I was standing in a breezy field of grass when I first caught sight of movement on the horizon. People began to pour out of the farmhouse on the ridge and began advancing towards my position. I tensed up in anticipation and threw my hands in the air as a show of good faith. My anxiety spiked, there was no way to know their intent. Were they going to make a lead-weighted snap decision to neutralize any potential risk, or take the time to identify me?
With no press credentials or way to set myself apart from any other camo clad operator in the countryside, I was entirely at the mercy of their capricious whims. There were no signs of fighting nearby, all I could do was hope to catch the squad approaching me at a good time and make my proposal. Moments later I had guns pointed at me, two inscrutable faces glaring from behind their sights. A calm but stern voice followed, “State your name! State your name! And your [business]”. A compelling request, although not as compelling as their shouldered rifles. I quickly blurted out my name and that I was here as a journalist to document the conflict by embedding within a local fighting group. After a short pause, the fighter to my left nodded and shrugged to his right, towards the farm house. “Come with us.” I let out a deep sigh of relief.
I had just successfully embedded within a militia in the middle of a small war-torn village, but it was no ordinary village, instead it was a full-immersion virtual locale rather than some geographical breakaway republic: Welcome to Survival Town 2020, population 35, give or take, located in the heartland of Pavlov VR.
Just when it seemed that everything was in the clear, one of the two individuals who first made contact confronted me about the channel my radio was set to, Channel 10. A short argument ensued within the group about whether or not I was an infiltrator, with one of them protesting in my favor that he had been listening to the same frequency and never heard any activity. The first trooper countered, “Well it could’ve been suburban, can you hear him?” I stated I was simply flipping through random frequencies to try to make contact with anyone safely over the airwaves and they bought it. “We’re going to invade the church” another voice replied, and the unit began to move out rapidly towards the edge of the forest, “There’s a journalist with us,” one soldier shouted up the line, another spoke up incredulously “A… Journalist?” The suspicious soldier responded, “We’re not sure if they’re telling the truth, but yes”.
Survival Town is a server-side mod and custom map for Pavlov VR made by community modder HydroCakes, Pavlov being a Counter-Strike-alike for virtual reality platforms like the Index or Vive that found tremendous popularity since 2018. At first glance it would be easiest to describe as a similar setup to Day Z, but the added variables of motion tracking greatly adds to the experience thanks to communication through body language. It’s one thing to approach a potentially hostile player in the woods cautiously in Day Z, but in Pavlov you’re constantly keeping an eye out for small movements like reaching for a knife that serve as a tell for deception. Despite the increased tension from constantly monitoring such minutiae, Survival Town is largely a much more peaceful experience than Day Z, with players opting for co-operation instead of wanton destruction.
Virtual reality is a compelling platform for scenarios like this, offering an overwhelming buffet of sensory information that can easily be disorienting to the uninitiated, leaving players more likely to think out their actions than resort to cut-throat tactics right out of the gate. It’s vastly easier to form a human bond with someone offering you supplies in an abandoned house when their posture clearly communicates they’re trusting you not to assume the worst, creating a new layer of visual subtext missing from traditional shooter games.
Now with an informally assigned minder who recognized my media outlet, we split off from the main group in the woods chatting back and forth about the state of VR games. We discussed other VR titles like Hotdogs, Horseshoes, and Handgrenades and they told me about other Pavlov mods like the ports of the perennial favorite, Garry’s Mod, and Counter-Strike addons, TTT & Jailbreak. Suddenly we arrived at the church with no sign of the enemy and new orders over the radio to turn back to base. The farmhouse-now-barracks was teeming with life as 15-or-so militants bartered for supplies like ammo boxes, beans, magazines, and accessories with non-aligned visitors, occasionally inspecting strangers and meeting me with continued curiosity about my reasons for documenting their story. We mingled for 10-15 minutes in what felt like a campfire party straight out of STALKER: Shadow Of Chernobyl. Instead of the unrepentant cruelty of survival games the mod was directly inspired by, here everyone found common social purpose as a pack, brothers in arms taking turns watching the perimeter and ensuring each individual got their fair share of the latest raid haul.
Social interaction amongst the group was incredibly fluid, each conversation accompanied by excessive hand gesticulation and gestures to convey emotional pacing. It was easy to tell who was at ease and who was pre-occupied just from the way they carried themselves, particularly noteworthy when continued interruptions broke out as unfamiliar groups approached the camp to ask for directions. There were more than a few close calls, but the only time a shot rung out through the farmhous was due to a visitor having a negligent discharge. Another particularly unique aspect to the mod is that ammo boxes provide near infinite bullets only when equipped, but individual magazines can be exchange to ensure everyone has some on hand, adding some further complexity to the social underpinning of the mod.
Once again I set out with my companion from the group, only to find myself cut off from everyone when we lost track of each other. Wandering the desolate streets on my own, the warm sense of comradery melted away and sharp anxiety set back in, an emotional answer to the cautious bandits staring at me from apartment windows before darting back inside and terrified, unarmed newcomers keeping their distance on the sidewalk. Occasionally, some would greet me before sprinting off to an engagement with their rivals after pointing the way back to the church, other times I would find myself on a street corner with sniper fire suddenly whizzing past, forcing me to flee in a zig-zagging pattern to find cover.
I never did find the group again, instead deciding to approach random people inside buildings to see if they’d talk to me about their time spent in this place. Most were new, but all of them had an intimate familiarity with Pavlov. When I finally closed out of the game and set my VR headset aside it felt as if I had finally arrived home after a long journey. Everything that happened in Survival Town felt very real, from the friendship forged with my companion to the fond memories of Scots mercenaries speaking to each other in their thick accents. It’s further evidence that VR offers us a unique opportunity for dynamic storytelling with a level of impact not present on other platforms, and it gave me a unique appreciation for the real embedded journalists who put themselves in peril to document episodes of chaos that unfold every day around the world.
“Games Journalism” usually feels like a rather benign label that brings to mind reviewing the latest platformer or AAA multiplayer offering, not reporting from a distant battlefield under the stress of uncertainty. For a brief moment, VR’s effective simulacra changed that for me with very real dread and laughter in a way I will never forget.
Emily Rose is an indie developer who writes for rebind.io and resides in the pacific northwest. She’s often seen in the local VR arcade and developer community participating in pushing the medium’s horizons. You can find her on twitter @caravanmalice