The Highs and Lows of Virtual Reality Grad Alley

WSN’s top gamers went to Virtual Reality Grad Alley. Here’s what happened.

"NYU announced it would still be holding Grad Alley — just over VR." (Image by Bella Gil)

To call these times unprecedented would not only be an understatement, it would also just be repetitive. But something that perhaps nobody expected, despite everything that’s transpired over the past few months, is Virtual Reality Grad Alley.

Arguably an NYU staple, the annual party for graduating seniors closes off West 3rd Street for blocks. However, after the shutdown of campus due to the outbreak of COVID-19, the Class of 2020’s commencement was postponed indefinitely, replaced for now by a half-hour livestream. Grad Alley was the last thing on our minds until Thursday, May 7, when NYU announced it would still be holding Grad Alley — just over VR.

According to Sapna Parikh, Assistant Director of Visual Storytelling at NYU, VR Grad Alley — built by a team of 11 students in collaboration with VR arcade Jump Into the Light, VR cinema Playlab and Volumetric Studio — immediately caused waves over social media when it was first announced by the university. From multiple comparisons to Roblox to a new meme each time NYU posted a development, it was clear that students were more than curious about what VR Grad Alley had in store. As WSN’s four resident gamers, we felt obliged to report on it.

Expectations

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Fareid El Gafy: I knew exactly what was coming. The blocky landscape and virtual peg dolls in the promotional material for VR Grad Alley invited me into a world that was sure to titillate and mesmerize. I have never been to the “real” in-person Grad Alley, but I have an idea of what carnival games in a crowded park in the sweltering summer heat might feel like, so I was game for anything really. I was on EST using Firefox on a MacBook and a decent internet connection that I use for video chatting and online games frequently. Though I have extensive experience with videogames and a basic understanding of VR mechanics, I have never played a VR game. I was ready to take VR Grad Alley as it was. Given the time constraints on its creation and the nature of virtual reality games, which are in that awkward phase that all new technology goes through and that birthed the Zune and Friendster, it was apparent what I was walking into.   

Bella Gil: When I first saw the official NYU Instagram page post — that first promotional picture for Grad Alley (we all know which one) — I thought it was actually the NYU meme page that posted it. I put down my phone and carried on with my life when I second guessed myself, “Did I dream that or was that real?” I thought to myself. I went back to check, and sure enough, this was the official NYU Instagram page. I’ve played multiplayer games with friends online before, but I wasn’t sure how this was going to pan out, especially given that it was supposed to be VR and it seemed like a direct replica of our Washington Square Campus. I had no expectations going in, only connected to our WiFi router a room over and on Google Chrome via my MacBook (which is hardly built for the Sims, let alone a VR-experience), and with general intrigue as to how this was going to work without getting hacked fifteen minutes in.

Abby Hofstetter: I had absolutely no idea what to expect. I didn’t know how many people would join, if my computer would be able to handle it, if I’d remember how to play or even if my WiFi (a personal hotspot powering a few other things in my apartment)  was strong enough. I’d been to Grad Alley in person once before, but the in-person Grad Alley didn’t have a maze through Bobst or a race up the Empire State Building, so I wasn’t sure how similar the VR version would be to the real thing. I don’t really play video games but I do have some background in VR coding, so I was very worried about my laptop (which I just got back from Apple Support), the strength of my WiFi and the usefulness of my AirPods. I was definitely excited, but in the same sort of way that a second-grader is excited on the first day of school: 90% excited, 10% terrified.

Ethan Zack: I’m no stranger to video games. From a young age, I was already playing several comparable online social experiences such as “Club Penguin” and “Roblox.” I’ve even dipped my toes into virtual reality through a couple sessions of games like “Skyrim” and “VR Chat” on my friend’s Playstation VR. Provided the low-polygon aesthetic of the world in the previews, I expected VR Grad Alley to especially be in line with the gameplay and feel of “Roblox,” which I would welcome considering my nostalgia for that game. My hesitance stemmed more from my worry that I would not be able to properly access the experience. At the current location that I’ve quarantined with my family at, I’m still in the same time zone as New York, but the Wi-Fi is spotty at best. Fortunately, after a bit of technical troubleshooting, I was able to get VR Grad Alley running through Google Chrome on my gaming laptop. It was time to play.

