Amid my frequent worrying that the rise of the YouTuber means I'm going to starve to death in a couple of years' time, I take occasional solace that there's one aspect of games that even those new frontier-folk can't replicate the experience of either - VR with a game that truly suits it, which in this particular case is Elite: Dangerous. Words or videos cannot describe it, but so help me I'll give it a shot anyway.
I have a love/mild disdain relationship with the Oculus Rift, a first-gen version of which I've had sat around for some time but very rarely use. Whenever I do rig it up - which involves far too many trailing cables, and that's part of the problem - I will then spend a short while marvelling at the first couple of minutes of whatever I'm playing with it. Ooh! *Gazes*. Wow! *Cranes neck in all direction*. Incroyable! *Moves head in slow figure-8 pattern*. Then I'll try to actually play the game and it all goes horribly wrong.
Most of that's down to the ultra-low resolution of this initial model meaning text is unreadable unless it's typed a mile high. Some of it is because very few games have full, official support for the headset, so their interfaces and menus precariously dangle somewhere at the furthest edge of my over-exerted peripheral vision. A lot of it is because successfully using a keyboard or gamepad when you've got a piece of black plastic strapped to your eyes is about as easy changing a tyre during a total eclipse.
Even so: those first few minutes. 'Immersion' is a bit of a dirty word to me, because it's a term that's been much-abused by marketing people over the years, squandered on anything from "ludicrously long and involved storyline about nothing" to "really big explosions" to "but look, you can see your own legs!" Perhaps the fight to reclaim to it, to make it once again mean "I really do feel as though I have been transported to another place and now exist within it, at least until I realise I've lost track of where my hands are on the keyboard so I'm going to have to take these damn goggles off", can begin here.
Let me stop moaning and get back to the wonder of modern VR. I've never written about it before because I'm not sure how to. Yeah, there's all the practical stuff, about wires and artificial blindness and discombobulated menus, but the part that matters, the part that's about my brain saying "wow wow wow" in a hundred different wordless ways, how do I that? How does one of those charismatic YouTubers who're inadvertently destroying my hopes of a stable career do it either? Well, probably by actually saying "wow wow wow" in an engagingly sonorous tone, but even so: we're in the realm of the purely sensory and first-hand experience is the only way to get any true sense of what it's like.
My case in point today: finally getting around to rigging up the Rift with Elite: Dangerous, as part of my impending forays into its 'Premium Beta.' It took some fiddling, because it always does (and this remains the major reason I struggle to see this tech ever going mainstream, regardless of how many Zuckerbucks are ploughed into it), but once that was done, I found myself sat in space. Sat in space. Low-resolution space with a distracting visible pixel grid, yes, but space. Star-speckled, inky-black enormity above and around me, the soft hum and twinkling lights of a ship's cockpit below and also around.
The game even rendered a body - arms, torso, legs - which seemed to connect to my own neck at just the right point, and while they were not my own hands I saw twitch around the throttle or toy with the rudder, they did feel a part of me. I knew I could do what they were doing, I knew that they would react to and replicate my pushing forwards on the thrust or yawing the stick to the left. A gap between man and machine was bridged, at least in part and at least for a time. And all I did for a good fifteen minutes was sit there, beneath the stars - in the stars - and look around. Living the smallest part of a dream humanity has always had: to be up there, to leave land behind, to feel like part of the infinite.
See? You see? I am trying to describe the indescribable, and all I can manage is cloying purple prose. The Rift/extremely pretty space game combo is doing something to my senses that I haven't experienced before, and I don't know how words or video can possibly convey that.
In any case, the spell was broken the first time I tried to target something. Oh, it's a lovely thing to simply turn my head down and left and see the targeting menu pop up in a gold-orange hologram shimmer, such a natural gesture and such an improvement upon the non-VR version of the game's protracted button combo. A split-second after that though, suddenly I'm squinting to read the text, squinting to see where my selected target is on the mini-map, and most of all crushingly aware that I'm in a videogame, wearing something that makes me look like I'm doing budget Daft Punk cosplay, and battling the rising urge to wrench the thing off and just get on with playing the game and shooting some spaceships without complication.
Instead I gritted my teeth, squeezed my eyes into ferocious shapes until I could make out words that might be 'Request Docking', and proceeded towards the vast, rotating hexagon that was the nearest space station. My problems faded away as I made the approach, this majestic collision of nature unbound and humanity's greatest technological vision (or at least a vision of that vision). Part of its great effect simply boils down that I'm moving my head as though I'm moving in space, which is a profoundly different thing to pulling a mouse of stick and making space move across a screen, but it's coupled with the Rift's total takeover of peripheral vision. A lot of it, too, is that Elite: Dangerous is a game which has clearly decided "let's get the feeling of being in space right before we shovel feature after feature into this thing." It looks right. It moves right. It sounds incredible, which is a big part of why it feels incredible.
In and around the space stations, "looming" is the only appropriate word, but it doesn't begin to convey the enormity. What my eyes saw and believed was an impeccable science fiction fantasy: what anyone else walking into the room would have seen was a man with a box strapped to his head, holding what looked like a toy machine gun sawn in two in his hands, mouth gaping, head yawing wildly, completely lost to something that wasn't there.
I feel no shame. Whatever I looked like, I was having an incredible journey to another universe, and that seems more important than a passer-by thinking I looked like a right dildo.
Yeah, I know, they should have sent a poet. And yeah, c'mon, you knew full well that quote was coming at some point.
There is, sadly, no way I am going to play an even remotely substantial part of Elite Dangerous while wearing an Oculus Rift, or at least not this version of the Oculus Rift, because although I'll have these magical moments, I just won't get anywhere. I can't fight like this, I can't know where I'm travelling to like this. It's a song that begins beautifully, breathtakingly, but descends into atonal clanging after the first verse. The goggles, they do something, but not quite enough.
It will improve, hopefully when that second-gen headset is released, and though I retain many doubts about whether the Rift can be fleshed out to find mainstream acceptance or suitability for most games, I do suspect Elite will prove to be its first milestone game. It's recreating something so specific and so otherwise impossible - something that is really part and parcel of what this game is trying to do, rather than just an additive gimmick.
More from Elite Dangerous - this time goggle-free - very soon.