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April 14, 2016

Eyes Open! It’s VR!


I consider it a point of pride to know as much as I do about games.  I’m no walking encyclopedia, but I still get around -- though there are still some pretty big gaps I’ve yet to reconcile.  Case in point: I first heard about the Oculus Rift from an old episode of Game Grumps, but never felt compelled to do any reading about it.  Sure, Facebook ended up going in all guns blazing with the then-upcoming VR headset, but it seemed to me that the House of Zuckerburg blew a ton of money on technology we aren’t even sure will last -- or how to work it, for that matter.

To be clear, I’ve never had anything against VR.  But I never had a vested interest in it, or unflinching faith in its potential.  I wanted to wait until there were tons of concrete details to go by, and more importantly, I wanted to see actual games instead of mere tech demos.  Imagine my surprise, then, when I actually got to try out one of the VR headsets.  And boy was it something.

But I’m going to take the high road and not make references to VR Troopers, because everyone else is doing that already.  I’m sure I’ll find something to compensate with -- and I promise it’ll be 100% relevant to the post’s context.


For the record: I gave the HTC Vive a test run, and by extension the full setup (as provided by my friend Rory, who naturally made this post possible -- so good on you, sir).  That full setup includes the headset, two cubical sensors placed near corners of the room, two Wiimote-esque motion controllers, and a computer to run all of it.  I also happened to play with a pair of headphones -- though distressingly, my ears apparently aren’t a good fit for the standard ear buds.  It’s kind of daunting, knowing that this new technology may as well put you inside some kind of freaky laboratory, but you kind of stop thinking about it once you get used to the particulars.

I’d be lying if I said it doesn’t take any getting used to, of course.  Putting on the headset and running through the tutorials is pretty straightforward, and as far as I can tell, you’re not risking a brain aneurysm or night spent hobbled over a toilet if you give it a whirl.  (It might differ from person-to-person, but I doubt the headset would be on the market if it could effectively cripple a person.)  The “learning process” comes from the fact that you have to potentially re-learn concepts that you kind of take for granted in video games.

So if you’re tired of reading already, I’ll cut straight to the chase: the simplest yet best thing I can say about the Vive -- and VR in general -- is that it actually works.


Navigating a 3D space with a controller?  No problem.  Navigating a 3D space in real life?  That’s child’s play.  Navigating an imaginary 3D space with your body and interacting with objects that don’t actually exist?  That takes some learning.  At the outset, my feet were pretty much rooted to the ground, for fear of stepping out of bounds and screwing up the system -- not to mention that there’s a lengthy cord built into the headset that can get twisted around you.  It’s not hard to imagine people tripping up or banging into stuff while in VR mode -- my brother was there too, and moved out of bounds on multiple occasions -- but again, it’s something that you have to learn to deal with.

The real issue here, such as it is, is that you have to reconcile interactions in a 3D space where the rules can be vastly different with what reality expects.  And those rules change from game to game.  For starters, some games will confine you to a fixed space, and you’ll have to move as directed.  Other games make you use the controllers to teleport around, whether it’s up a mountain face or through an office filled with killer robots.  Presumably, the Vive controllers allow for movement via their trackpads, but I’ve heard that extensive controller use makes people lose balance and/or sick when used in conjunction with VR.  So that’s a problem devs will have to pound out in the future.


In any case, learning to work with an imaginary 3D space is going to have a learning curve, if not provide a challenge for players as well as developers.  Case in point: my brother’s the artist among us, so he took the first swing at what might as well have been Microsoft Paint in Supra-3D.  (Side note: I hope that’s how people start describing VR games from now on.)  The assumption was that he’d be able to create something incredible in a matter of minutes, but there was a problem: he couldn’t wrap his head around the concept of working on a three-dimensional project. 

Well, I call it a “problem”, but it’s more of an observation.  Whenever he drew something -- a face, for example -- it would look fine from his perspective (and ours, via a nearby monitor), but once he shifted even a foot out of line, it looked like a bunch of squiggles in midair.  I told him to try drawing a cube; he couldn’t even get the lines to connect, much less build the box.  I’d bet that if he was a sculptor he’d have no problems with it, but it does illustrate the issue: Supra-3D games are asking their players to reconcile width, height, and depth with a level of freedom that’s not at all common in the gaming world.


I’m not too hung up about it, though.  Even if I essentially tried out a bunch of tech demos, they were some strong demos.  I think I’ve made it clear that I’m no expert (or diehard fan) of shooters, but giving Space Pirate Trainer a try brought a level of hype I would have never thought possible from a shooter.  You’ve got a small box to maneuver around in as you endure waves of incoming droids; shoot them down with your twin guns (with firing modes you can switch between at any point), and dodge shots as best you can.  Take three hits, and it’s over.