Washington Square Park

FEG: Floating around, I found that there was no collision whatsoever with the default fly mode enabled. The landing page says to use G to toggle fly mode but I was unable to find a similar indication in the game itself, so I left it on. I phased through the ground to find a black box with a musical note on it and, upon closer inspection, saw that it had pause, volume control, and rewind/fast-forward buttons. Hitting pause, the ethereal music that was playing stopped. I quickly found another interactable music square and paused the sounds of birds and cars. Five minutes into VR Grad Alley I was alone beneath Washington Square Park in the silent nothingness. When another player joined me, the sound effects restarted but the music was still disabled. We marveled at the stationary splash of water pasted on top of the fountain. In the chat box, they likened it to a tooth. I agreed, and then they left.

BG: The first thing I heard when I entered the Park was a noise akin to traffic. It was a bit stressful, especially because I was still trying to figure out how to work the game. I walked to West Fourth and stared above at Kimmel and Bobst, longing to be there instead of virtually present on the opposite side of the country. The only interaction I had throughout my whole gameplay was in the park with someone who told me that they were proud of me. I thanked them and then ran to the food tent because I’m not even graduating this year. I thought they would follow me in but alas, I was alone.

EZ: You know in all those zombie apocalypse movies and TV shows where the main character’s friend dies and they return as a shell of their former self? The low-polygon version of Washington Square Park lurks very deep in the depths of the uncanny valley for me. Moving around this digital version of the center of the New York campus does remind me of the real-life location, but more in the sense of reminding me how much I would rather be there than here on my laptop. Out of all the areas I visited, I spent the least amount of time here.

Empire Race

FEG: Floating gray platforms dotted two paths up the outside of the Empire State Building with the object of the game being to race against a friend to the top. I didn’t immediately find a way to shut off the music here, which would have been a blessing as the blaring action movie soundtrack quickly gave me a headache. This was the only other room where I naturally encountered another human being. I had joined after them and so I was unable to catch up. I made a joke about shifting into maximum overdrive in chat which they didn’t acknowledge, and once they had won they promptly left. Left again to my own devices, I tried turning off fly mode to actually climb the tower but could not find a way to jump up onto the first platform. I could have teleported using the right mouse button, but this takes a while to hold and release, only blinking you a short distance, so I supermanned it. I flew to the roof where I found a model of the NYU torch. I copied it twice and posed with a picture of Plankton that I imported into the game as a 2D object by picking an attachment from my computer and called it a night.

AH: This was my favorite of all the rooms, but it was also the most anxiety-inducing. I loved that it was a challenge — nothing else at VR Grad Alley presented as a game was actually meant to be challenging (read: Trivia Lounge). But this got my heart rate going, and when I finally reached the top I felt like I had actually accomplished something. I later found out that no one else I spoke to found this particularly difficult. I had a rough time getting used to the keyboard controls though, and that made it a lot harder, so maybe this was the activity for the kids who don’t game. Or maybe I’m overthinking and I was just really bad at climbing the Empire State Building.

Chess in the Park

FEG: After my experience ridding the world of all sound, I set out to do the same here and found the same music square behind the glowing purple bobcat head in the middle of the room. Crouched in “Violet” the bobcat’s shadow I clicked on a little Statue of Liberty to duplicate it and created a stack of bronze ladies. My patriotic duty fulfilled, I flew to the chessboard. With no one else to play with, I took to raising an army of horses by duplicating the knight piece. Manipulating objects was a bit laggy and frustrating, so I took to launching my horsemen to the skies and, because of the floaty, spacey gravity of the game’s physics engine, watched them soar in slow motion into the realm of the bobcat. My experiments with equine cloning quickly grew tiring.

AH: I was very confused by Chess in the Park. First: the game pieces. I’m not sure if this was specific to my chessboard or not, but each team only had four chess pieces: a King, a Queen, a Knight and a pawn (technically, they respawned infinitely so I guess I had two Knights and eight pawns). When I moved closer to or further from the board, the size of the pieces stayed the same and also never left my screen, so if I moved away and then came back, all my pieces were slightly shifted to different locations on the board. And finally, the same problem as every other room: I was alone. I felt like the elderly man in that Pixar short, but minus the skill and half the chess pieces. Eventually I just started flinging pawns across the park.

Pictionary Island

BG: I didn’t actually play Pictionary on Pictionary Island, moreso wandered the entire “room” exploring and trying to navigate my avatar above the constant moving waves. This was actually my favorite room out of all of them. It had relaxing music, and cute dolphins in the background. (That only looked cute from afar, I went up close to them and got freaked out by their frozen stance in mid-air). I appreciated the granite material made up on the base of the Statue of Liberty and “flew” all the way up for a “selfie” with her. I noticed a Cruise Ship and an island in the distance, so I decided to fly on over, which took a long time. On the cruise ship was just another Pictionary screen, I wandered all around it but that seemed to be it. I flew to the island and embraced the picturesque scene of sailboats and Lady Liberty, pretending it was the real thing. Interestingly, there was no one in the room with me. I couldn’t really play Pictionary by myself so I just wrote “hello” on one of the screens. I stopped playing but left the tab open to just listen to the music but for some reason it abruptly stopped, which then alerted me to the astronomical fan sound that was coming from my computer.

