VR games are difficult to market, especially when they don’t fit obviously into existing genres. Here’s 12 gems you may have overlooked but are well worth your consideration.
Updated – August 21st, 2020
The Paradox of VR Game Development
There exists a paradox of sorts in the VR game development landscape: many of VR’s most interesting games just don’t look like the sort of non-VR games we’re all familiar with. By not obviously fitting into existing genres—the ‘shooter’, ‘RPG’, ‘racer’, ‘puzzler’, etc—it’s very difficult to actually market such titles, no matter how excellent they may be.
The result, as I’ve found over the years, is a surprising number of ‘indie VR gems’: VR titles which are much better than their lack of noteirty would suggest. Oftentimes these games are rated exceptionally well by those who give them a chance, but getting people to decide to try them in the first place is the real challenge.
This is a double bummer because it’s these very developers—who are thinking outside the box and discovering what native VR games actually look like—which we should supporot if we want to accelerate the maturation of VR game design. Indies are usually working with small teams and shoestring budgets; if they don’t at least break-even with each VR project, it’s unlikely that they will be able to justify a followup and continue to help push VR game design forward.
So, if you want to help VR succeed, and have some fun in the process, take a careful look at these 12 indie VR gems and consider giving them a shot. I would be blown away if everyone doesn’t find at least one title they think is worth owning in this list. And you have little to lose here if you’re using Oculus or Steam; both have very reasonable refund policies: if you find out the game isn’t for you and you’ve played it for less than two hours, you’re entitled to a full refund within 14 days of your purchase.
Indie VR Gems
Real quick: this list isn’t intended to be comprehensive, nor is it scientific. In the VR space most developers fit the definition of ‘indie’ (those which aren’t working with a publisher). For the purposes of this article, I’m loosely defining an ‘indie gem’ to mean ‘a VR game which deserves more attention than it receives’, whether or not it is from a recognizable VR studio. Without further ado, and in no specific order:
Fujii is part walking simulator, part puzzler, and part meditation. The game presents a serene world which somehow manages to offer a feeling of exploration without traversing huge distances. As you explore and solve light puzzles, you’ll discover new plants and bring their seeds back to your garden. The garden acts as a persistent ‘home’ space which you can cultivate and customize to your liking by planting and watering your plants. Fujii does so much right in design and aesthetics. Nearly everything you do feels good, thanks to intuitive interactions and expert use of sound, animation, and haptics. This is a game which delivers a sense of delight just by being in its world.
COMPOUND [Early Access]
Platform & User Reviews: Steam (97%)
Compound is a randomly generated rogue-lite shooter with a style all its own. Something about its 8-bit artwork manages to feel totally authentic and while still somehow completely at home even in the medium of VR which is so far removed from the 8-bit era. This is a challenging game; lethal and unforgiving enemies bring a heightened sense of immersion as you’ll need to be on high alert to prioritize and eliminate threats to succeed. Luckily you’ve got an array of interesting and fun weapons, each with its own sense of character.
VTOL VR [recently out of Early Access]
Platform & User Reviews: Steam (96%)
While a handful of better known flight simulators exist with optional VR support, the vast majority are made for keyboard and mouse input or peripherals like flight sticks. VTOL VR sets itself apart by being made from the ground-up for VR and motion controllers. So set your HOTAS aside and bask in the feeling of interacting directly with the controls in your cockpit as you operate critical aircraft functions, identify targets, and engage enemies without needing to buy niche peripherals to make it all feel great.
Hot Dogs, Horseshoes & Hand Grenades (AKA H3VR) [Early Access]
Platform & User Reviews: Steam (96%)
Hot Dogs, Horseshoes & Hand Grenades, also known as H3VR, is a VR sandbox for the gun aficionado. With more than 300 unique weapons in the game, you could spend hours just exploring the detailed custom sounds and interactions of each gun, right down to individually chambered rounds, folding stocks, fire modes, and adjustable iron sights. With heaps of modular accessories, you can do everything from the realistic—like adding sights, grips, and lasers to your favorite assault rifle—to the unholy—like turning a pistol into a kitbashed sniper rifle. Once you’ve got your arsenal sorted out, you can hit the shooting range, play a heap of mini-games and activities, or make up your own. Though H3VR launched in early access in 2016, its developer has been actively updating the game ever since, regularly bringing major new content additions and improvements over time, like the Team Fortress 2 weapon set.
Sprint Vector is a racing game that offers a sense of speed and mobility that’s hard to find anywhere else in the VR gaming landscape. Channeling elements of arcade racing games like Mario Kart with a Mirror’s Edge sense of flow, Sprint Vector’s unique take on ‘arm swinger’ locomotion is a revolution in its ability to maintain comfort even while you’re cruising at breakneck speeds—and it can be a good workout to boot. Alongside a competitive racing mode, the game also offers time trials which challenge you not just to be fast, but also to be creative as you look for new routes to shave precious seconds off your record. This game’s strong visual presentation is topped off by an excellent soundtrack.
