Ben isn’t a video-gamer. Oh, he’s a gamer: I’ve never seen a board game that Ben couldn’t dominate after thirty minutes of playing, he is wicked good at laser tag, and we still tell stories about “The Grom” from a tabletop RPG we last played eight years ago. And he’s usually up for anything. We’ve climbed up a cliff unharnessed to a point where we were genuinely afraid of death, sang karaoke with some Russian mobsters (at least I think they were mobsters – I didn't press the question), and we built a life size Papier-mâché giraffe which caused children to morn when it was blown over in a storm. We did all that stuff with each other, but in the ten years I’ve known the man we have never once played a video game together. I was hoping the Oculus Rift would change that. I was wrong.
I told him that, “What the Rift does is make it look like you’re inside a video game – not watching the video game from a screen, but being inside the world of the video game. This isn’t like wearing 3D glasses and watching a movie at the movie theater. It looks much more like how reality looks through your own eyeballs.”
“Mmm-hmmm,” Ben replied.
“Look at your surroundings right now. Well, if you were wearing the Rift and playing a video game that simulated your current environment, it would look to you pretty much how your environment looks to you as you read this.”
“Yea, but …”
“Look, Imagine that the Minecraft world was a real place. You do know about Minecraft, right?”
“I think I picked up the gist through nerd-osmosis.”
“Well, imagine that you could walk around in it. Well, when you use the Oculus Rift, your eyes see the Minecraft world (or any video game) like it was a real world. Your brain goes, “I know I was just sitting down at my desk but now I’m obviously in The Minecraft-verse.” Or on the Millennium Falcon, or riding a horse in Middle Earth or whatever. It looks real.”
My explanations did no good. “It’s still a video game, and those just aren’t my thing,” he says, ending the discussion.
I had such high hopes when I ordered it. Usually when I order stuff online I forget what I bought by the time UPS knocks at the door. Not that time. That time I was refreshing the UPS tracking website like I was playing Cookie Clicker. First it went to Atlanta, then to Seattle, then back to Atlanta (How does that make sense?), and finally to glorious Portland, Oregon.
I unpack the sucker and slowly and carefully remove it from the package. Hurriedly I read through the instructions and plug it in. It doesn’t work. I fiddle. It doesn’t work. I read the instructions again. I move a few plugs around. I put it on. And then I am inside The Matrix. Because it really does look like I am inside a totally different world. Something I had dreamed about ever since I was a little kid watching Captain N has been, visually at least, achieved. Way to go, science!
And that’s when I start to truly geek out. I buy some specialty programs to hack old games – games that were never designed to be shown of the Rift. And then I am inside Fallout 3. I look around, and it really does seem like I am turning my head left and right to look at Megaton City. No need to launch those missiles, Pyongyang! Thanks to technology I can now trick my brain into thinking that I’m in a hellish nightmarish radioactive landscape without actually having to nuke the planet.
THIS IS SO AWESOME!
I can not wait to show it to my friends and family. They are going to be so amazed. I plan to have entire parties based upon it. And then I call Ben and get shot down. So I go to my back back-up friend and call Chris. He’s a video gamer and plays more than I do, so I asked if he’d like to come on over and try it.
“Sounds pretty cool, man, but with the newborn and the remodel I’m just not sure when I can make the drive.”
Chris lives forty minutes away, which is a big reason for him being my back-up friend, so it’s a reasonable excuse. But with literally all of my social group, except for Ben who doesn’t play video games, having kids in the 0-5 range, same as me, we just don’t have much free time to hang out in situations where sticking a big-ass electronic bucket on your face and tuning out the world is practical. Toddlers and total immersive gaming don’t mix well together.
Ah, but at least there is someone I can count on: my wife. She will play board games with me every now and then, and is at a ridiculously high level of Candy Crush, but in the nine years we’ve been with each other, the only time we’ve ever played a video game together was in our first month of dating. (I swear it was just part of her ploy to “woo” me – or, you know, to try being open to my interests? Romance is tricky.) So she’s not the ideal audience for the Rift, but at least she is, you know, physically in my house and able to try it.
I loaded up the movie-theater simulator as a test run. Just to get her VR-legs running and to calibrate the Rift to the dimensions of her face.
“It looks like it’s Back to the Future.”
“Yea, but does the theater look real?”
“Yes, it kinda does.”
“Isn’t that cool?”
“I’ve been in theaters before.”
The thrill was not exactly overwhelming her. Maybe she was whelmed up to her ankles. Knees at best.
I get it. I mean, it doesn’t actually feel real so much as real-ish. There are still plenty of problems with the Rift: It’s not 4k, so it looks like you are watching the world through a screen door; and nausea is an issue for some people. This thing is a prototype, and it has all the flaws of a prototype.