EZ: When I gazed far out from the shores of Pictionary Island, the first thing I could see was silhouettes of dolphins suspended in midair over the water. I tried to fly towards them, but they were too far away so I gave up and returned the way I came. It was time to play Pictionary, and though I was the only one on this island, that was not going to stop me. Once I had located one of the many available whiteboard screens, a prerecorded video told me my clue was “Bobst Library.” I tried my best to draw a building that somewhat resembled Bobst with the surprisingly accurate pen tool, but within a few seconds, the prompt had already changed and instructed me to draw Washington Square Park. I’m not the most seasoned Pictionary player, but I’d imagine you would need slightly more time than what was available here. After a couple more seconds, it asked me to draw the word “Violet” — I left immediately.

NYU Trivia Lounge

AH: I wish I would have known more about the Trivia Lounge going into it. I love trivia and I’m super competitive, so when I entered the Trivia Lounge I was kind of disappointed to find that it wasn’t a game of any sort — it was just a video playing on a loop, like the ones that play when you get to the movies too early, but with obscure questions about NYU. I was also in the room alone, so I couldn’t flex my knowledge of which famous NYU alum was on the fencing team (Neil Diamond). In hindsight, I shouldn’t have expected anything else and I’m not sure why I did, but it still would have been nice to have a little glimpse into this room in the preview video.

EZ: When I entered the trivia lounge, I found myself inside a circular room with red curtains and a floor with miscellaneous geometrical shapes — the kind you might see in an old-school arcade. Calm ambient music filled my headphones and I could hear a faint ticking noise from somewhere else in the lounge. I walked (or flew?) towards the source of the sound and found that the lounge opened up into a larger room with a single screen in the center displaying a prerecorded video. The video had stopped on the question: “How many people were in NYU’s first graduating class?” I tried everything to get this video to continue playing, but it absolutely refused to budge. As I explored the large space around me, I couldn’t help but feel slightly unnerved. The empty space, the calm music, the single broken trivia video — it all worked to create a surprisingly eerie atmosphere. When I was checking out one corner of the room, I heard the ticking of the video start up again. I rushed over to the screen, only to find that it had stopped on a different question. Unfortunately, I suppose I will never learn just how many people were in NYU’s first graduating class. So it goes.

Kimmel Rooftop Lounge

BG: The rooftop lounge looked like an actual rooftop in the city! The view of the skyscrapers surrounding it made me miss New York City, and reminded me of the PlayStation 4’s Spider-Man game. There was a strange purple confetti flying around, that made me think of the pollution in the city — but visible through this experience. There was a screen showing a DJ using a touch bar, and I wondered if this was live or a pre-recorded video. I explored the rooftop, and as I flew away from the DJ, the music faded and it seemed like I was actually in a next room over from the actual event. I wish I could have celebrated with others in this room, but it was just a party of one. The music was cool, and looking back on my selfie from the event it proved hard to capture my excitement in my avatar’s dead-eyed stare. 

AH: I feel like this would have been really cool if it was in real life. I’ve never gone to Violet Ball, but it gave me a similar vibe: a cool party in a place you would not expect a cool party to be. But there were a couple of problems. The first was that it wasn’t real life — it was 6 p.m. on a Tuesday, and I was sitting in my bed wearing fuzzy socks. The music was solid but I didn’t know it, and I couldn’t dance — I didn’t know if my avatar could do that, and if it could, I had no idea how to set that in motion. The last problem was that I was alone. Have you ever been the first person to arrive to a party? Have you ever been the first person to arrive to a party with no host, so you’re kind of just sitting there alone on the virtual Kimmel Rooftop waiting for someone to show up, but then when someone finally does show up, it’s a stranger, and you feel even more uncomfortable than when you were alone, so you just leave? Yeah.