The game made me lament the fact that I’m a terrible shot -- and confirmed I’m a terrible shot in the real world (such as it is), not just in games.  On the plus side, though?  It was arguably the most fun I’ve had with a shooter, ever; once you get into the rhythm of battle, you stop thinking about the headset on your face, or the cord scraping against you, or the carpet you’re stepping atop.  Instinct takes over.  You listen closely for the sound of impending lasers.  You dodge shots that you have no business dodging, with motions that you didn’t even know you could make.  You basically end up doing gun katas, striking poses and crossing shots on your way to a high score.  (Well, if you don’t pull something in the heat of battle.)

It’s like…you know how a lot of PR guys and speakers will brag about how immersive their games are?  They don’t know what that word means.  Not anymore.


I can’t vouch for the quality of every game (or tech demo) out there, but I’m willing to bet that Space Pirate Trainer wasn’t a fluke.  I say as much, because I tried some other stuff that was just as interesting, and probably less embarrassing to watch.  On one hand, there’s Audioshield, a rhythm game that lets you load up a song and punch incoming orbs in time with the beat.  Setting aside the fact that it would be amazing as an exercise tool, it’s shockingly thrilling to box your way to the end of your favorite tracks.  Granted how much fun you have will depend heavily on which track you load up -- you’re limited to Soundcloud uploads, and there’s no guarantee that the game will give you perfectly-synced beats -- but I lucked out.  Throwing hands to the sound of Megalovania is sweet, but fighting it out with a remix of Squid Sisters is downright sick.

On the other hand, there’s Budget Cuts, where you’re tasked with sneaking through a facility to stamp approval on your job application.  It’s a stealth game, which you’d think would be a problem when you can only move a few feet in any direction -- but the game sidesteps that by letting you teleport via gunshot (more or less).  It’s a much more cerebral approach to solving a problem -- though it’s offset by having to throw knives at patrolling robots, which is much harder than you’d expect -- but no less engaging.  At one point, I was leaning around imaginary walls to probe an area…and in my haste, forgot that that wall wasn’t real and almost toppled over.


If I had to guess, I’d say that how much fun you’ll have with VR is equal to how willing you are to get immersed -- to play by its rules, and be willing to move.  If you’re the sort that wants to press buttons on a controller and sit on a couch (or if you’re strictly against motion controls), then as far as I know, there’s nothing about VR that’ll appeal to you.  But I think that it’s some deeply-affecting technology, capable of pulling you into some incredible experiences.  There’s a lot of potential here, and I absolutely hope that it gets tapped in the future.

And in a perfect world, I’d end the post here.  But since it’s not -- and since I’m me -- I have a lot of questions in mind.

The most obvious question -- the one that everyone’s probably asked by now -- is simple: is VR the future of gaming?  I don’t know.  I don’t know if it’ll supersede consoles and PC setups, or if it’ll find an audience among anyone but the most dedicated of technophiles.  Honestly, I don’t even know if I want VR to take over the gaming world.  Setting aside the fact that the technology can see better use in other fields -- like the Kinect before it -- there’s a part of me that just wants to say “VR can exist alongside traditional games, not replace them outright.”


VR represents a wild frontier that’s hard to gauge in a lot of ways.  Savvy devs can do a lot with it, no question, but I wonder how a lot of games are going to work with it -- which leads me to believe that some games aren’t a good fit.  How would something like Street Fighter work if it made the VR leap?  Even a single button press in that game can lead to a character doing moves that defy space and time; simple gestures might work better, but that takes out the bombast that makes fighters such a beloved and enduring genre. 

The Vive may have buttons to help reconcile the difference, but it seems like a cop-out to make the body the controller and then expect players to do stuff with pieces of plastic -- not to mention the issue of managing footsies and controlling space.  How would anyone begin to tackle that?  Scratch that -- how would anyone tackle that and actually be good, unlike Fighter Within?  How do you represent complex, high-speed actions done by superhuman avatars -- Sol Badguy, Bayonetta, a slew of Kingdom Hearts characters -- when the human body is the inherent limiter?

And really, that brings up a bigger issue here.


I won’t even begin to pretend like I didn’t have fun with Space Pirate Trainer, Audioshield, and Budget Cuts (among others).  But there’s a quirk about all three of them that I couldn’t help but notice.  Across those games, I wasn’t playing as a different character, or exploring a unique world.  I was playing as me.  The rules might have changed alongside the end goal and mechanics, but it doesn’t change the fact that I was basically dropping into a new arcade game each time.  There’s merit in that, no question -- arcade experiences are welcome, and it does offer a chance at self-improvement -- but my concern is that devs are going to sacrifice narrative heft for virtual wizardry.

Don’t get me wrong; you can tell good stories and craft sprawling (or intimate) worlds with a blank slate.  It’s not hard to see VR being used to create choose your own adventure stories, for example.  But the vast majority of fiction out there asks audiences to connect with specific, defined characters -- people tailor-made to endure plots and conflicts.  Games already struggle enough these days with making characters that aren’t just stand-ins for wish fulfillment or mindless carnage, and it’d be a shame if VR games gave up entirely so that anyone and everyone the main character…in a game that barely even has a plot.


