When Max Weisel first moved to California, he looked forward to weekly calls with his parents in Arizona. And yet there was always something missing from their conversations. “The phone and even video calls felt too formal,” says the 28-year-old artist and entrepreneur. “We couldn't hang out. The call would end as soon as we'd run out of things to say.” Then he introduced them to virtual reality, and during the hours he spent guiding them through this new world and the experiences within it, he noticed those awkward moments were evaporating.
They were quick learners, and he was finally able to recapture the sense of being in the same room with them. “We could just chill,” he remembers. “VR gives you that hangout feel.” Now, as the founder of VR/AR software development company Normal, Weisel has created a game dedicated to “chilling” across long distances but without the need for a phone to mediate. Released last fall, Half + Half offers five virtual noncompetitive experiences ― including swimming, hang gliding, and hide-and-seek — that allow four participants to either co-play or collaborate and chat in a relaxing location.
The idea: Provide a virtual space where friends or strangers can experience authentic connections. “It feels the same as going out for lunch with someone or for a walk in the park,” says Weisel. “When you want to spend time with someone, you don’t go to an empty room to talk. You go to the park. And the park is there to facilitate having a conversation.”
Interestingly, the game itself stemmed from a virtual collaboration. Since its inception in 2016, Normal has operated remotely, enabling Weisel to move across the country without skipping a beat and employees to work everywhere from New York City to Edmonton, Alberta. To collaborate in VR from afar, the team at Normal developed a tool called Normcore. Normcore is a multiplayer networking plugin that allows many people to enter a single VR room and spawn simple avatars with working voice chat.
That means that if a Normal designer in Texas wanted to share a prototype of a new game mode or environment with colleagues in North Carolina and California, they’d import Normcore into the prototype, add the Realtime + VR Player prefab to the scene, and invite the team to play. By incorporating Normcore into their everyday workflow, the team has saved hours of back and forth, particularly when it comes to demonstrating new ideas to clients. “While you are coding, you have an image of what your design looks like, but you need to describe that image to your colleagues and clients,” explains Weisel. “In our design space, you can automatically see how the other person envisions it and experience it yourself. It feels like building a structure from inside the building.”
Half + Half is refreshingly G-rated. Each player takes the form of Wanda, an androgynous blobby avatar with noodly arms and a beatific expression. Whether it’s underwater, in outer space, or in a futuristic city, each setting is drawn with simple lines and soothing pastel colors, evoking the feeling of floating through a wry dreamscape. Simultaneously meditative and goofy, the game is a far cry from the hyperrealism of many video games today.
To make Half + Half a welcoming experience for all players, ranging from VR novices to experts, Weisel went back to something he learned at a design exchange program in Japan in 2014. For years, Japanese designers have helped people adapt to new situations and technology by cleverly using cute imagery and sounds. Just as a Hello Kitty pencil set might make kindergarten less scary, a washing machine that sings instructions in an adorable ditty makes learning how to operate a new piece of equipment a tiny bit more fun. And while it’s not necessarily a childrens’ game, Half + Half does trend cute, appealing to all generations with a gentle wink and nod, like Shrek or Star Wars.
Also helpful to players of all ages, the game provides a safe environment in which to interact with people you do not know. Half + Half begins in an airy lobby with six doors, color-coded to represent each location. There, players can find general guidelines for how to play as well as how many people are participating. If players join Half + Half with a party of friends, they can start their own private game. The rest walk around the lobby, physically inviting other anonymous blobby figures to join them in a game of, say, hide-and-seek. Unlike friends, strangers cannot engage in actual conversation, which ensures that all players can enjoy a healthy amount of personal distance.
Though the avatars don’t communicate through words per se, they can use body language (including funny dances, jumping up and down, and high-fives) to get their point across. Only private-party members can speak to each other through their headsets. For instance, if Weisel were to invite his sister to join him for a swim, they could take virtual laps next to each other and discuss the scenery, but if he were swimming with a stranger, he would rely on body language and a string of cute chirps designed to mask his voice — no words actually get through.
It’s even safe to look ridiculous. Looking ridiculous is listed as one of Half + Half’s main player objectives. The game requires players to do silly things, like make odd shapes or sling pretend bow and arrows, all with arms as wobbly as overcooked spaghetti. Like Twister, the more ridiculous you look, the more you can laugh together.
Though Weisel says VR can’t replace real-life interactions, he does believe that games like Half + Half help people stay emotionally close when they cannot be together, whether they’re grandparents and grandkids, a group of old friends, or a romantic couple. Or maybe even discover a new blobby-shaped, noodly-armed friend along the way.