There’s been a hush in the conversation surrounding Virtual Reality. The Oculus Rift, the HTC Vive, and PlayStation VR, took up a lot of space in the collective gaming mind last year. And while the devices are a giant leap forward, still the buzz became a murmur, and the murmur became a whisper. Now we’re all back in a holding pattern, waiting for that ‘killer-app’ software that justifies the hardware. But what was the real root of all the excitement? Sure, we’re always keen on new technology, but the expectations surrounding VR are bigger than an incremental console upgrade. I’m wondering if they should be. When we already have 4K fidelity and 7.1 Dolby Surround in our headphones, why are some of us still chasing the fabled realm of total immersion promised by Virtual Reality?
I recently woke up thinking about Dark Souls. I haven’t touched that game in at least a year, probably longer. Even still, I found myself at dawn, in a waking dream, retracing my footsteps from a virtual journey I had taken long ago. As I came to, I realized I had been subconsciously mapping out the pathways that connect the game’s different areas. My brain was plotting the geographic relationship between the New Londo Ruins and the rest of Lordran; the entrances from Firelink Shrine and Darkroot Basin, and how they spatially add up. I know this isn’t a revelation. Books have already been written about the brilliant level design and inter-connected world of the original Dark Souls.
But to find myself retreading those paths in my sleep? After all this time? I think it’s safe to say my time with Dark Souls had been a wholly immersive experience. Lordran is a place I have been to.
All of which got me thinking about the carrot-like promise of greater levels of immersion dangled at the end of Virtual Reality’s schtick, er… I mean, stick. Since Nintendo’s Virtual Boy, we’ve been awaiting the arrival of true VR, a total sea-change in the way video games are presented. And in 2016, it seemed we were finally going to get it.
To be fair, we did get it. Admittedly, I have not had the opportunity to sample the latest iteration of VR myself. I am not bashing the technology or the games that have been presented. Quite the contrary. I have my PlayStation 4 Pro ready and waiting for when I feel I’m economically ready, and the tech is economically (for me, at least) worth it. Games like Job Simulator, Thumper, and Superhot VR are all highly acclaimed. Thumper and Superhot are both playable on traditional consoles too, but the VR versions are still well thought of, and described as elevated experiences. And the big, big releases are still coming. Resident Evil 7 proved, at the very least, that the tech can handle it, even if the experience might still be more comfortable on a television. Bethesda has jumped in with both feet, bringing Fallout 4 and Skyrim to the virtual realm. But here’s just one example how some in the press are reacting to that. Still, my point is that I have not yet had the opportunity myself, and I am still excited about it. Do not take this as a hate rant.
I want to shift gears though, and relate this to another evolving medium. Roger Ebert was very vocal about the growing presence of 3D in movie theaters. You can read the full piece here. He speaks to some very technical issues involving film speed and picture quality and some lighting terms, but what I find relevant to this discussion is his Lawrence of Arabia example. Ebert makes the point that movies have always been in 3D because our brains can’t interpret them in any other way. In other words, no one ever watched that iconic scene, Lawrence charging across the desert, toward the viewer, and thought Peter O’Toole was growing in size. We know he’s coming closer to us, even on the flat screen, because we instinctually understand perspective.
So I ask, haven’t video games always been immersive? When I was 12, and I could run through Super Mario Bros., practically with my eyes closed, hitting every warp pipe and ending Bowser in 8-4, all in a matter of minutes… wasn’t that trance-like state a good example of immersion? Same with something as simple as Galaga. We’ve all been in ‘the zone,’ that place where the gameplay becomes an extension of our consciousness, where you forget your hands are on the controls and the input seems to flow directly from our brains to the feedback on the screen. And that’s just thinking about the golden age of skill based games. Now we have epic, expertly crafted narratives like The Last of Us. We have first person shooters, coupled with surround sound, so we know where things are around us, in the game environment, simply through audio clues, through feel. Games already take us places.
I like some movies in 3D. Mad Max: Fury Road was amazing in 3D. But I don’t think movies need to be seen in 3D. As processing power and some pretty incredible feats of human engineering bring us closer to true Virtual Reality, complete with greater graphical fidelity, amazing sound, and even haptic feedback, we’re going to see some pretty incredible VR games. But we’re not going to see them replace the status quo. And we should stop expecting them to.