Monday, June 30, 2014

Who needs the Oculus? Imagination is still the best form of immersion for gaming

Recently, much of the gaming world has been going absolutely bonkers trying to figure out how the next iteration of peripherals will enhance the experience we currently enjoy on our TVs, handhelds, and smartphones.

Wearables - your smartwatches, Google Glass, etc. - are still anyone's guess, but virtual reality headsets like the Oculus Rift and the PS4's Project Morpheus represent an amazing area for potential player immersion.

While such headsets aren't the coolest thing you can slap on your head, they're currently able to let you make out with your favorite fantasy characters and even see what it's like to swap genders for a few minutes.

But is this really the best form of immersion that gamers can hope for?

In a sense, these headsets and the experiences imparted through them are an extension of our desire to lose ourselves in the fantasy of gaming.  Ever since the first DM arranged a special mix tape for his D&D gaming campaign, those responsible for games have employed a variety of tricks to pull players deeper into their fantasies.

The ultimate extension of this is LARPing, naturally, but even here players are still required to engage their imaginations to really bring the experience to life.

Sure, some LARPs are more elaborate in their setups than others - but no matter how cool the setting and costumes are, players (hopefully) need to make the last leap themselves and invest some belief in what they're seeing to transform the 19-year-old kid in green face paint into a menacing orc raider.

Costumes like this, however, can totally stand on their own

But when you bring a VR headset into the equation, you're disabling a player's imagination and hijacking their senses.

I've dabbled in a few of the current headsets on the market, and while they're all undeniably cool at making you feel like you're actually inside of a game - I left each hand-on (face-on?) with a lingering sense of confusion and disappointment.

At no point during the experience did I, as the player - the consumer of the game / fantasy / experience - have to work to help bring the game to life.

Back when games were limited to 16-bits or less, we had to actively imagine what was happening between the gaps in animation and narrative to get the most of out the experience - that experience has been deadened some as graphics have improved to their current capacity... but even here we still need to fill in the missing pieces that graphics and audio can't fully convey.

And this is a very good thing, since it's keeping us - the players - engaged in the processing of the game.

It doesn't matter if the game in question is a tabletop RPG or a cutting edge PS4 zombie shooter - there will always be a time where the game falls short and our imaginations are left to take over.  Whether we fill in a backstory where none exists or turn down the lights to make a Resident Evil game more terrifying, we're still taking active steps to add to what's being presented to us.

In a Rift or a Morpheus game, however, our imaginations are, paradoxically, being held at bay.  Short of the sensation of temperature changes on our skin or a taste of a kiss on our lips, there's really little that we can't experience when we're hooked up to those machines.

Time will tell if this disconnect will serve as the breaking point that keeps VR gaming from going over this time around or if people will embrace the tech for the amazing potential that it offers.

The novelty of the experiences made possible by such hardware are nothing short of staggering after all, but even those fall short of what we can accomplish when we literally put our minds to it.