In the cosmos – “Stop Asking if Virtual Reality is the Future of Gaming!” (Ragnar Ulricson)

Stop Asking if Virtual Reality is the Future of Gaming!

Lately, I’ve been thinking about my aunt Rhody. More precisely, about the one time when she, despite having no experience working with computer programs whatsoever, took it upon herself to design a PowerPoint presentation for my grandmother’s 80th birthday.

You can imagine the outcome: after a few clumsy first steps, she discovered the questionable magic of transitions, prefabricated styles and drag and drop effects, and – like a child with a brand new toy – went completely haywire with the sheer endless possibilities at hand.

The result was a visual cacophony of jarring colors, fonts and motion templates. Aggressive vortex tweens immediately followed by bright lens flares, accentuated by abrasive 3D-cube rotations, page flips, ripples and weird honeycomb transitions that make me wonder who put them in there in the first place.

What truly fascinated me about aunt Rhody’s presentation was not that it was so atrocious it would make anyone with the slightest sense for aesthetics think of committing seppuku on the spot – it was her unbridled, almost maternal infatuation with her creation; that spark in her eyes each time she frantically mashed the spacebar to initiate the next jaw dropping transition, eagerly scanning the audience for delighted gasps and blown minds.

Just like a person who learns a foreign language is physically incapable of hearing their own accent, aunt Rhody was actually convinced the result of her labor was, in fact, really really good, incapable of realizing that it was… garbage.

What’s the point of this anecdote, you’re asking? It’s a metaphor.
In which we are aunt Rhody and Virtual Reality is PowerPoint.

Ever since Palmer Luckey, co-founder of Oculus VR came up with the idea of slapping two LCD displays on a pair of skiing goggles, the Virtual Reality craze has steamrolled the video game industry… again.
I say “again”, because It’s actually already the third wave of the VR movement, presumed to be dead two times already, once in the late 80s and another time in the mid-90s. Each time abandoned by the realization that although it makes for a nice gimmick, the technology is just not there yet to make it practical enough for widespread consumption.

But then, one day, the moment came for me to strap on those VR glasses and I suddenly found myself truly on the inside of an artificial, three dimensional world. And even though my inner ear kept screaming how something about all of this was just terribly wrong – that forgotten dream of immersing oneself in video game environments and make believe worlds in the most holistic way imaginable was suddenly back. A dream that lay dormant ever since that borderline epileptic seizure I got from trying out Nintendo’s Virtual Boy when I was 9. (Yes, that really happened.)

The fact is: Third-Wave-Virtual-Reality works; it’s finally affordable for the masses and the sheer volume of possibilities have both consumers and developers rhapsodizing it in the same way Aunt Rhody marvelled about honeycomb transitions.

So naturally, that one question keeps turning up like a bad penny: Is Virtual Reality going to be the future of gaming?

Hundreds of pages of forum discussions on the internet and thousands of hours of academic debate have been devoted to answering this very problem already. Some people are convinced that it will, one day, take over the way video games are accessed forever. Others are determined it’s merely a trend that will rise, shine and slowly fade to be remembered as The 2020’s of Gaming.

I keep thinking: Who cares?

In Zen-Buddhism, you can answer questions not only with yes or no, but also with the letter mu, meaning something like: “The question is wrong.”

Right now, we’re in the infant stages of exploring a completely new medium. We’re like that kid playing around with their brand new toy, experimenting and inevitably failing time and again – and that’s great! Developers are exploring all kinds of crazy ideas for never-before-seen interactions with virtual worlds.

Games like Elite Dangerous and Star Citizen finally put you in the very cockpit your own spaceship – authentically accompanied by a HOTAS flight interface, Ubisoft makes you paraglide and climb mountains with specifically designed input devices, Farpoint for the Playstation VR requires you to aim down the iron sights of a gun to actually hit something, Animal Equality lets you experience the final moments of a pig in a mass-slaughterhouse, acclaimed violinist Joshua Bell plays private concerts for you, Horror experiences like The Brookhaven Experiment stress your fight-or-flight response like nothing before, the porn industry gives the term POV-shot a whole new meaning (of course appropriately bundled with a plethora of grotesque mechanized sex-toys) and Mark Zuckerberg fantasizes about a Facebook for your face.

There aren’t enough adjectives to describe the current state of the VR movement.
Exciting, exhilarating, weird, futuristic,… scary with a pinch of dystopic even?

In the early 90’s, when the CD-ROM was introduced to personal computers and gaming devices, people proclaimed the dawn of a new era for PC-Gaming: The full motion video. The comparably gigantic storage capacity of the medium allowed developers to finally move away from hand-pixelated sprites to make use of real actors and cameras to make video games. Video games tried to impersonate Hollywood. It was nothing short of jaw-dropping at first and it was widely believed to be the future of video games.

But developers at the time almost unanimously tried to make the same games as before with their brand new set of tools and the results were, in retrospective, unintentionally hilarious (think of games like Night Trap or Gabriel Knight 2: The Best Within) and Full Motion Video ultimately died out because no developer found a good game design approach for it that underlines the strengths of the medium to add new value to gaming.

Only now, more than 2 decades later, with games like Sam Barlow’s Her Story or Remedy’s Quantum Break digging up this forgotten concept, designers seem to finally come up with original and clever ways to incorporate full motion video as an interactive storytelling device.

The question if Virtual Reality will be the – or at least one possible – future for video games remains yet undecided, as it is solely in the hands of this generation’s designers to find inventive ideas, concepts and mechanics that alleviate it to something more than just a temporary trend; something that prevails, something that adds so much value to the way we experience games that we won’t be able to imagine a gaming world without it.

I can’t tell you the answer, but you know what?
That doesn’t matter in the slightest. Because right now is the time of blissful ignorance, in which we enjoy going haywire with silly honeycomb transitions while loving every second of it.

Ragnar Ulricson, better known as RagnarRox, is an independent game designer, horror enthusiast and video essayist. Unintentionally pretentious at times, he’s older than he looks and nicer than you think.
On his youtube channel, he goes into game design, video game history and the cultural relevance of the medium. Feel free to check him out when you have no errands to run.

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