The Rift & The Future of Visual Entertainment

Those close to me have likely heard me spout exited nonsense about the Oculus Rift at least once in the last year or so. For the uninitiated, the Rift is a consumer grade virtual reality headset that combines accelerometers and magnetometers to not just display visual data but read the movement and speed of the wearer’s head. This means as you move your head in reality, your view in the simulation moves accordingly. This is not the first device to attempt to do this, however older units suffered from imperfect translation of real to virtual head movement resulting in drift where the view moves while the wearer is still. One way ticket to puke town.  All that aside, anything you strapped onto your head would be extremely expensive and likely custom built. This is what makes the Rift consumer grade – it can be mass produced with existing off the shelf technology and sold at a fairly inexpensive price point, around $350. Even if the price inches up closer to $500, it will still be a fairly attainable price for a premium peripheral assuming it has even a mediocre warranty. These are exiting times for video gaming, my friends, and not just because the experience is being refined, I really think the momentum behind this technology is going to push into widespread adoption and following that will be a sea change in game development that will go so far as to become a new genre of entertainment that is no longer gaming as we know it – and this is a very good thing.

Now, not all genre benefit from the Rift. Real time strategy, turn based strategy, and platformers just to name a few will remain two-dimensional affairs best played on a monitor for the most part – and that’s fine. The advent of videogames did not destroy table top gaming and printed (or ebook) media continue to be produced for the types of content that are best communicated and experienced in and through those media. Most of the existing games that are already being actively modded for the Rift are first person shooters as the POV and gameplay are conducive to use with a device like the Rift. However, this is not to say that one will only be ever able to run and gun with a Rift, quite the contrary. Take the two highest profile titles to be retroactively modded by their publishers for Rift compatibility – Half Life 2 and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. These are games with rich narratives and worlds that invite non combative solutions to problems (Skyrim obviously more so than Half Life). These are titles that were developed for screen interfaces, not a VR headset. Were the Rift in play at the inception of these projects, I wager they would have been very different experiences. With a fully immersed view, the user needs less over stimulation to remain interested and engaged. We frequently engage ourselves in activities like hiking simply for the sake of being in the environment in which we do that activity. We don’t necessarily need to be playing paintball to enjoy the hike.

Cross apply this to trips through the countryside in Skyrim. Players that have invested time in hunting in Skyrim likely already know what I am getting at. Just being in the environment itself is rewarding and relaxing, especially after a rather intense dungeon exploration. With widespread of adoption of the Rift and refinement of interfaces for interacting with the world I think future titles will be developed with less combative experiences than what we see now, even the action and adventure stories. Last night my wife and I were watching The Bourne Identity, which is one of her favorite movies. She doesn’t play video games much at all because the pace of everything is just too fast. As we were watching, however, it occurred to me that this is how the character of Marie spends much of the film, inundated with stimuli and not sure what to do, buffeted along by the action and Jason Bourne. I turned to her about halfway through the film and said “You know this is what our retirement will be, right? Us Bonnie and Clydeing our way across Paris.” And I believe that – I think we are finally moving toward experiential entertainment the path to which will be through a merging of feature film production and video gaming. Consider the feature film homages that RockStar Games develops. I spend a considerable amount of time in Mafia II just walking around the city and taking in the scenery. The gunplay is only fun because it’s all in the context of classic mafia films.

Not all players agree, considering the middling reviews of Mafia II. Its detractors seemed most bored with all the driving around that was required. This was my favorite part! Driving classic cars around dressing like a fly assed gangster? What game did they think they were buying? But maybe that is the point, the best aspects of that title are not game mechanics at all, they are recreational simulations. Experiential entertainment, with varying degrees of control dependent on the audience, is the change that I am seeing in this industry. Perhaps this is wishful thinking on my part, being a writer interested in developing content for these worlds. Maybe it’s just a personal wish that I am attempting to rationalize into existence.  Then again, look at the level of spectacle required to keep any summer movie audience engaged these days. Man of Steel had a full 45 minutes of continues fisticuffs that was clearly calculated. No studio spends any more money than they need to on films and they spent an awful lot on all that CGI. Personally I found it tedious but not because I dislike action – I can easily spend twelve straight hours playing Quake, and in the same three maps no less. What is required for this new genre is a merging of those two levels of engagement. The increased stimuli from full visual immersion will facilitate a method of storytelling somewhere between movies and games that fails for the most part when either of those genres attempts coopt the other. Games that are too much like movies feel like they are “on rails” and don’t even get me started on the DOOM film. That movie was so bad that I did all I could to forget it, so much so that when Karl Urban appeared in Star Trek I thought I had never seen or heard of him.

Some users will want an experience “on rails” while others will want to be able to run far and wide and do whatever they please. I think there will be ample market for both, with the maintstream users preferring something more like the railed experience that will deliver the fun of a blockbuster but allowing them to experience first person, granting the feeling of agency that movies can’t yet provide.