Selfie Room

FEG: The selfie room was perhaps the most fleshed out of all the ones that I visited, but it feels strange to be taking photos of a toddle tot that I birthed thirty minutes prior. There were props, 3D backgrounds, “#NYUGrad2020” frame below the word “congratulations” and a beach background complete with palm trees. To take a picture, I had to press the camera button at the top of the screen to spawn a camera a few seconds later. It was tough to rotate and move the camera – I would have to grab it and physically move my character to move it around, and the main set with the frame and congratulations was so big that the camera had to be quite far away to fit it all. Everything was much bigger than my avatar, which felt like a mismatch. Nonetheless, with the music silenced by my hand once again, I was able to get a couple of odd shots of my avatar, clad in the skin of a stereotypical Frenchman uploaded from my computer, for the family photo album.

EZ: Though you could take photos of your avatar pretty much anywhere in the Virtual Grad Alley, this room hosted a number of props for you to really take your photos to the next level. Though most of these props were signs with different basic phrases related to graduating on them, I also found a massive untextured block seemingly made up of smaller cubes arbitrarily glued together that I could pick up and move around. It filled me with dread. On the other side of the room, I noticed three orbs displaying photos of scenic real-life locales. Upon walking inside of one of the spheres, I found out that the displayed picture would create an optical illusion and seemingly occupy the entire space around you, essentially placing you inside a 360 degree snapshot of that location with the ability to turn and look in any direction. This was honestly pretty cool, and I can only imagine that using a VR headset to look around one of these would have probably been a fairly immersive experience.

Bobst Library Maze

FEG: As I mentioned previously, there was no collision for the player character with the floors, walls, or objects in VR Grad Alley and so the concept of a maze is essentially dead in the water. Spawning at the bookshelf maze’s entrance, I walked directly forward and phased out the other side. In celebration, I hit spacebar to spawn a laughing and crying emoji, which emitted smaller laughing and crying emojis before being swallowed by the void. Humoring the maze, my godly avatar phased around to find its secrets – four floating, glowing books likely bound by arcane magic and written by great authors who attended NYU. “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret,” asked the book by Judy Blume ’61. If my divine avatar could speak, I imagine he’d have chuckled and said “Yes.”

AH: I know I said I had no expectations for this experience, but I guess I lied. I had one: I expected that I would not find my way out of the Bobst maze. And I was wrong! I’m usually terrible at mazes (and the fact that I was never really sure what direction my avatar was going in didn’t help), but I got through this one with relative ease. I also had fun, which I didn’t expect either — I don’t typically like mazes. I’m not sure if all of this means that this maze was ridiculously easy or if I just got lucky, but who cares? I had fun.

Food Tent

BG: From the homepage of the website that directed you to the different rooms of VR Grad Alley, the Food Tent always displayed the least amount of people within. It was one of the first rooms I joined, and no one else was in there with me for the entire duration I was there. The food hanging from the ceilings gave a pinata-esque vibe. One thing that stuck out to me was a “lounge” area surrounding a fire pit. My little avatar imagined other VR Grad Alley avatars sitting on the couches surrounding the pit sipping on a coffee donned in their caps and gowns, but it was just me. The graphics and decor of the room made me feel like I was playing a computer game from programs in elementary school. I flung around some broccoli and a pie, and watched it respawn as I kept grabbing more. I panned out of the tent to find a chess pawn telling me this was a “clue.” What was this clue for? How come I couldn’t find any in the other rooms? I moved on. Finally, I got stuck. I couldn’t figure out how to get out of the Food Tent. I took some selfies and then just exited the tab to open up a new room. 

AH: I don’t know how to adequately describe the time I spent in the Food Tent. I definitely understand the intention behind it: Grad Alley is usually a carnival-esque street fair, and the food there matches the theme. But upon entering the Food Tent, I was immediately transported to fourth grade. It did not look like a carnival, it looked like my elementary school’s cafeteria. The food was not street fair food: there were heads of broccoli, whole apples and pies set precariously on the tables. There were food stands along the walls, but when I got to the hot dog stand, I was disappointed to find that there were no hot dogs, as was the same for the rest of the stalls. The only food available was the food on the long tables in the middle of the tent, and it wasn’t available for eating: you were supposed to throw the food at other people in the room. But I was in the Food Tent alone. I started throwing food by myself and got bored pretty quick, but when I tried to leave, the portal I needed to click was blocked by two buttons. I was panicked. I texted my friends, all of whom were in their own individual Food Tents, in the exact same situation. I decided to take one for the team and call a moderator, who gratefully showed up almost immediately and showed me that I just needed to click on one of the buttons. I felt very dumb, but at least I was out of the Food Tent.

Secret Room

BG: There were clues strewn about rooms that I assumed lead you to the Secret Room, but maybe my logistical and gaming skills aren’t as developed as I thought to find it. Getting a sneak peek beforehand, the Secret Room was a platform amidst a purple galaxy, with a ticketbooth showcasing the music that was playing. Whoever made it there, I hope you enjoyed playing with the little rubber duck that I so desperately wanted to find. 

