Ready Player Anyone

Ballard’s Portal Virtual Reality Arcade offers escapist gaming and prime people watching.

This week’s theatrical release of Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One—a film about a search for an Easter egg in a worldwide virtual-reality game—unintentionally captures the way most people have experienced VR: by watching others play it. Why’s that? Because VR is pricey. An Oculus Rift headset will run you about $600 and the competing Vive costs $799, not to mention the even more costly computers (and lack of a social life) needed to power them.

But console video games and movies and our own lives apparently aren’t cutting it. All of those other things still involve peripheral vision. In VR, your periphery is just more of the 360 degree game (and probably a zombie about to attack).

Still, what distinguishes Portal Virtual Reality Arcade, which opened in Ballard last year, is the way it highlights an underrated aspect of VR in its current state—watching people play is practically as entertaining as experiencing it. Everyone moves like a baby playing hide and seek—uncertain of the next step and occasionally tripping over themselves. It’s no wonder the booths are padded.

The space features 10 room-sized stalls, along with corresponding screens showing the action taking place inside the player’s VR world. It’s a necessary feature as there’re always as many people watching as playing. I enjoyed occasionally walking up to the spectators and creepily going full Inception by remarking, “The dream has become their reality. Who are you to say otherwise?”

Unlike a traditional arcade, Portal charges patrons for blocks of playtime (not per play), and features a rotating array of state-of-the-art games that sometimes require you to duck, jump, or, in my case, cower. VR time costs $19.95 for 30 minutes and $29.95 for an hour, none of which can be paid in quarters. It’s pricey, but some of the better games distract from the cost.

Superhot is a shooter that slows down time so you can dodge bullets like Neo after he got his shit together. Spacecats With Lasers features spacecats with lasers (with the potential for an impending lawsuit from The Lonely Island), and Tilt Brush is an art experience that lets you draw big 3D penises (among other things, I suppose).

In Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes, the goal is to defuse a bomb while your friends help outside the game. It can be a bit complicated, so you may just end up yelling “Get out of here and save yourselves!” over and over.

There are also zombie games, war multiplayers, futuristic sports, Google Earth (I tried to find Portal), and The VR Museum of Fine Art, where you can feel the heart-racing thrill of seeing masterpieces like Michelangelo’s David without security telling you, “Please, step back.”

Before starting, customers are asked to sign a waiver stipulating that you understand virtual reality may cause nausea, dizziness, or vomiting. (Don’t worry, the headsets are cleaned with disinfectant wipes between uses.) It even says that playing may “test a person’s physical and mental limits and carries with it the potential for death, serious injury, and property loss.” That’s all well and good, except for the property-loss part. (I kept my wallet in my pants.)

The waiver is clearly somewhat due to titles like Richie’s Plank Experience—one of the two short, $5 sample games—which is just riding up 50 stories in an elevator and then walking out onto a creaky plank 500 feet above street level, just like we all used to do as kids. There is an actual plank you step on about half a foot off the ground. It’s fun, but since the game sometimes freaks people out, the Portal techs talk you through it, which spoils any kind of immersion. I mean, I was trying to re-enact the last scene from Vanilla Sky, and this disembodied voice wouldn’t stop yapping.

Portal certainly provides enjoyable entertainment in a maybe once-a-month kind of way, though I dream of the day when they have treadmill floors, so you can walk more than a few feet without hitting the wall like Wile E. Coyote.

The tough part with the whole experience was returning to reality. After taking off the VR headset, I had a slight momentary fear that the padded walls were actually those of an insane asylum, and that there never was any headset. But … yeah … that’s probably just me.


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