Sunday, January 16, 2022

Beat Saber

Have you heard of Beat Saber? There's a lot of Beat Sabering going on in our house lately, so I thought I'd share.

For Quinn's fifteenth birthday a couple of months ago we reserved time for just our family (slightly reduced to four with Aden away at school) at a VR (Virtual Reality) place nearby. I wanted to do something different for his birthday, but it's hard coming up with anything in a pandemic. The VR time was perfect. It's like video games with a headset over your eyes, and a controller in each hand. I was surprised at how immersive it was. We each took turns trying different things: Mona wandered around in something called Half Life, Ian did some sort of space/shooting game, then moved on to mini golf. Quinn and I got introduced to Beat Saber, and were even able to compete against each other for a few rounds.

Beat Saber turned out to be insanely fun, and we ended up getting a VR system for home so we could do it whenever we like. 

The VR system was the family Christmas present this year, which made shopping pretty easy since we all agreed to share the one thing. (This does not mean there weren't "presents" to open. I've taken in recent years to wrapping up things we need anyway in order to make Christmas morning a fun event. There's a lot of cereal that gets wrapped in pretty paper. Mona got some pasta sauce and some spices we were out of. Everyone needed new blankets, so those went under the tree. Hair products, pens... Anything we're low on that needs to be replaced in December ends up with a bow on it and we call it Christmas!)

The VR system was a bit of an extravagant expense for us, but we could justify it on a few levels. Not the least of which is that the pandemic continues to drag on, and it's an activity we can enjoy in the house.

Also, exercise. I'm feeling the last game I played in my arms as I type this, and until I feel safe being in a gym again, I need something to do on the days I don't swim. 

And finally, my daughter is a video game design major, so it seemed like a good thing to have. It really made her laugh, though, because she said it was like we skipped several important gaming system steps. We have an Atari from the 80s (Frogger, Space Invaders, and Pitfall 2 are still fun), then a couple of years ago Mona asked if we could get a Switch, and now we have a VR system with its own dedicated gaming computer.

I have to be the only parent around who has been trying for years to convince her kids we should get something with which to play video games, who is then repeatedly turned down. My kids know money is often tight, so they seldom ask for anything. But I don't have a problem with video games. I spent a lot of time (and quarters) at Alligator Alley when I was in Jr. High getting good at Centipede and Ms Pac-Man and Tempest. Moon Patrol had the best music next to Mad Marbles, which was a game I only ever saw in an ice cream place in Binghamton NY. That was a fun game! (And when I told Aden it had my favorite video game music, she found a cover of it on YouTube somehow, and it's in her regular playlist.) I didn't want my kids to be unnecessarily out of step with their peers if there was something everyone was playing except them, but no. No gaming systems for us.

But the VR thing was something I wanted, damn it. So my husband found something on sale and set it up and I love it.

So, getting back to Beat Saber. It's a game where you feel like you're standing on a little platform, you have a light saber sword in each hand, cubes keep coming toward you from off in the distance, and you have to cut them in half before they shoot past you. The whole thing is set to music, so the rhythm of how you're slicing things matches up with the beat and the melody. That's the basics of it. There are additional things, such as the cubes are color coded so you have to hit them specifically with your right hand or your left, and there are arrows on the cubes to indicate from which direction you are supposed to strike them. 

Part of what makes it fun is the hand controllers can vibrate, so it feels like there is a bit of resistance every time you cut into a cube. They also zap a bit when you touch the swords to each other, or if you decide to jam one into a passing wall.

I'm sort of amazed at how fast we've improved at this game. There are Easy, Normal, Hard, Expert, and Expert+ levels. I'm currently working my way through all the available Expert Levels, although a few weeks ago I didn't think that would be possible already. Quinn is in Expert+ territory. Aden is our resident master at the single sword levels, which is much more exhausting. You can modify the parameters so there is nothing to duck if you don't feel like it, or you can speed things up or slow things down, or you can have things come at you from 360 degrees if you want to be spinning around in place that much.

It's been really nice after being hunched over at my bench for long stretches to walk into the living room, put on the headset, and do a few rounds of something physical in what feels like a different space entirely. Especially when it's too dark or cold to go for a walk, I like swinging around imaginary swords as a way to get moving more.

The latest fun thing is that Aden figured out how to download new songs. Apparently people can design their own Beat Saber levels and offer them for free to the public, which means some are great and some are bad. But the interesting thing for me is standing in front of the search bar trying to think of a song to type in. It has to be something someone else who plays Beat Saber would have wanted to design a game around, which means people younger than I am. So "Take On Me" by A-Ha remains something people still know, but "Burning Down the House" by the Talking Heads is apparently too obscure. I found "Sledgehammer" by Peter Gabriel, but no "Shock the Monkey." Aden can find many an anime song that I've never heard of, but most of the things I've typed in result in the computer equivalent of a blank stare.

We have the system set up with a monitor so other people can see what you're seeing while you're in the headset. I'm finding it really interesting how differently we each use it.

Mona hasn't bothered with any of it, because she says it's only fun if you are doing it with someone, and we only have one headset. (Although, technically, if someone wanted to reserve time at the VR place again, we could play each other remotely.) Ian has no interest in Beat Saber, but has explored the Google Earth function, and even found our cottage there.

But watching Aden and Quinn play Beat Saber is fascinating. Aden gets bored with anything that isn't fast and challenging and skips all lower levels. She wants interesting patterns to good songs, and as she plays looks like she's dancing. She doesn't care in any way about her score or technique. Quinn works through things methodically, and with efficiency of movement. He wants to be able to get through all of the highest levels in order. I'm actually really interested in technique. The more perfectly you cut a block, the higher your score. The most you can get for cutting a single block is 115 points, and my goal is to score at least 100 on every block I hit. I'm happy to go back to lower levels and make them as perfect as possible, and then try to apply those skills to the faster, more complicated levels.

The saddest thing about Beat Saber is there are few things where the disconnection between how you feel while doing it versus how you actually look is as silly. Swinging virtual light sabers around is fun and feels cool, but they are the combat equivalent of singing into a hairbrush in your bathroom. Very few people can pull that off in a way that anyone would want to watch.

But I don't care! Nobody's really watching.

Beat Saber is fun, I'm getting better at it, and it gets my heart rate up. It's a good addition to my routine. And if I know anyone with their own VR system who wants to meet up for game, let me know! It would be interesting to give that kind of remote play a try.