FEG: I did not find the portal to the secret room myself but was kindly shown around by Parikh. It was satisfyingly bizarre. On a lone, purple platform set against a slowly turning interstellar sky, I looked out at a rocket ship and the Earth itself. Pillars capped with pearls and what I believe was a purple music box designed to allow you to change the music decorated our platform spaceship and a floating rubber duck kept us company on the journey.

Reviews

FEG: As a graduating senior myself, I appreciate the sentiment of trying to provide another dimension to our uniquely virtual celebrations. The students and staff who worked on this project took it upon themselves to provide us in the class of 2020 with a gift as we miss out on the traditions that our predecessors enjoyed. Their good intentions are apparent, and I am a firm believer that it is the thought that counts.

Unfortunately, the quality of intentions does not define the final product. If it did, “The Room” would have won all of the Oscars Tommy Wiseau felt it deserved when he submitted it to the Academy. Based on my essentially solitary experience and the numbers I saw on the landing page, I doubt that many in the class of 2020 actually logged on to VR Grad Alley. This isn’t the fault of its designers; I’m sure that any Roblox acid trip would struggle to draw many eager gamers in the whirlpool of anxiety and confusion that is every waking moment as a young individual diving headfirst into a nonexistent job market and a world that has resigned itself to being flipped on its head.

I’m happy to have travelled through VR Grad Alley, though I wouldn’t have if not for this article, and the good laughs that it provided were more than welcome in these times. This isn’t the Grad Alley that anyone expected, but it’s the one we deserve. Congrats grads.

BG: I think my biggest problem with VR Grad Alley was that I couldn’t simply interact with other students like I wanted to. There was hardly anyone in the rooms I entered despite always telling me beforehand that there were 30+ users within. Without joining a friend’s room, you couldn’t freely explore and find others like you would online on Minecraft or Roblox. I figured this may have been a problem for others too, seeing that NYU’s Instagram started posting codes for a more general audience to join and interact with each other as the night was closer to ending. It was a bit difficult to navigate, and I still felt like I was unable to fully get it even after an hour of playing. I really enjoyed walking through the replica of the park, and was impressed by the accuracy despite being designed in about a month, but I wish the purpose of the rooms were more transparent to understand. It was a bit tiring after playing, especially when I couldn’t find anyone to celebrate with. The development and turnaround for this project was amazing and well-intentioned, but still led me feeling for what this year’s grads got after four years.

AH: The ideas behind VR Grad Alley were definitely well-intentioned and my heart goes out to everyone who worked on building this. But after an hour of playing, I had a headache so big that I’m still feeling residual effects. My computer was only running that single program and it was hissing so loudly the entire time that I was afraid it would break. I understand the motives behind Grad Alley: connecting seniors with one another just before graduation is a noble effort, and I commend it. But the ways that the servers functioned — being put in a different server every time you went to a new location, and usually being alone at that location as a result — undid most of the togetherness, replacing it with a feeling of frustration for having to enter a room code for the eighth time. Whenever I entered a room and lost my friends I’d just feel tired and alone — reminded of what I actually was once I shut my computer off and all my friends’ avatars were gone: tired and alone. I know none of the creators intended that and it was built with love. But I couldn’t quite shake that feeling.

EZ: Considering the extremely short development period of one month and the small team of roughly 11 people that worked on this project according to Parikh, it would be somewhat unfair to expect anything more than what was on display here. But that doesn’t mean this experience was anything near worthwhile. Any fun to be had through exploration was bogged down by a huge amount of bugs, glitches and intuitive controls. I hate to say it, but it honestly just feels depressing to move around this world. Obviously an event like this could never fully replicate the real-life counterpart, but it just feels devoid of all the liveliness and excitement that I imagine would be present at the in-person Grad Alley. Perhaps that’s due to the game’s seeming determination to split every single one of its players into their own isolated servers for no reason, but even the elements meant to celebrate the graduating class of 2020 feel empty. The hollow inspirational messages that guide you up the Empire State Building feel cookie-cutter in their sentiments and the slogans on the prop signs in the Selfie Room are bland and uninspired. I can appreciate the effort of the people who wanted to create this project, but I hope that the next graduating class will get to enjoy the traditional in-person version of Grad Alley.

Email Fareid El Gafy, Bella Gil, Ethan Zack, and Abby Hofstetter at [email protected], [email protected], [email protected], and [email protected]

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