The Struggle Is Real – Why VR?
I am struggling hard with two questions regarding VR.
First: Why I like it. I spent a good chunk of this weekend with the Odyssey. I played Space Pirate Trainer and realized how out of shape I am. I was astounded by the puzzle game FORM. I shrugged my way through Halo Recruit. I ended the weekend by preparing for this week’s beta release of SteamVR support by looking through the VR games on that platform and wishlisting the ones I felt might be worth looking into. At the end of the day, though, the catalog seems rather lacking.
Second: Why I should recommend VR to someone who is otherwise on the fence about it. I dislike being put into this position, as it amounts to being asked to justify someone else’s spending. Really, I cannot recommend VR to someone who is ambivalent about it, just as I can’t recommend a movie, TV show, or beer to someone based on my preferences alone…especially in this case, where I cannot even explain my own interest to my satisfaction.
This leaves me in an uncomfortable space. I’ve spent money on something I’m not sure I have an ongoing use for and am constantly reminded by this whenever I see someone shrug their shoulders when talking about VR.
So I started thinking about what VR does, what it does well, and what it falls down on, and how this relates to me and to those around me. I think I might have a foundation excuse.
VR adds depth to our experiences. Literal depth. When you see an object pointed at you, it really looks like it’s pointed at you. I watched my daughter move around the room playing FORM as she navigated a puzzle from different points of view as if there were a physical object in the room. That is primarily what VR offers.
What VR does well is telepresence, or putting yourself somewhere else. We accept that “we are the character” in first person shooters or games like Skyrim, but we don’t have (or apparently need) that full-on suspension of disbelief because we are stopped at the bounds of a 2D monitor. With VR, however, we gain depth, so that tower on the hill literally is a tower, on a hill, in the distance, and not just a graphical trick to make it seem like it’s tall and far away. We can become the character in the game right up to the point where we feel our environments (which is another hard stop to complete immersion, but I’m not in the market for feeling the stabbing of a dagger, thank you very much), and in doing so we trick our brains into believing that the virtual is more real than we’re able to do when we’re limited to a 2D screen.
What VR falls down on is bridging the gap between, say, Skyrim and what can currently be done with the technology. Yes, Skyrim VR releases this week, which is exciting, but that’s an outlier despite having had 40 years of technological improvement that brought us to the “pinnacle” of immersive gaming like Fallout 4, GTA V and Horizon: Zero Dawn. Most of what is currently available on VR equates to sensory toys for toddlers: levers, buttons, and sliders that are included because there’s something satisfying about pulling levers, pushing buttons, and sliding sliders with reality-based movement translated into a virtual environment. This works well in puzzle games, and only then in moderation, but has limited application in actual “games”.
How does all of this relate to me and others? For me, I’m excited about the telepresence aspect. Having an actual (virtual) sense of scale in situations where graphical trickery had traditionally been employed to impart the same feeling is mind-blowing — even frightening. Gaming has become a zero-sum scenario for a huge number of people, boiling down the more fantastic elements to minimizing risk of failure through memorization of strategies and guides, and thus removing the actual “experience” of the experience. With VR, you can’t help but get those feels no matter how much prep work you do, and that’s exciting.
While I can’t speak for everyone, I get the feeling that a lot of the people who are on the fence about VR, or who are dismissing it entirely, are looking for a continuation of the 40 year trajectory that we’ve enjoyed. What they see are experiences that aren’t really games, don’t pick up where our top of the line games left off, and therefor don’t evolve the gaming experience beyond what satisfies them on a 2D screen. Paying for promise is something that “early access” and Kickstarters have asked us to believe in, and there’s practically no one out there who hasn’t been sufficiently burned through those avenues to the point where paying for promise is no longer worth the risk.
I’ve heard people (developers) say that VR is a new paradigm entirely and that it requires a whole new way of thinking about how games are designed. If function follows form, that means that developers must adapt existing games to “fit” into VR, or they have to come up with totally new game modes that are natively suited to VR. Space Pirate Trainer is a good example of a game that is designed well for VR, but which wouldn’t fare so well with any other environment (except, sadly, mobile). Is SPT enough of a game to make someone decide to buy a HMD? I can’t imagine so, and simply copying the SPT template of carnival shooter fills up the marketplace well enough, but only with derivatives of a mediocre experience. If designing for VR means that developers strike out away from what gamers are currently satisfied with, it’s going to be an up-hill battle for VR (again). Gamers — like many developers — are risk-averse and aren’t known to take chances that move them away from what they feel comfortable with.