Virtual Reality is No Gimmick

Virtual Reality is No Gimmick


A massive thank you to Skillshare for sponsoring
today’s video. Stick around for a special offer that will
get you two months of Skillshare premium for free. In late November 2019, Xbox head Phil Spencer
gave an interview regarding Microsoft’s upcoming Series X console, in which he said
that VR wasn’t going to be a focus of the project; stating that he viewed VR as isolating,
where he saw the strength of games as more of a communal exercise; that VR wasn’t selling
and that people weren’t asking for it. And while he was clear that people can go
elsewhere if they want that experience, it’s hard not to view these comments made by the
head of one of the most well-known brands in video games as pretty damning of VR as
a whole. It’s understandable to a certain extent. A perfect storm of high costs; PC hardware
and physical space requirements; a lack of content-heavy games; all topped off with a
general experience whose immersion is incredibly difficult to sell to people through traditional
channels, have all led to the uptake on VR being much slower than some eager developers
might have anticipated, with various teams shutting down or refocusing their efforts
in the last couple of years. To some, the whole venture might seem like
a failed experiment. But as someone who recently picked up an Oculus
Quest, it’s hard to take this stance or Spencer’s comments particularly seriously
at all, right now at least. It’s been a slow process but VR seems like
it’s in the best place it’s been in years—with the aforementioned Quest barrelling through
those entry requirements (both financial and physical), with Valve using the tech to revive
Half Life and the fact it is selling, VR seems closer than ever to achieving the mainstream
adoption I think it deserves. Because even beyond all of the sales stuff,
VR is just so goddamn cool. To dismiss it as a gimmick, I think, is to
ignore its potential to completely shake up every aspect of how games are designed and
played. It forces us to question how well-established
genres and trends are adapted, how interfaces are navigated, everything we’ve previously
taken for granted. That is to say, VR has been a revitalising,
revolutionary experience for me and I believe it can be for the industry as a whole too. Interestingly though, these thoughts only
started to come about after booting up a version of a game I’d already played. But before we get into what game that is,
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the video and now back to the game that started to shift my ideas on how destabilising VR
as a platform can actually be. Superhot, what many consider to be VR’s
killer app, is maybe the dumbest I have ever looked playing a game, but it’s simultaneously
the coolest I’ve ever felt. While to an onlooker this action translates
to a series of gesticulations, contortions and gawking facial expressions that make it
look like you’ve just dunted a not-insignificant quantity of psychedelics, this awkwardness
belies what’s actually happening inside the headset—a cavalcade of hyper-focused
bobs and weaves, physically placing yourself in just the right spot and seizing upon the
myriad opportunities to pull off unbelievably cool shit on the fly. Reaching out and grabbing an enemy’s gun
from their hand, bludgeoning them with it then turning and taking cover from the flurry
of bullets headed your way… I can honestly say it’s a thrill unlike
any other I’ve experienced in a video game. And what’s interesting about Superhot in
particular is that it’s probably the most obvious example I can think of where VR significantly
changes how you play. The core of the title’s “time moves when
you move” shtick remains, the same system that in 2015 turned the FPS genre from mindless
bombast to something resembling a puzzle game; but here, because it’s actually you physically
doing the moving, aiming your weapons and ducking behind cover, it results in a renewed
tension that b rings that more visceral shooter feel back into focus. In other words, it’s less cerebral than
its non-VR counterpart; you’re not so focused on thinking your way through these scenarios
as you are doing. Making a video on the original Superhot earlier
this year re-established it as maybe one of my favourite games but, having played the
VR component, going back to vanilla feels decidedly tame now, when I’m not actually
staring down the barrels of multiple shotguns. Superhot VR was the title that got me thinking
just how different a game can be in virtual reality even if it bears all the hallmarks
of the same game out of VR. But I was also told it would have that effect
on me. What was perhaps less expected is that this
kind of perspective shift isn’t limited to super-stylised titles—the way we talk
about more simulative action is fundamentally different in VR. A game like Gun Club sells itself on its more
grounded aesthetic; placing you in a series of shooting galleries and encouraging you
