By Alec Meer on July 23rd, 2014 at 5:00 pm.
Apologies, this latest in my ongoing Oculus Rift / VR curiosities column is a week late, due to most of the RPS staff being dead last week. On with the sterescopic show, anyway – this week I’m looking at Rift games/experiments which are based to some degree around the concept of sitting in a chair. This turns out to be far more fertile ground with reality-shifting cleverness than it might sound.
This free ‘intermission’ for the incomparable Kentucky Route Zero has been around for a while, but it’s only now that I’ve tried the Rift version of it. I’d say it’s one of the most essential Oculus vignettes to date, and demands your eyes and ears even if you haven’t played KRZ itself. The dialogue is arch and steeped in so many layers of meta-commentary that I’m not sure it manages to sustain the maudlin reflection of KRZ proper, but the central conceit (and the dawning realisation of what it is) is as perfect a Rift experiment as I can imagine. While this isn’t a narrative game – at least not in a conventional sense – I suppose technically the following observations count as spoilers, so please make a judgement about whether to read on.
The Entertainment broadly involves watching a play. It’s a play about American dispossession with strong Miller overtones, though if there’s one thing I do know for sure about anything Kentucky Route Zero, it’s that it’s referencing art I’m too much of a philistine to know myself.
Watching the play through an Oculus immediately involves one key feature – the ability to turn your head. Look straight ahead and two actors recite lines about dusty lives in a gloomy bar; look over your left shoulder and the director offers a commentary of sorts; look behind you and you see an audience watching in silence, though lines from a journalist’s review of the play soon appear; look down at the table you’re sat at and something narrates your own actions. You’re the audience, except there’s an audience behind you. Which must mean that – ah, well that’s the thing, isn’t it?
We’ve all seen the pictures and videos of people looking like muzzled drunkards in their VR headsets. What plums they are, whirling their heads around while they disappear into an imagined world. That’s what I was doing while I watched this play within a game. I was a play too, for The Entertainment made my seated performance into its performance. For all the archness and metatextuality, right down at the heart of The Entertainment was one big, playful joke. Look at you, twisting and gawping and spinning. Player indeed.
I should also note that The Entertainment further comes alive if you’re sat on a swivel chair, for this is an experience played out in 360 degrees and necks don’t usually go that far.
Until Oculus DK2 is fully in the wild, I do imagine that ‘dioramas’ will be a mainstay of any VR releases or coverage. Interaction with Oculus DK1 one games is hamstrung by the readability issue and the blur/motion sickness issue, though a few games have found ways around this (more on one those in the next column). I find these dioramas almost more thrilling, though – I’m simply transported somewhere else, and without the risk of any game-y interaction shattering that fantasy.
Blocked In is a gag, but it’s not just a gag. What a majority of 3D games do is create large environments which are full of small details, most of which you’ll notice (if indeed you notice them at all) for a split second as you charge around the place. Blocked In demonstrates something that VR can do so well, something that a monitor can not – make you look around. The default response to putting on those goggles is to move your head, not to press a button, and as such you see so much more – because it seems so big and so tangible. Blocked In has you trapped motionless (other than the head) in a cubicle, and as you gaze around the place you notice more and more.
The joke clicks after a few confused seconds, and then after that you start admiring all the supporting detail for that joke. Then you start thinking about the connotations of that joke. Then you smile, and look around some more, and a little later you realise that you hadn’t even tried to move or interact with anything, because the simple act of moving your head had been so rewarding.
Again, a swivel chair is kinder on the neck, and perhaps entirely apt for this vignette about a cubicle drone of sorts.
The joke is that you’re some sort of miniature person living inside what may or may not be Gameboy, trapped inside as endless, gigantic Tetris blocks cascade past your windows. It is detail-packed and sharp.
I wrote in the last column about a few cinema simulators doing the rounds, but a smart twist on that is a console game simulator. Those of us unable to sit back and play games in our lounge because the rest of the family will complain, or to afford a gigantic TV, can get halfway there by VR apps that recreate the experience of staring at a huge screen from a comfy seat.
Alone goes further. Alone has you sat in that comfy seat, playing a console game and staring at a gigantic TV within a very large and very empty home. The windows are open. It’s just countryside beyond. You’re exposed on all sides. You’re just sat there. And you’re staring at a screen. If anyone approached, you probably wouldn’t notice. Unless, of course, that screen suddenly started showing you your own home. Or the noises no longer emanated from that screen’s speakers, but instead from… elsewhere.
Alone makes us three for three on VR games that use the concept of sitting down as a foundation for (very different) game experiments. I’m really quite taken with the concept of chair-as-controller: I interact with bold new places and ideas simply by sitting and turning. I worry, a little, that these sorts of ideas will be abandoned once DK2 does usher in a new age of legible VR.