fresh, as you’ll never quite be sure what lies around the next bend.
Sandman fondly demonstrates the other side of the Oculus Rift’s capabilities. VR doesn’t have to be all about jump-scares, high speed car chases and intense combat; sometimes you just want to transport yourself to somewhere you can relax. I’m looking forward to a future where the Rift features a multitude of calming experiences; quiet moments on the beach and peaceful walks through fields – places where gamers can, even just for a moment, take their fingers off the trigger and let go. I’m pleased to see that Sandman might just be one of those games, and I’m beginning to realise just how calming the Oculus Rift can potentially be.
There are backwater places all hidden from view,
And quaint little islands just awaiting for you.
So I’ll leave you right now to cast off your bow,
Go messing about on the river.