to caress every part of its lovingly rendered firearms. Reloading a gun, usually a single button press,
is here a multi-stage physical process of unloading a clip, reaching for another, placing
it in, then readying your weapon. It’s designed to feel real… and also happens
to be one of the more uncanny experiences I’ve had in VR as a result. It’s really fun, for sure, but it’s also
wacky as hell, and this is down to one thing—recoil (or the lack thereof). Controller vibration can only get you so far
in conveying the pushback of these weapons as you fire them and the need to keep your
hands accurately tracked at all times means that holding your hand still will largely
negate any kind of bullet spread, no matter your gun’s stopping power. A hulking weapon you’d normally expect to
blow your shoulder off now sees you wielding your semi-auto shotgun in one hand with ease
as if you were BJ Blazkowics; while the pistol, a weapon that would typically see players
sacrificing power for speed and control, suddenly represents a much greater challenge thanks
to its smaller, more fiddly components. In VR, authenticity can now only get you so
far on the software side of things; you can no longer rely on a player’s suspension
of disbelief that comes from controlling a quote-unquote “simulation” with a mouse
and keyboard and staring at a screen. The player is holding these objects and that
comes with all kinds of expectations of weight and power, potentially shifting how we think
about things like weapon balance in shooters. This is potentially an issue for more “serious
games”, but there are those that actively play into that uncanniness, presenting sandbox-esque
environments that create comedy out of fumbling around to grab an object and the clumsiness
that can often result from that. These games are relatively simple, they might
not be super content-rich on their own but honestly, what’s becoming clear with VR
the more I engage with it, is that a little tactility goes a long, long way in keeping
me coming back to them. Take a game like No Man’s Sky, for instance;
whose VR component I’m now able to play thanks to the recent release of the Oculus
Link beta—which, despite some understandable technical issues, essentially turns my Quest
into a Rift, opening up a wealth of previously inaccessible PC-only experiences. No Man’s Sky in particular was originally
a game in which traversing space was often effortless to the point of triviality—a
means to an end of getting to another planet I suppose—but it takes on a whole new meaning
when you’re in that cockpit, surrounded by glowing monitors you turn your head to
examine, physically manipulating levers and joysticks to move around. Suddenly the core of No Man’s Sky action—exploring
planets to gather items—itself becomes the means to the end of getting to fly my ship
around some more. Waiting in hyperdrive for up to a minute at
a time ceases to be the chore it once was—it relaxes me. It’s a break from the physical work I’ve
done in order to get my ship off the ground. Physically inhabiting that space is often
its own reward. And by extension, what would otherwise be
considered budget experiences or even interactive movies can become so much more in VR. For example, there’s very little mechanical
engagement to be had with the Star Wars tie-in that came bundled with my Quest, but one thing
that can’t be so easily sold to people, especially through video captured like this,
is the sense of scale that VR provides. I, for one, never thought I’d be taken aback
at the sight of Darth Vader, and perhaps this is just me, but when a full-sized version
of that dude is getting up in your face for the first time, it’s an unnerving experience;
just as it is staring out at these now-massive ships and seemingly endless expanses that
previously have been difficult to imagine because I wasn’t… there like I am now. Similarly I love I Expect You To Die—it’s
a really neat game that juxtaposes a noire aesthetic with the chaos of a VR sandbox to
create comic, complex, physical puzzles, along with clever grabbing mechanics that help to
avoid frustration when your poking and prodding leads to you throwing a key item out of reach. But the one thing I keep returning to is that
credits sequence—as people stylishly point guns at you with missiles going off around
them and billboard-sized names scroll past your eyes, it’s like being inside a Bond
intro. It’s the same with the First Steps tutorial
provided by Oculus—more exciting than the swingball or the ping pong bat is the whale
that flies over your head and it’s the size of an actual whale. What I’ve found is that quantity of content
in VR often don’t matter as much as just… being. Maybe I’m just late to the party on this
and it all sounds super lame and cliché but… I don’t care. There are so many aspects to this that bring
into stark focus how I play and think about video games. Things like the lack of comfort features in
a game like Boneworks, designed to be VR’s biggest narrative-focused action title to
