I’ve spent a lot of time in virtual reality. Back in 2013, when I was working for PC Gamer, the very first version of the Oculus Rift, the Development Kit 1, arrived in the office. Compared to today’s VR headsets this thing was positively stone age, with a fuzzy low-res display and jarringly high latency. But I didn’t care: I was hooked. I spent the next year obsessed with the technology, playing every game and demo I could get my hands on, writing articles about it, and boring people with stories of all the amazing things I’d seen like a shit Roy Batty.
Then the next version of the Rift, the vastly improved DK2, dropped. Sharper! Smoother! Less sickening! I was besotted all over again, and kept up with every generation of the tech from that point on—culminating in playing the sublime Half-Life: Alyx on a Vive Pro. But while Valve’s flagship VR game is an incredible thing, and in many ways the equal of Half-Life 2, the best memories I have of it don’t involve shooting Combine or beheading headcrab zombies. It’s the feeling of just being there, in City 17, that I look back on most fondly.
In hindsight, this applies to my entire history with VR. For me, the most thrilling thing about this tech is being transported to another place. Before it went mainstream, there was a wonderful Oculus Rift homebrew scene. Game developers and artists would experiment with the tech, usually in the form of explorable spaces based on other media. I remember visiting the Red Room from Twin Peaks, the bridge of the Enterprise, and ascending Game of Thrones’ towering Wall more than any of the actual games I played.
The Oculus Rift indie landscape was the best way to discover the potential of the hardware. Artists, coders, and game designers—including industry veterans and passionate hobbyists—used tools like Unity and Unreal to create evocative, transporting virtual reality experiences in their spare time. Places that could previously only be viewed passively on a flat screen could now be fully explored, from Jerry Seinfeld’s apartment to the bus stop scene from My Neighbour Totoro. It was VR as virtual tourism, and it was incredibly exciting.
I haven’t invested in a new VR headset for a while, purely because the industry’s focus seems to have shifted heavily to games. There’s some great stuff out there, but I think I’m less interested in virtual reality as a way of playing video games, and more into the idea of it being a portal to other places. I’d love to see a subgenre of passive, atmospheric, exploratory games emerge where the focus isn’t on traditional game mechanics, but on being taken to interesting places and just enjoying being there for a while without any distractions.
This is something I’d like to see movie and TV studios invest in. The aforementioned VR version of The Wall from Game of Thrones was funded and co-developed by HBO, so there’s a precedent for this kind of collaboration with developers. As VR headsets become cheaper and lighter, and their wireless technology improves, more people will want to give them a try—and the industry can only benefit from having a wealth of non-gaming experiences to offer anyone who doesn’t care about shooting zombies or racing cars.
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