Full disclosure: I'm probably the absolute worst person you could pick to be one of the first people in the world to try Minecraft in virtual reality.
For one, I've played a grand total of two hours of Minecraft in my entire life. Second, virtual reality - despite covering it for years - still makes me feel both nauseated and ludicrously anxious at the same time.
But, in a strange, cruel twist of fate, there I was sitting in a chair at Microsoft's Spring Showcase with an Xbox One controller in one hand and an Oculus Rift in the other, about to enter into Minecraft's world of blocks, pigs, chicken and Creepers in first-person.
Earlier that morning, Phil Spencer got up on stage to announce that the WIndows 10 version of Minecraft would support Oculus Rift out of the box. Players who already own the game on Microsoft's latest desktop operating system won't need to buy anything else or do anything special, he said. He uttered the words "killer app" a few times while I jotted acronyms down like UWP ("Universal Windows Platform") and UWA ("Universal Windows Apps").
To make the day more memorable, Spencer said, Palmer Luckey himself would be hanging around the demo stations in case we had any questions. (Shameless plug: check out my full interview with the Oculus founder.)
"Huh," I thought. "That's weird that Palmer Luckey is here to show off Minecraft."
A whole new world
What comes next is a lot of waiting around, standing in line and watching jealously as one by one my peers sat down at a demo station and a massive grin came across their face.
Great. At least they were prepared for me to be nauseous.
When it was my turn, a developer walked me through step-by-step what I was going to see. He said the objective would be to get to the top of a tower guarded by zombies and skeletons. I'd need to figure out a few puzzles along the way, take a few minecart rides and shoot a cannonball into a rival tower. "If you feel sick at anytime," he said, "press the share button at any time to go into couch view."
"Oh, and if you feel sick, there's a bowl of ginger candy in front of you."
Great. At least they were prepared for me to be nauseous.
Donning the goggles, I was met with the very familiar start screen that millions of players see every day when they fire up the game: three simple buttons, a logo and a sky-blue background.
Seeing the screen from so close was disorienting. The field of view was too large and the clickable buttons, surrounded by an all-consuming sky, already made my stomach churn.
But I pressed onward.
Starting the game, I was thrown into a pitch-black cave. I was told that down to my right would be a treasure chest and inside I would find a pick-axe and a handful of torches. I took my first few steps in the world so many know and love but have never seen in this way. I knew none of it was real. It didn't look real. But it felt real, and that was enough to play tricks on my mind.
Moving required the use of the left stick on the Xbox One controller, while turning was done with the right stick, both of which are a pretty standard convention. But actually interacting with an object like, say, the treasure chest, required me to look at it before pressing one of the face buttons - A,B,X,Y - on the controller.
Except now I was nearly touching it instead of staring at it on my monitor.
After extracting the pickaxe and closing the box, I ventured into the cave. I lit my torches and placed them on the wall. The fire looked like it always had in the game, undulating pixels that started yellow at the base of the flame before turning orange and red at the top, except now I was nearly touching it instead of staring at it on my monitor. I kept walking.
The disembodied guide coming through my headphones gave me instructions to go up to the wall at the far end of the cave but not to, under any circumstances, use the pickaxe to go through the wall just yet. He said that the path ahead would be dangerous and that I'd need a weapon or two to face what lay ahead. I assented and found a nearby box with a bow, some arrows and a sword.
Fully equipped, I tunneled through the wall.
Exploration, combat and puzzles in VR
Looking around the Minecraft world in VR felt liberating.
"I can build anything I want," I thought. "For the first time, I can build a small home and actually see it the way my avatar does."
Build a castle and, for once, you'll actually feel like a king.
That feeling of freedom is what Spencer was talking about earlier that morning, this being Oculus' killer app. Dive underwater, and you'd instinctively hold your breath. Ride a minecart, and you'll feel like you're moving. Build a castle and, for once, you'll actually feel like a king.
But I couldn't think about him right now. Fighting the zombie and a skeleton, equipped with its own set of bow and arrows, was my first test.
I sized them up, inhaled a deep breath and took out the sword I found back in the cave. After some awkward shambling (on my part, naturally) I managed to cut down the pixelated enemies.
Once the fighting stopped, the voice from the outside world chimed in. "OK, now go towards that wooden pedestal and push the button." I was hesitant, but eventually did as I was told.
Pushing the button - a flat, gray rectangle - caused four feathered avatars to shoot into the field where I was standing. "It's a chicken shooter," he said. I laughed, proceeded to push the button roughly four or five more times and moved on.
Moving along the trail, I ran into a set of tracks and a minecart, the first of two the developers placed on the path to the tower.
"Now would be a good time to go into couch mode," he said. Having a pretty well-established fear of rollercoasters I couldn't help but agree.
Pressing the controller's share button brought me out into a virtual living room decked out in appropriate Minecraft furnishings. The floor was made of gray brick. The red brick walls were lined with the same torches I used a few minutes ago to light the darkened cave. The focal point of the room, though, was a TV about five feet away from me on a white-grey pedestal.
On the TV was the level I was playing, right where I left off, minecart and all.
On the TV was the level I was playing, right where I left off, minecart and all. Interacting with the environment was the exact same as before - I still used the sticks to move and look around, and the headset to focus on an object - but the added distance lessened the intensity of the experience.
I looked at the minecart and took it to another tower directly across from the one I fought the zombies on. There I found another button. Instead of chickens, however, this one shot cannon balls.
The cannon balls flew into a mass of obsidian blocks in the valley below, which broke and gave way to a statue of Herobrine. A strange homage, I thought, but maybe Minecraft aficionados will get the reference.
The second minecart brought me back to the first tower, one floor above where I stood a few moments ago and directly facing a pool of lava. Fun fact: lava, in the real world or in virtual reality, is deadly. To cool the lava down I'd need a large source of water.
After a minute of searching with what I think was a puzzled look on my face (it's hard to tell what faces you're making while wearing an Oculus Rift), I finally saw a red switch on the opposite end of the room. If I used one of my arrows, I thought, I could probably hit it.
It wasn't that simple.
In order to squarely hit the button, I needed to aim a little above where I naturally wanted to look to compensate for the pull of gravity on the arrow. Go too high, though, and I miss the mark.
After a few tries, I hit the carmine control device and flooded the room with water. Score.
The drop and one last surprise
Crossing the cooled lava and exiting the other side of the room I saw unbroken sky. I had reached the top of the tower. All's well that ends well. Sort of.
"You have one last obstacle: getting down."
At the end of the platform I was standing on was a hole located in the middle of the floor. That was my exit.
If I was going to do this, I was going to do it the right way.
As I approached the cut-away stone I switched back into fullscreen mode. If I was going to do this, I was going to do it the right way.
I fell for a few seconds. Long enough to feel nervous but not long enough to do anything about it besides stop breathing. I hit the water and sunk to the bottom. Out of instinct, I held my breath.
"Breath normally," the voice outside of the Rift said with an unseen-but-definitely-existent smile. "Press A to swim back to the surface."
After reaching the surface I saw one last tunnel that led to the third and final treasure chest.
"I'm going to stop you here," he said. "There's one last thing for you to see."
He pulled me back into the sky-blue menu screen where I started.
"Look at the button that says 'Multiplayer' and press A. When you see the list of servers, pick one and press A again."
"What you're looking at is a massive multiplayer server. There are hundreds of players here, but you're the only one seeing the game in virtual reality."
For a minute, I felt bad. Here were people who love the game, the people that play every day and watch Twitch streams when they're too tired to play themselves. All of them would love to play this on Oculus Rift, but here I am.
"But wait," I thought, "soon they'll be able to."