09. Nov, 2016
With the release of the PlayStation VR, we stand at a threshold where the way we play games will change forever… or remain the same. The three major players in the virtual reality arena have released their hardware along with some decent gaming experiences to give you a taste of true immersion. It’s that term “immersion” that brings me to this little collection of thoughts.
It’s virtually impossible to search for “VR” or “PS VR” without arriving at a comment section on your favorite news site and not see the words “it’s just another gimmick.” Used as a derogatory term in gaming, “gimmick” refers to a tacked-on technology that may or may not contribute to the gaming experience.
Sometimes, the difference between a gimmick and innovation is the longevity of the experiment’s survival. For example, I recall the rumble pack for the Nintendo 64 being referred to as a gimmick, and now, rarely does a video game controller exist without a rumble feature.
When the Wii released, the entire concept of motion controls became the epitome of “gimmick” what with Sony and Microsoft releasing their own versions of waggle. While certain games supported motion controls successfully, the concept alone did not truly add anything to the enjoyment of the game, and was thus reserved for party games like dance sims.
Motion systems like Kinect and the Eye Toy camera for the PS2, ended up abandoned and forgotten. One could almost understand the skepticism gamers had whenever a new “gimmick” was introduced.
Then there was 3D. I was fortunate enough to try 3D with gaming before I experienced it in the movies and was immediately taken in by the immersion that it created. One of my first 3D games was Motorstorm: Apocalypse on PlayStation 3.
Besides blinking my eyes when virtual rain and debris appeared to come out of my television, my first true physical connection with a game came when I jumped off a cliff in 3D and felt my stomach rise slightly. I was now truly immersed. But I could still see the edge of my television, and looking left or right immediately broke that sense of presence within the game world.
My second experience was playing Killzone 3 in 3D. As I was playing, something felt odd, like the feeling you get when someone shines a laser pointer near your eyes. Sure enough, moving my head slightly revealed a sniper’s laser coming from the TV and centering itself between my eyes. I felt afraid and amused, and I personally was convinced that 3D was the way of the future.
It was also labeled a gimmick. I didn’t quite understand. How could something that served as a means to increase your immersion in a video game world be considered a gimmick? I figured that the damage had been done when folks associated 3D with movies and never quite gave gaming in 3D a chance.
Now that VR is becoming a household word, I realize that 3D and motion controls independently may have been a gimmick, but the combination of 3D and motion, within a head tracking VR headset, would be the gaming evolution we needed.
This brings up another complaint I have often seen. Sony abandons their creations. While I would tend to agree that 3D was pushed hard only to be left behind, the aforementioned PlayStation 4 camera and Move controllers have not only escaped abandonment, but have now become absolutely integral to the function of VR. Even 3D plays a huge role in the functionality of the new headset.
I was somewhat surprised to see the reactions to VR on the boards and comment sections of gaming sites. VR is still considered a gimmick: a passing fad that will vanish like the Move controllers – that didn’t actually vanish.
This time I seriously could not understand it. As video gamers, we have spent the last thirty plus years, less for some of course, watching the evolution of our favorite hobby. We have seen onscreen characters, represented by blocks, turn into fully animated 3D models, with flowing hair and clothing, expressive faces and voiced by amazing actors. We have seen those pixels come to life in ways that we couldn’t have even began to dream possible thirty years ago.
I experienced the emotion of losing Nei in Phantasy Star 2, conveyed by 16-bit artwork and on-screen text, and saw it evolve into the absolutely moving and devastating introduction that Last of Us provided.
Evolution. Not only do we expect it in the industry, we get it. Hardware developers, console and PC, work their asses off to give those gaming boxes the power to create better graphics and effects in order to provide their audiences with the most immersive experience that can possibly be achieved. And we consume it, expecting more with each generation.
We do this because we seek that next level of immersion, of presence within a video game. We look to the next Elder Scrolls game to whisk us away to a fully realized world. The more robust the graphics, the more we feel that we are truly visiting another land. Repeated textures and pop-in break that reality, so we demand the best experiences.
Enter VR. The gimmick that is taking the steps to immerse you even more, and some, certainly not all, reject it as another gimmick.
The first time I donned a VR headset was at a small Oculus kiosk at a comic convention. The very generic flying game within was as shallow as you could possibly imagine, but I was no longer in that convention facility. I was in a crude polygonal airplane.
I didn’t leave there thinking that this crappy airplane demo was the future of gaming. I left there amazed by the sense of presence felt under the hood, and dreamed of what other experiences this could bring, given the right developers.
It reminded me of the same dreams I had when the Super Nintendo and Genesis were announced and I saw pictures of Phantasy Star 2, wondering what worlds I would visit. When the first PlayStation and Saturn were announced, my dreams skyrocketed. Now I could walk around in a 3D environment, the way I see the real world, and no longer be limited to seeing my characters as if I was flying above them.
The game industry, and the expectations behind it, thrive on experimentation and every one of those experiments is based on the desire to immerse us more in the virtual worlds developers create. So why do some of us see VR as a gimmick? If our ultimate desire is to achieve immersion, why would a headset, that puts you into the gaming world in ways only dreamed of, be considered a passing fad?
Admittedly, as with any technology, perfecting its application will determine its staying power. Sony’s VR headset has sold well. It launched with some great, and not so great, games. Personally, Eve: Valkyrie has kept me extremely entertained, and I can’t even begin to explain that experience of being in the middle of a space battle.
Twenty years ago I would never have thought this possible. Looking over my shoulder and seeing a pursuing vessel fire rockets at me, then turning forward and maneuvering towards a nearby asteroid, looking over my shoulders again and watching its missiles harmlessly impact against the giant rock.
Yes, I could have experienced this on my television, but I wouldn’t be “there”. I was there because of the depth provided by VR, but also because the world was realized around me. I could look in any direction and see it. Not with a press of a joystick, but with my head movement.
Staying power will absolutely be determined by the support these headsets receive. I don’t want VR to pass. I’ve been a gamer for thirty years and this is what I always hoped gaming would evolve into, but I never really expected it to happen.
As modern gamers, we owe it to ourselves to give VR a chance. I didn’t write this to encourage you to go buy an expensive headset because yeah, even the Sony one isn’t THAT cheap. I simply think that we shouldn’t write it off as a gimmick without truly trying it. And now we have more options than that silly airplane game I tried three years ago.
Batman Arkham VR may be an hour long game, but holy-hell Batman if it didn’t completely place me in Gotham City as the caped crusader. I can only imagine what the future holds. But that future will not exist without support from gamers, least of all if folks don’t even give it a chance.
Developers have to meet us halfway and provide us with gaming experiences that take advantage of these devices. Imagine, for example, if an actual full-length Star Wars game launched with this thing.
This is a PlayStation focused website, but I’m not exclusively pimping the PlayStation VR with this opinion piece. I’m saying, go out there and try any of the headsets. We play games because we like to slay dragons in other realms, fly spaceships into battle, and win wars against incredible odds. We want to become those characters. This takes us a very huge step forward in that realization. A gimmick it is not.