Image Credit: BBC (Fair Use)
Image Description: The Runaway
Nothing to do with Donna Noble, The Runaway is Doctor Who’s first virtual reality experience, downloadable free from the official website, anticipating the commercial release of a full-length ‘cinematic’ game from a different team later in the year. Representing different levels of experience are reviewers Filip Wieland and Georgia Harper
“The franchise is perfect for this sort of experimentation” – Filip Wieland
The BBC is one of the few places where great designers actually work on some very interesting and fun design challenges, and I feel like The Runaway has been one of them. I suspect the brief for this project was “It’ll have Jodie Whittaker in it and it has to run on everything,” and it really does according to the BBC blog post announcing the title, the experience works with both PC-based and self-contained systems. There is even a version that removes the interaction and plays as a 360 degree video, although it strikes me as odd that they haven’t just uploaded it to YouTube, adding support for Google Cardboard-style viewing. I played the interactive version on the Oculus Rift S.
The experience itself is actually really fun! You play as an alien whom the Doctor has rescued from a “space vehicle collision,” explaining your limited ability to move, and you help her bring a young energy being back to their parents, while avoiding being destroyed by a particularly nasty version of space police, the SPUDs. The story and jokes are delightfully Doctor Who-ish, and Jodie’s voice acting is really good. I loved that one of the main themes of the experience was calming down. The story concludes when the runaway child is reunited with their parents, and the Doctor offers to take the player home… but not before asking them whether they’d like to go on a trip in the TARDIS. However, it remains to be seen whether there are more Doctor Who VR experiences planned.
The stylised graphics work very well in this experience, and I suspect they also help make it more accessible to people on different systems. The only thing I didn’t really like was the Doctor’s character model–I think even with the limitations of the lower-end target systems, the team could have done a better job, especially given the talent available. It’s not Jodie doing the motion capture–but you couldn’t tell at first blush. A minor but very delightful detail in the experience is when the Kerblam! box makes an appearance–apparently the Doctor likes to keep her random junk in it, which does come in handy in the sequence where you have to present the objects to the child energy orb in order to get it to calm down. In that sequence, you’re instructed to not touch the objects yourself, but use the sonic screwdriver to interact with them–a brilliant workaround for some of the design problems in the experience. Consider this: the interactive version has to work with at least three different types of controller, and has to be easily operated by people with no prior exposure to VR. Making all interactions work with a single button might not fly in a game that explicitly targets Oculus systems, but it’s definitely much more portable across different VR systems, and does not require the user to be familiar with the controller before embarking on a thirteen-minute experience in a public library when the BBC VR van rolls up.
However, those limitations do mean that the interactive version is still somewhat limited in its interactivity. You are mostly a spectator, taking in the TARDIS interior (and seeing just how difficult that set must have been to film on!) and occasionally playing minigames–I did like the TARDIS flying sequence where you try to thread your way through a very dense debris field. I definitely want to see more Doctor Who VR games in the future–the franchise is perfect for this sort of experimentation, and I would love to see what the BBC VR team can come up with if their brief was “okay, now make an actual game.” I will be awaiting The Edge Of Time eagerly.
How do I let go of the rocket? – Georgia Harper
The Runaway was my first VR experience–unless you count playing with the Oculus Rift S tutorials beforehand and being a bit scared to try and pick up the cube because I would somehow actually do it–so it’s fair to say I was a bit more easily impressed. Finding myself in an animated TARDIS console with an animated Jodie Whittaker was, in itself, pretty mind-blowing.
Available for free and coming in at around the ten-minute mark, The Runaway seems to be intended as more of a demo and is designed to be compatible with a range of headsets–and it’s important for the BBC’s first forays into VR to be made as widely available as possible. That said, having just spent lots of time in the Oculus tutorial grabbing objects, it was strange to suddenly be limited to pointing at them (dealt with in The Runaway with the Doctor’s trusty sonic screwdriver). I found that you couldn’t even move very far before you’re out of bounds and the screen goes blank, although again, perhaps I’m just unused to the system – it would have been amazing to get to see the full TARDIS console!
The experience opens with you waking up in the TARDIS after a collision with Volta, a baby energy orb which will explode and take the TARDIS with it if it gets too agitated. Your task is to assist the Doctor in reuniting Volta with its parents while defending it from the SPUDS, some kind of space police unit who intend to destroy it. As someone who ended up screaming “HOW DO I LET GO OF THE ROCKET?!” at poor Filip during the Oculus tutorial because I’d clenched my fists over the grab button, the theme of staying calm was really rather helpful–as I can imagine it will be for many first-timers!
The interactive element of The Runaway consists of three short games, the first of which is flying the TARDIS through an asteroid belt–when I was told I’d need to fly the TARDIS I was kind of hoping to pull some levers at the console, and it took me a little while to figure out what I was actually doing (moving a TARDIS-shaped cursor). From there, though, the rest of the game was basically intuitive – bringing objects (stored in a Kerblam!-branded box, which is a nice touch) to Volta to soothe it, and finally transferring some of that excess energy into the TARDIS’ time rotor.
I really enjoyed this–it’s great for Who fans who are just keen to play at being a companion for a little while and don’t particularly want to spend ages getting to grips with controls before stepping into the TARDIS. The Edge of Time looks as if it will be much more hands-on–I can’t wait to see how the concept builds!
Tides 44 is, at time of publication, available to buy through this link