The orcs didn’t really seem to be the greatest threat at the moment. Trudging up the hill to the castle is one thing. A flapping, fire-breathing skyward hell lizard takes the attention of the group of elves pulling their bows back.
"How the **** did he get under the fireballs?" asked one of the players connected via the internet and via HTC Vive virtual reality headgear.
Another chided player Raphael Velasquez for wildly shooting arrows toward the deadly beast.
"You just got mansplained on how to kill a dragon!” yelled a friend sitting nearby.
This is the new world of VR and Portal, a new bar, lounge, and arcade in Ballard.
“It’s a lot more fun in a social atmosphere," said Portal owner Tim Harader.
The evolution of VR has been a bit rocky, and at times comical. Large, heavy and clunky headsets offered little in the way of an immersive experience. It wasn’t easy to let reality gently peel away into another world when you worry about tripping over a bunched tangle of cords.
“The real big change is in quality and stability,” Harader said.
And it’s true.
Recent changes have brought VR into a higher quality realm of responsive controls where even the minute twist of a wrist or nod of a head can be traced and picked up in-game.
Harader has already done the hard (and expensive) work. Portal has around 10 pods with a headset and controllers in each area. Connected to Steam, a video game platform, Portal can fire up nearly any game or simulation available, from the “Elven Assassin” game from earlier, to a Rick & Morty experience (no Szechuan sauce included, sorry).
You simply pay the equivalent of of about two rounds of drinks and get anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours of gameplay. But the key is that it isn’t just a solo experience. What is shown in your headset is shown on a nearby big screen. Friends can watch, laugh, cheer, and chastise your every move in real-time.
Or hear you get mansplained to.
“The fact that you can see what that person’s seeing it becomes equally a spectator sport,” Harader said.
Which makes Ballard a solid spot for his first foray into bar and arcade ownership. Harader is like many in the tech scene in the Seattle area. Seemingly bored with the routine of Redmond, the Microsoft alum got into interactivity for movie websites and the data behind the scenes. He fully admits this isn’t entirely his jam. He sees the potential.
“I’m not a gamer...this is for everyone,” Harader said.
Portal took over the space that used to hold a small experimental theater space. But it’s a different sort of performance from its wide-open rounded corner window.
Ballard bar-goers can see the wild gestures and huge laughs from the street and peer inside at the stocked bar of affordable drinks and snacks.
And while the bar vibe has an appeal (there was a full-on adult birthday party where people all connected their pods together to act as a functioning starship in “Star Trek: Bridge Crew”), Harader wants VR to be an experience for all.
“We want this to be a place where families feel comfortable and for people who feel comfortable just coming in for more adult time,” he said.
Which means people like his young daughter Charlotte can be safe to explore.
In this case, her favorite game features a final boss...that’s a boss. It’s “Job Simulator,” where you have to manipulate objects on your 3D cubicle, collate copies and file your TPS reports on time.
Charlotte said she enjoys the mundane tasks in-game but “not in real life.”
I hear ya.
Harader also shared the story of an 87 year-old woman who finally mustered up the courage to come in. She hadn’t played games before, but ended up spending two hours on Google Earth, simply spanning the globe, and manipulating every view, from Cairo to Kathmandu.
Harader sees that future as being just around the bend. When friends share experiences tromping through mind-bending worlds together.
Or at least watching your buddy’s character get an arrow to the knee before you strap in to defend the castle from the oncoming hordes.
With a wry grin that tells you he knows more than he lets on, Harader finds a way to keep you coming back.
“Nowhere near what’s going to come,” he said.
Portal VR is located at 2601 NW Market St. in Ballard and is open to all ages.