I guess I’d be remiss if I didn’t address the herd of elephants in the room: the price.  So apparently, the Oculus Rift will set you back about $600 at a bare minimum; the Vive, $800.  That’s not an amount anyone can shrug off, but there’s more to it; you may or may not need a good pair of headphones, and more importantly you need a computer good enough to run the VR stuff.  I don’t know PCs well enough to make a snap judgment -- I’m still dumbstruck by having two monitors at once -- but I’ll go ahead and guess that having a machine good enough to run the Vive will cost a pretty penny.  And/or your soul.

In its current form -- in terms of its price, and the space needed to work it properly -- I wouldn’t call VR something that’s practical or easy for Little Jimmy Xbox to jump into.  In a world where people can get addicted to games they can carry around in their pocket and download for a paltry sum (if anything), asking people to buy into the chance to strap a hunk of plastic the size of a fat guinea pig onto their faces is, understandably, too much to handle.  And besides, VR is in no way a safe bet right now.  Are customers going to play it?  Are developers going to work with it?  Are companies going to support it? 

Remember, the game industry is one that handily abandoned the Kinect, the PS Move, the Wii U GamePad, and more for the sake of playing it safe.  What guarantee is there that they’ll throw dollars behind the development of something that won’t give them millions in return?  And sure, some companies have already thrown their weight behind VR -- there’s supposedly a version of Battlefield coming -- but how do we know that it’s a genuine investment and not a token foray?


There are a ton of unknowns circling around VR, and right now it looks like the only way we’ll get those answers is with time.  That’s not exactly the most comforting thought, knowing that the blooming industry could wither in a matter of seconds -- especially if it enters the Wii U’s vicious cycle where “no one wants to work with it because no one wants to work with it”.  The potential is there, without question.  But as a hypothetical scenario: if the Vive opted to follow in the original Wii’s footsteps and tried to become a fixture of the living room with equivalents to Wii Sports and Wii Fit, how many moms, elders, and casual fans would give it a try?  How many would even think of putting on a headset, for fear of motion sickness or breaking something (VR equipment or otherwise)?

Like I said, there are a ton of unknowns.  But you know me, I hope; I’m an optimist.  Part of being an optimist means seeing the bright side of things, and how we might be in for better days.  I won’t pretend like VR is some sort of godsend or revolution -- a signal that it’s time to throw all our consoles in the trash -- but it’s still a legitimate step forward.  Even with only a couple of hours with the tech, I understood the potential, and the artistry on lockdown.  People have already put some serious work into getting the most out of VR…as you’d expect from tech experts who have doubled down as gamblers.


VR is no longer doomed to languish in the pages of sci-fi novels or in film reels across the ages.  We’re not at Holodeck levels of immersion or ease of access, but we’re doing fairly well (and as far as I can tell, using the Vive doesn’t put you at risk of being shot at by ornery cowboys).  If we’re talking strictly about games, it can be used to -- pardon the pun -- add brand new dimensions to puzzle games, bring a whole new level of feeling to rhythm games, and turn shooters into something well beyond the bog-standard “pop in and out of cover” shooting gallery at the average carnival.  And even if I have concerns about how VR narratives will develop (if at all), the chance to connect with characters in-universe is remarkably strong.  That’s probably a given, considering that the waifu wars are about to go into overdrive.

Even if VR doesn’t take in the gaming world -- at first -- it’ll still make for an incredibly powerful tool.  Game design, animation, construction, 3D modeling, and the like might as well be shoo-ins -- and again, this is going to be fantastic when it comes to getting exercise, or even training for a major sport.  Maybe it’ll see use in tourism, or virtual classrooms, or space exploration, or medical examinations -- viewing worlds that would otherwise go unseen by the masses and experts alike.  Who knows?  Maybe someday, we’ll be inside VR movies instead of watching them play out on flat screens.

There’s no telling what’ll happen.  But I want something to happen.


I’ll be honest here.  There have been times in the past few years where I’ve played games, or read about games, or dealt with games in general, and walked away with crippling levels of disappointment.  Confusion, sadness, anger, and outright hatred in some cases; I may be an optimist, but every so often I’ve toyed with the idea of giving up games in their entirety.  I’ve been through some low points, with the sense -- however fleeting -- that the medium isn’t going to get any better.  Not when there are so many companies willing to bumble and coast towards millions in sales, and dragging down the par for the sake of a quick buck.

But toying around with VR -- with what might as well be a toy in its current form -- gave me back my hope.  In a matter of hours, I understood why people were so excited about the big plastic bricks.  I understood what could be done, and the dreams pinned on the potential of the technology.  Even if I’ve got no shot at doing anything worthwhile with it, and even if VR’s mere existence on the market is a big gamble, I can only pray that those that buy in get the most out of it.  I hope that someday, they’ll have something substantial, something conclusive to show the world.


I’d love for VR to become a road that people are willing to travel down.  Because man oh man, it looks like a hell of a road.

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