But ... but ... but it is so cool! What I showed her was only potential. It was a proof-of-concept toy, to a large degree. But what potential! What a toy! I have to get her to see that.
I try a space demo that takes her on a tour of the cosmos. I try a demo where she is a Godzilla-like creature. I try a roller-coasting simulator while I shake her chair.
Her response isn’t quite on the level of “That’s nice, dear,” but it isn’t far off.
But maybe a gamer would see it differently. I have this neighbor named Chad. We aren’t friends, but we could be someday. We see each other at neighborhood gatherings, and it’s always pleasant. Maybe if we both had more time we could hang out one-on-one sometime, but it just hasn’t happened yet. But whenever we do meet up we exchange polite chit-chat and we usually end up talking about what the other guy is playing. So I get him and his wife over to our house for a playdate. Once he’s there I snatch him away to my private office for some alone time so I can whip out the Rift.
I hope that line doesn’t sound as dirty reading it as it did typing.
I take him into my office and start him out with Space. He’s pretty impressed and says how cool it is. Then I try and boot up Arkham Asylum, which I know he’s a big fan of. But the computer has deleted all my saves on that game for some reason, and we spend a few precious minutes trying to get through the cut scenes and into the gameplay. And that is when one of our kids begins crying. Remember what I said about total-immersion gaming and toddlers?
We emerge from my office and resume our Dad duties, neither wife exactly overjoyed that we ditched the kids for 10 minutes. 10 minutes may not seem like much time, but trust me: If you’ve got four kids running around a house and all are under four years of age, it can feel like an eternity.
Before he leaves, I ask him what he thinks. Chad says it’s pretty cool but doesn’t think he’ll get one. I ask why and he tells me that he just doesn’t need another gaming peripheral right now. It just didn’t strike him as something he needed to get.
And I smile and I nod. And I think to myself, “Well why the hell not?” He was inside of Arkham Fricken Asylum! Granted it was only for around one minute of actual game play, but he was still there. He looked up and there was the celling. He looked to his right and Commissioner Gordon was standing next to him. Gordon! Next-to-him! He got to experience being the god-damned-Batman for Pete’s sake, and that didn’t cause him to want one? What was wrong with him?
Or what was wrong with me? I’d shown or tried to show the Rift to multiple people, and none of them were getting as excited and jazzed about it as I was. Why was that? Was it the idea of the Rift I liked, or the reality?
Probably the idea, if I’m being honest with myself. That I could walk around the world of Mass Effect and see what Shepard saw in the way that she saw it was so compelling that I could overlook the flaws in the experience. I loved the idea that if I could ever get the hacks working right I could be in the Shire in LOTRO. I love the idea so much that troubleshooting to try and it do it actually felt fun. And in the background, the idea that this was the next step in life in the 21st century – that I was part of the cutting edge of the Next Big Thing – pulled on me quite seductively.
And the reality? I found playing games with the Rift to be a huge leap forward in immersion. For example, I wanted to try the Rift on a game that I had never played before, so I gave Dragon Age: Origins a shot while using it. Playing that game on the Rift made me feel like I stepped through the wardrobe and finally got my entrance letter to Hogwarts right before getting a ride on Falcor – so much so that when I tried to play the game without the Rift, it felt flat and unreal. Why is The Fade just a bunch of lines on my computer screen when yesterday it was clearly a real place that I had walked around and been physically present in?
Why did I try to play it without the Rift? Well, that is actually the crucial “but.”
Because it was actually hard to play Dragon Age in the Rift. Difficult. Clunky. Frustrating. I couldn’t pull up or read my menus very clearly, and there was a lot of difficulty in doing things that would have been simple if I had looking at them on a screen. Playing it on the Rift feels like a kludge because it is a kludge. It wasn’t designed for that, and it shows.
But the ideal still sings to me quite sweetly. I know that my wants and desires aren’t some objective absolute standard that those around me must share. They are my wants and desires, and nothing more. If the Rift failed to find the audience I’d hope for, does that mean that my own personal experience will be any less fun?
Yes. Yes it does. Because humans are social creatures. We don’t do anything in isolation. We are still hunter-gathers at heart, and if Ug makes a comment that hunting the gazelle is just OK while hunting zebras is just fantastic, and the rest of the tribe nods in agreement, we cannot help but take that to heart. If the members of our tribe don’t share our interest in hunting the gazelle, pretty soon we’ll have to stop hunting the gazelle.
So I’ve stopped trying to share the Rift and am just keeping it to myself. It’s sitting up on a shelf to my right as I type this and hasn’t been taken down in all of 2015. I still plan on using it, at some undefined time. I genuinely want to take it down and walk around Skyrim or San Andreas, even if no one wants to be there with me. I just haven’t felt the urge to actually do it. All year.
But I will. Eventually.