There were many well-known games and properties announced for virtual reality at E3 2016. You can be Batman in VR! You can play Fallout 4 or Doom! Resident Evil 7 can be played through in its entirety in VR if you're willing to put up with the stomach-churning movement system!
My issues with big-budget games with VR implementation slapped on top are summed up pretty well by this one tweet:
Indies: We made 80 VR locomotion tests before finding something that worked.— Brandon Jones (@Tojiro) June 19, 2016
AAA: Just slap a VR mode on anything! https://t.co/mtrFDb8uGA
But my other issue with things like Doom in VR is that it's relatively boring. We know what Doom is, and it's designed to be played on a screen. It remains to be seen how many of these companies are willing to spend the time and money on proper VR implementation.
It's much easier, in many ways, to create a game from the ground up for VR, which is how most smaller developers operate. But with the market so small, it's unlikely anyone in the big leagues will be willing to really invest in these games.
Besides, for now I'm too busy enjoying the weird shit in VR to worry about being Batman, and currently VR presents a very welcoming environment for — and I'm using a scientific phrase here — completely weird shit.
VR is a weird place right now
I've put off writing about Irrational Exuberance: Prologue because it's so strange, and words only get you so far. When I give people demos in my home I often ask them if they have any experience with psychedelics, and warn them that this may be a bit of a strange experience if they haven't.
I mean, this is the trailer:
Watching that on your computer or phone screen gives you no indication of the out-of-body experience you get when the madness is wrapped around you. Describing the game's play is tricky, and it sounds bonkers when you're not inside it. I broke a lot of crystals and then found myself in a space egg hurtling past giant meteors before time exploded. I think.
Ben Vance, the game's creator, told me he was going for a sense of "mystery, wonder, awe and the great unknown."
"As a culture sometimes it feels we tend to think we have it all figured out," he explained. "But I think it is really important to stay curious and keep exploring. We've only just started. I try to engage curiosity such that you stop analyzing or being self-aware. That's what's so awesome about VR — that we can be playful and test our own boundaries. We can understand more about ourselves through these experiences and our responses. In a way, we really can explore the infinite."
I'm often struck by how many people walk out of the demo either feeling a sense of joy or being completely unsettled. These sorts of VR experiences can also sometimes feel strangely religious.
"What excites me about VR is the ability to make places that don't exist in reality," Vance said. "Or maybe they do, but we'll never know. And those places can feel real even if very abstract, bizarre, or unrealistic, so long as they have an internal consistency. And maybe some uncertainty. We don't possess perfect knowledge of real spaces or real systems, so giving that to someone in VR is going to undermine the experience. I'm fascinated by this."
Weird VR is also doing some fun things for music videos. You can check out a 360 degree version of the video for Icky Blossom's "Phantasmagoria" right now, but it's much better if you view it through Google Cardboard, or even the Rift or Vive if you have either and you're willing to pay a few bucks. Trust me, it's worth the journey.
There's also "Old Friend" by Tyler Hurd, which is one of my favorite VR experiences, full stop, but sadly isn't currently commercially available. It's a virtual reality music video that gives you long, floppy legs and arms so you can dance inside the virtual space and lose yourself in the oddity of everything going on around you. It's amazing.
The small issue of Lune
Listen I've played Lune a few times and I still don't know what's going on. I then exchanged e-mails with the developer Isaac Cohen and I still don't know what's going on. But it's a very enjoyable way to spend some time.
I'm just going to place this text from our e-mail exchanges unedited:
As I get older, I feel like I have been gaining more and more perspectives of 'Reality' and what that means. It could be meeting somebody from another culture, experiencing a new art piece that said something that I had not realized before, or just staring a fern in a different way. These new perspectives make me feel like I understand more of reality ( although as I understand more, I realize how much more MASSIVE it was than I ever thought ) and make me feel like I can see it with more clarity, more fidelity. Its so, So, SO beautiful this thing that I'm examining, but as I learn more, as I age, I feel myself moving away from it. It is so hard, to have this feeling of 'Oh wait! now I understand! PLEASE, I need to be closer to that thing. I need to be one with that thing!!!' but still feel yourself floating away from it, drifting in this space. Its this universal longing that only universal separation can explain.
This realization hurt me for a while. It felt like I couldn't be with that thing. But as I've considered it more and more, I've come to the understanding that there is this small part of me, this iridescent gem at the center of my being, that is a part of it. That is the thing itself. It reminds me of the fable of Indra's Net, and the multitude of gems, all reflecting the entirety of the universe in each node. Making up the entirety of the universe at each node.
So I mean...
LUNE to me is this Cycle of Loneliness -> Enveloped by the Beloved -> Seeing once what was slowly move away. looking at that thing with both love and sorrow, content that you had time with it, but still longing for it again -> Loneliness
So how close do I think I came? I have no idea. I think at least 1 person got it ( in that review I posted about ). But I think that we will never be fully there. I just hope I can make a tool that helps people practice that movement, and recognize that they themselves are one with the divine.
I received a DM via Twitter apologizing for the responses being a bit on the hippie side of the equation, and I can understand why some people may recoil a bit from the touchy-feely nature of these thoughts and motivations for creating a VR experience, but playing Lune doesn't feel a game as much as it feels like you're having a conversation with the universe.
If you go into the experience with an open mind — and this also goes for Irrational Exuberance — it does seem possible to grazed by the infinite. After a minute I feel weird in these games. After five I feel displaced. Any longer session, or by looping the games over and over, and I began to feel as if my brain is being rewired.
It's worth pointing out that Cohen's last game was Blarp, which is a simulation of what it would be like to have a mace with a possibly infinite number of floating balls inside a three-dimensional Pink Floyd song.
Lune, on the other hand, is like building a virtual pillow fort out of the fabric of reality itself.
Virtual reality is such a great home for this kind of experience because the weirdness is able to wrap you completely in a sort of internally cohesive but externally alien set of rules. This whole series of tweets from Bruce Wright is great, but I'll try to pull a few of the best for this article:
2 When we are children, we interact with the world in an exploratory way... we are just learning the rules of reality.— Bruce Wright (@heybrucewright) June 25, 2016
4 Because in VR, the rules of reality can be different in each experience... we have the ability to be like a child in them.— Bruce Wright (@heybrucewright) June 25, 2016
6 This is different from *every other medium* that has come before it. This fact is hugely significant.— Bruce Wright (@heybrucewright) June 25, 2016
Standard games, or "flat" games, as people in VR have begun to say, have long messed with the rules of reality, but something different happens when you get to exist within that reality and play with the new rules directly. It ceases to be abstract and becomes a world, complete with its own internal reality and rules.
And that's an amazing experience, to find yourself in a new place without understanding how it works. It's not just fun, it's often wondrous and awe-inspiring. These sorts of games have the opportunity to be transformative in the way standard games do not. I feel like I spend an hour in my basement in VR every night trying to experience something that's nearly holy.
The PlayStation VR is likely to become the most popular consumer VR headset for a number of reasons, and most players will benefit from having a curated list of finished, stable games to buy. But the Vive has become first in my heart due to the glut of experimental, strange and often half-finished experiences available on Steam for a few dollars. It's impossible to play it all, but digging through the pile and throwing a few bucks here and there at the strange, fringe experiences can be incredibly fulfilling.
These developers aren't layering VR over existing games, they're building weird shit from the ground up, and finding what works and what doesn't. The result is a pile of dream-like, hallucinatory experiences that will save you money due to the fact you won't have to buy any drugs that week.
Being Batman looks fun, and I'll likely buy and play that game. But I hope, as VR becomes more mainstream, the strange things always find a home.