Virtual Reality has been something of a hot topic for me recently. It was only last year that Facebook bought Oculus Rift for $2 billion, Microsoft revealed the first augmented reality glasses planned for commercial release, and Palmer Lucky (founder of Oculus) appeared on the front cover of Time magazine to talk about its development. Whether you’re into VR or not, it’s on the rise.
For those who’ve never heard of it, Virtual Reality involves sitting down in a safe place, putting on a rather expensive headset that entirely covers your vision and hearing, then allowing yourself to be enveloped into another world entirely. Until now, this has almost exclusively been a world of simple conceptual video games. The headset’s tilt mechanics have been used to simulate things like the winter Olympics’ Luge. Survival horror games have also been successful projects for the Oculus, and I can tell you that recent horror games like Amnesia and Alien: Isolation are scary enough as it is, without completely immersing yourself into the game world.
But that is exactly where the power of VR lies. Complete immersion. VR only started to take off when critics and beta testers were actually fooled into thinking they were in the game’s world, whatever it may be. Once your mind breaks away from the knowledge that it is looking at a screen, it can be opened up to entirely new experiences. I’ve heard a story from an industry professional, who said their VR simulation of flying in a harrier jump jet, had people almost throwing up when they tried loop-the-loops. The experience felt so real, the player’s brains actually thought they had been flipped upside down.
Now, it’s all good fun to have some scary games and conceptual demos at the forefront of the VR library, but what is truly fascinating, is when someone attempts something like this:
The very idea that someone has made a VR experience that puts you in the shoes of a 9/11 victim creates room for debate. Obviously people immediately reacted with scepticism, but this interview with the developers gets across what they wanted to achieve, which in my own opinion, seems perfectly noble. This is thanks to their extensive research and careful handling of their source material.
When trying to do justice to the horror that the victims of 9/11 may have felt, how closer could you get than to actually step into their shoes and experience it for yourself? Obviously it’s not going to be a pleasant experience, but neither is watching the opening to Saving Private Ryan, something that is supposed to be a harrowing depiction of the senselessness of war. So why can’t this demo be a testament to the barbarity of terrorism, or be open to any other number of interpretations? The developers themselves say they have stopped labelling it a game, because in all honesty that’s not what it is. It’s a piece of digital literature.
Don’t get me wrong, the experience itself is poorly voice acted, is visually uninspiring and the whole thing is over in 9 minutes, all of which will detract from the power that this VR demo would otherwise have on the player. But it’s a start. I believe subjects like this are at their most powerful when expressed through the medium of a game, even if there are no ‘gaming’ tropes within them. Sure, a book or film could do just as much justice to 9/11 or any other tragedy from history, but the power of taking control of another identity for a few minutes, experiencing what they see, hearing what they hear (no touch or smell just yet), making their choices for them and experiencing the consequences is something that is almost chillingly powerful.
Even if you’ve never played a game before in your life, I strongly urge you to try Amnesia: The Dark Descent. On your own. In the dark. Then after that, realise that playing it with VR is probably about 100 times more terrifying.
I’m leaving this completely open for debate too, so here are some questions I’d like to ask:
Would you want to experience 9/11 if you could? If you watched the video on Kotaku, imagine this demo is slightly higher quality than it is for this question.
Are there any historical events that you would enjoying seeing presented in this medium?
Can you see VR taking off in the future? If so, why/why not?