This VR Campaign Puts You in a Bar to See How You Act, and Whether You’d Drive Drunk

NHTSA targets millennial males with 'Last Call'

So, No Man's Sky was a disappointment, and you've long since deleted Pokémon Go from your phone. What's a dude with twitchy fingers to do?

The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA)—not much known for its gaming savvy—is hoping to fill that vacuum. It just released "Last Call," a virtual reality game targeted to millennial males and designed to curb drunken holiday carousing. 

"Last Call" sets aside the tired old tunes of drunk-driving PSAs, like scary cinematics and surprise sermons. Hosted by YouTube star MatPat from "The Game Theorists," the game—best played with headphones and a mobile VR device—invites you to make choices on a night out, alternately cajoling you to drink and challenging your ability to function.

It kicks off by asking where you'd like to go—a cocktail lounge or a sports bar? (We chose the cocktail lounge.) MatPat is everywhere. You see him first as the chatty doorman, and spend the rest of the experience wondering why you can never quite get rid of him. 

This isn't quality MatPat time, and even fans will want him gone faster than they can believe. You won't get to ask about his YouTube career, or discuss that algo change that's got PewDiePie so upset. It's a one-sided conversation, and you'll never get a word in. 

Instead, MatPat's voice will follow you around, pushing you toward darts, drinks, trivia, hangouts or flirtations. (He's even the guy giving the quiz. Who's watching the door?!) 

A "drink meter" keeps track of alcohol intake, though after one drink your vision immediately starts to blur. (What the hell are they putting in these things, or are they actually supposed to be our first drinks ever in life?) A map also helps navigate the space, though you won't get much of anywhere unless you participate in the curated experiences chosen for you. 

They aren't fun. 

The "hangout" option subjects you to conversation with people you don't actually know, but who are supposed to be your friends. It is willfully generic, to help you better imagine a relationship with them. 

"So, Jenna and I went to the same school because her dad was a teacher there," says your female friend. "That's how I know her." 

"You probably know her from that concert we all went to last year," her boyfriend adds. 

Right. That concert!

Really, the only way to survive it is to move on or drink. If you choose the latter, you'll see yourself throw a bevvie back in a way that gives you frat party flashbacks. We didn't even know we were capable of downing wine that fast. 

Your friends scold you while also reminding you that you're the designated driver. (When did we make that deal? What kind of night out is this?!) 

And there's MatPat. "Wine? Wine not?" he quips when we select a drink. At the dartboard, he's chattier still: "Let's see how good of a throw you've got! Free shot if you hit the bullseye … or water, if you so choose." 

Things go on like this; even the trivia game is all about how well you understand alcohol. (Not well, as it turns out. MatPat: "Two out of five? Come on! That's the best you can do?") 

The odd bit is, it isn't that far from a real night out—minus your inability to speak, and all the needling to get you to drink and scold you for it. You never quite get the chance to forget the game's agenda. And since you aren't actually drunk while playing (in theory, anyway), MatPat becomes increasingly irritating. 

The darts game, for example, is more or less a test of hand-eye rapidity. You can give it as many shots as you like, and—as elsewhere in this experience—the omnipresent MatPat is pretty mum if you do well. But if your dart flies off-board, he smarmily chides, "I'll just pretend I didn't see that … even though I totally did and I'm judging you for it." 

We started actively blocking the game's touchpoints, which left us no choice but to leave. MatPat's voice slid back into our ears to cajole us into taking shots. Turned them down. Faced with the option to drive home or call a car, and knowing what kind of game this was, of course we drove home. 

Cue the night-ruining ending. 

In most cases, you get pulled over, with consequences determined based on where you live (your IP decides that). We were pulled over after two drinks. In a case when we had just one drink, the cop passed us by (to MatPat's chagrin), and we woke up to a passel of random text messages. 

And still MatPat is there. "I can't imagine an alternate universe where this could have possibly gone wrong," he says snidely. 

Take that, MatPat!

The experience was developed by Tombras out of Knoxville, Tenn., alongside Google Zoo and Media Monks. It can be played via mobile, on the desktop or using the mobile VR experience of your choice.

According to Media Monks, both an urban bar and a rural bar were built "from the ground up in 360°."

"We were tasked with creating generic bar scenarios, a user journey heavily featuring MatPat (a verified YouTube star), and tongue-in-cheek interactions throughout the experience," says Media Monks creative copywriter Dylan Hoop. "All the while, we were meant to uphold the ultimate goal of guiding our target of young adult males to learn just how fine the line is between being under or over the legal BAC limit to drive."

According to the NHTSA, 92 people died every day in December 2015 as the result of drunk driving. Over 10,000 people died in drunk driving-related fatalities last year. 

"Virtual reality is the perfect environment to get this message across to an audience we know engages with the technology," says evp Dooley Tombras of Tombras. "We wanted to engage players and keep the experience relevant, while still getting a vital message across at holiday time." 

The "Last Call" experience was inspired in part by research that shows shock value doesn't resonate with young males, who represent the highest risk category for drunk driving. We can agree, but we're not sure this game—even with MatPat-laced VR magic—presents much of a solution, either.

In essence, "Last Call" feels like a PSA you have to opt into and be willing to spend time in. You never lose your sense of why you're there and on whose dollar. It isn't so much play as it is a test of patience. 

Then again, we're also not a millennial male. It's entirely possible that one such guy will spend a good amount of time palling along with MatPat, downing all the drinks and chatting up his pretend friends before stumbling cheerfully into his car. 

He'll then lift off his Cardboard, flip on his video recording, and muse, "Wow. Drinking has consequences! From now on, all my shots will be water."