Panoptic [Early Access]
Platform & User Reviews: Steam (93%)
Panoptic is a stellar asymmetric VR game where one player wearing a headset takes on the role of a giant and menacing ‘overseer’ while another player outside of VR plays as a tiny saboteur who attempts to blend in with roaming NPCs and destroy key objectives without being discovered. Thanks to VR, the overseer’s embodied presence and giant scale feel exceptionally imposing to the tiny non-VR player, creating tense moments where a single slip-up could lead to a suspenseful cat-and-mouse chase. The overseer may be powerful, but they can’t watch everything all at once; with a blend of strategy and cunning, the saboteur can prevail. The need for only one VR headset makes Panoptic a great game for sharing some of VR’s unique fun with friends who don’t have VR headsets themselves. While the game currently only supports local multiplayer, we found that Steam’s Remote Play Together feature makes it pretty easy to play Panoptic together online.
FREEDIVER: Triton Down
FREEDIVER: Triton Down is a short but worthwhile narrative adventure about an oceanographer who gets caught in a capsized research vessel after discovering something unexpected in a cave in the ocean depths. The game is built entirely around a unique ‘swimming’ locomotion system which is more than just a way to get the player from A to B; not only does it allow you to seamlessly navigate in 3D space underwater, it creates a built-in tension between movement and survival as the player has to surface for air or risk drowning. This effectively puts a time limit on puzzle solving which is always in the back of your mind, especially as the oxygen indicator on your arm beeps as it gets closer to 0%. Thanks to engaging interactive elements and thoughtful VR design, this is an adventure worth taking.
Virtual Virtual Reality
Virtual Virtual Reality is a narrative-driven VR game with an intriguing concept that’s worth seeing through to the end. As the name implies, you’ll find yourself popping in and out of various levels of virtual reality to navigate the game’s light puzzle elements while experiencing its strong art direction, writing, and interaction design. The developers include “an artichoke screams at you” among the game’s ‘key features’, which ought to give you an idea of the comedic flavor within.
Electronauts is half game, half tool, and wholly unique. It’s a VR music mixing game which lets you tap into your inner musical creativity even if you don’t have any idea how to play an instrument or make music from scratch. Each song in the game is effectively a ‘kit’ which includes various backing tracks, vocals, and unique instruments. Even though the game does much of the heavy lifting behind the scenes to keep everything in the right key and on beat, you’ll be surprised at how much freedom you have to make each song your own. While there’s no ‘objectives’, there’s much satisfaction to be had at managing seamless transitions between song segments, creating instrument loops that add a new flavor, and one of my favorite challenges: bringing each song to a smooth conclusion. Electronauts is an incredible way to experience the magic of music, and with multiplayer (on the Steam and Oculus Rift versions of the game only) you can even jam with a friend.
Racket: Nx is a polished and high energy game which feels like a futuristic mashup of racquetball fused with elements of Breakout. Players stand at the center of a 360 degree arena with neon targets that pulsate to the game’s excellent soundtrack. With racket in hand, players smack the glowing orb to destroy some targets while avoiding others. There’s some depth to hitting the orb too: you can slice it to give it spin, or give it an especially firm smack to send it roll along the wall for bonus points before it finally bounces back. Powerups and portals add additional variety. Racket: Nx can be a good workout, and is great for playing with VR friends thanks to cross-platform multiplayer between all versions of the game.
Until You Fall [Early Access]
Until You Fall is a procedurally generated rogue-lite that’s all about melee combat. You’ll battle your way through a string of rooms populated with enemies of increasing difficulty. Eventually, inevitably, you’ll die. At the end of each round, you’ll respawn in a hub space where you can spend money you’ve earned on new weapons and upgrades, making you stronger for your next bout. The game successfully fuses VR sword combat with meta-game elements in a way that no other VR title has yet managed. Combat is underscored with a sense of deliberate strategy that can change from one encounter to the next, especially depending upon which weapons you choose to bring into battle.
As a VR mech game, Vox Machinae strikes and impressive balance between playability and immersion. It feels like a simulator, but manages to be almost as easy as an arcade game to pick up while remaining challenging to master. It’s controls and systems are intuitive enough that you can grasp the basics in a match or two, but that doesn’t stop the game from delivering a incredible sense of immersion thanks to its interactive cockpit and unique mech control model. Even now, two years after its early access launch, Vox Machinae remains arguably unmatched in immersion by any other VR mech game.
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Surely this list only covers a fraction of VR’s indie gems—let us know your own picks in the comments below!