date, point to the fact that even half-a-decade after VR’s re-emergence as a going concern,
developers are still being forced to consider potential issues with the most basic building
blocks of the medium. Some people, myself included, can’t play
this game because the lack of movement options makes them feel sick, but thanks to the team’s
vision of physically rendering a body in the game space for the sake of immersion, snap-based
transport controls simply wouldn’t work. In VR, how you move your character is a massive
accessibility concern; it potentially shuts a large portion of the player base off from
your game based on this one simple decision and the commitment to any one style in the
face of that fact, then, borders on an artistic choice. Figuring out basic movement in VR is an art. But it’s not just the fundamentals of gameplay
that change in VR—interfaces take on a different purpose when that headset goes on, morphing
from purely functional to experiences unto themselves. Menus are now these ridiculously cosy, homely
environments; loading screens are breath-taking vistas. There’s something calming about being alone
in these quiet worlds; watching Netflix in a façade of a cabin in the mountains is a
tool I’ve used to relax myself when I get stressed. Casually flying around the world in Google
Earth is genuinely therapeutic; being able to escape to the summit of Mount Everest via
a YouTube video is powerful. It’s sometimes a little disappointing to
take off that headset as a result. And without wishing to get all Black Mirror
on you, in years to come, as hardware becomes less bulky, as users become less aware of
the fact that they’re wearing this big thing on their face, there’s part of me that’s
curious if we’ll eventually encounter the problem of people becoming lost in these worlds,
where they shut themselves off from those around them. This is a platform that redefines escapism;
you’re choosing, to some extent, to block out one reality in favour of another. That VR could potentially be used to help
with all kinds of neurological or mental health issues has been researched long before the
technology’s most recent boon in the mid-2010s, but there’s been surprisingly little work
done into how that technology itself could create issues of addiction, or the possible
implications of letting people handle guns or enact violence in such detail. We know video games don’t make you violent,
but can we be so sure about VR (also check out Lambhoot’s channel for his upcoming
behemoth on that very topic)? Point is, questions we’ve long since considered
answered in traditional games become foggier once VR enters the equation. And that’s what I mean when I say that everything
about games as we’ve come to know them changes in some capacity with VR. We’ve become so used to generational upgrades
manifesting in these barely noticeable increases in graphical fidelity but here we have something
so relatively new, so destabilising, that its implications can be as scary as they are
exciting. But none of those potential issues detract
from how elated I’ve been regarding this technology since getting my Quest, and crucially
I’m not alone. When showing the headset to my family for
the first time, my dad was absolutely astounded that he could soar over Victoria Falls. My mum couldn’t believe the fact that a
full-size robot had just appeared right in front of her and that she could interact with
it. We laughed as the person in the headset floundered
while attemping to describe this entirely new thing they were seeing, experiencing. And, when they returned to reality, it wasn’t
the same as when they’d played Wii Bowling or whatever all those years ago, which they
recognised at the time as a fun novelty. This was different, it was genuine awe—they
kept talking about how incredible it was, how real and futuristic it felt. It seemed like they understood my world, my
investment in games, a little better than they did before. They begged me to bring the Quest round for
Christmas so the rest of the family could experience these wonders too. And that, for me, is possibly the biggest
way VR changes things, the real point at which Spencer’s prior comments fall apart for
me—that even with someone inside a headset, this was one of the most genuinely communal
experiences I’ve had with technology in years; that if the barriers to entry continue
to diminish as they have done with the Quest, VR not only has the potential to break into
the mainstream as a commercial success but, more importantly, use games to bring people
together. So I hope you enjoyed my piece on VR. Thank you again to Skillshare for sponsoring
the video and for the two-month free trial you can access via the link in the description. I’d also like to thank my patrons whose
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Yang. And with that this has been another episode
of Writing on Games. Thank you very much for watching and I will
see you next time.