Stop me if this sounds familiar, because I’m sure I’ve written it before: the thing that makes gaming in Virtual Reality fundamentally different from playing on a regular screen is that it removes a layer of abstraction. You don’t look around by moving the mouse, pressing a stick in a certain direction or pressing a button: you look around by looking around. It sounds like a small difference, but it feels entirely different whether you look up at an enormous, ominous gate covered with runes glowing red by moving the hand holding the mouse a few centimetres away from you or whether you lean your head back. You perceive size and scale entirely differently, and as a result things feel more intimate, more real, for want of a better word. Present-day VR aims at reducing abstraction even more by means of room-scale solutions (the virtual space is represented by the actual space, so you can walk around in-game by walking around in the available space – until you bump into the nearest wall or trip over the cat) and of controllers that replicate hand and finger movement, so you grab things in virtual space not by pushing a button but by using your actual hands.
I’ve written about it before: as much as I love virtual reality and its sense of immersion, we haven’t quite arrived at the holodeck yet. You can’t really touch things, though with the right kind of controllers implemented well it’s amazing how well you can fool your brain into believing that you’re actually holding that floppy disk, handgun or lightsaber in VR. However, what is much more difficult, at least in the comfort of your home, is walking. Sure, you can walk a few steps depending on how much space you have, but after more than a metre or two you’re likely to bang into a wall. And since few people live in empty warehouses or vast, echoing halls, not to mention the cable by which you’re generally attached to the PC, developers generally have to find workarounds.
I’m sure I’m not the only one who finds it difficult to make it clear to non-gamers what I enjoy so much about computer games at their best. While I think the medium has made great strides, it’s still quite alien to people who don’t get the same kind of enjoyment out of games. They see the silly writing, the weird genre conventions, the way that so much gameplay seems to be about doing the same thing over and over and over again, which should bore any sane grown-up, one would think.
For me, the main attraction of playing games is that it takes me to worlds I couldn’t go to otherwise. I’m not even talking about escapism, at least not in any conventional sense: just like fiction allows me to meet and spend time with people I wouldn’t meet otherwise, at its best gaming can put me in places that, whether they’re subtly or wildly different from our world, I could otherwise only enter in dreams. A good game is like a lucid dream. It’s not the power fantasy, at least for me – I can get as much enjoyment out of walking around a virtual deserted island exploring its nooks and crannies as I might get out of running and gunning.
This is also one of the attractions Virtual Reality – or rather, VR done right *coughOculusRiftcough* – has on me. It’s about putting me there in those worlds, with no obvious demarkation line where the screen ends. And that is why projects such as YouTube user ultrabrilliant’s Other Places hold such a fascination for me. Other Places shows video game worlds through the same eyes as Alastair Fothergill’s BBC documentaries show our planet.
So, since it is tritely said that pictures speak a thousand words, here are three epic monologues. Enjoy! (Ideally in full screen and with the resolution turned up as high as possible.)