The Beginning of the End? Virtual Reality

Disunion is the world's first decapitation simulator. Are we closing in on the ceiling of immersion and illusion in games? A discussion on hyperrealism and what constitutes "too much".
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And so we find ourselves at the beginning of the end of video games.

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That is to say the end game, the final stage–we’ve hit the level cap. We have not reached, but at least have discovered, a temporary ceiling over this form of entertainment and cultural engagement. Temporary until some new tech is developed that changes the game(s) in ways we can’t begin to imagine. We still have much to discover, and always will, in terms of exploration outwards in the cultural and artistic expressiveness of video games. But with tech like the Oculus Rift and new engines giving us unprecedented hyper-realism, we’ve at least reached media territory where I can finally say for myself that this might just be too much.

Virtual Head Removal!

Disunion, The Guillotine Simulator. A simple little demo, but a powerful display of the effects we can achieve through complete immersion. This demo only really engages sight and hearing (plus a light hand on the back of the neck), but it does so absolutely and completely. What’s exciting, unnerving even, is the fallibility of our perceptive tools, and the things we can do to trick them, for better or for worse.

Are the horror stories about technology gone mad are true? Surely not. As gamers, we can easily differentiate the line between illusion and reality. But, the illusion is becoming stronger and all-encompassing. I don’t assume that the future of the Oculus Rift is this bleak and terrifying, I’m very optimistic about such a deep immersion. But I think it’s important to discuss the limits of what our brains can process, how we perceive reality, the places complete immersion, and complete removal from our reality, can take us.

Leaving This World

We could easily have just developed a powerfully addictive form of escapism. Escaping our pain and squalor, emptying our once full lives into hollow digital fictions. Transferring small bits of the consciousness of a loved one lost, to find obsession taking over. To die a thousand deaths. To watch loved ones suffer. Such pain, or more accurately such possibilities for it.

We all understand the power of illusion, that’s why we play, and no one in their right mind would experience any of these things willingly. But are all these horrors really impossibilities dreamed up by science fiction writers? Certainly, they must be possible soon, if not already. Our art and media are always the truest expressions of ourselves. And the most harmful thing creators could possibly do right now is to not experiment wildly with reckless abandon in every direction. Yet the places I imagine we can go with video games certainly do unnerve me.

We are so close to translating reality into ones and zeroes. We can export happiness and excitement, as well as horror and pain. We can make experiences so beautiful, and so unbearable. Torture. Sex. Coercion. Love. Submission. War. Rape. Our minds can be so very fragile. In the wrong hands, technology like this could do some serious damage mentally, emotionally, even physically. In the right hands, what perfect sublimity we can attain! To reiterate, I do not suggest that they will, only that it is now feasible. The way people respond to simple little tech demos is just believable enough. Physical reactions now involve the entirety of us, not just our hand-eye coordination. “It’s almost like I was there.” Where will our next steps take us? Does too much exist, and if so, where?

The depth of gaming narratives, particularly where the story’s interaction with game mechanics is concerned, delivers something that film, music and literature could never hope to achieve. And certainly this is for the better, but my imagination balks at the infinite possibilities. I am so very excited for the chance to heighten realism, but mainly in environments like Bioshock, Team Fortress, Minecraft, Battlefield.

Amnesia on Oculus Rift? Absolute nope. They better build a headset that accommodates my tears.

Immersion on a Whole New Level

Is this new tech a truer form of entertainment and escapism than we’ve ever had before? The level of immersion is certainly superior, but are we getting something more from our experiences in games that we were not able to find before? What do we draw from our games that is most important, to each one of us on a deeply personal level? I’ve been brought to tears, elation, exultation, panic, depression and worse by experiences in games since my childhood. The same goes for books, movies, music. But we’re rushing towards the upper limits of immersion and illusion in this particular form, and the endless possibilities boggle the mind.

Simply, these no longer feel like games. That’s what we call them because we’re “gamers” and they always have been games, or so they have always seemed on the face of things. But you usually win games. I don’t feel like I ever “won” in LIMBO or Braid, or Amnesia. Or Final Fantasy 7 for that matter. Entertainment, escapism, competition, surreality: we come to video games for these things. But we also find beauty, closeness, yearning, companionship, empathy, love and hate, victory and surrender. These things are much more precious, and they have become as essential to a good title as the coding and mechanics. These new empirical delivery methods don’t expand the boundaries of our perception; they alter it entirely into something unprecedented.

We now have to delve deeper, and experiment. Time to get weird. Among the Sleep, in development by Krillbite Studios over in Norway, is a first-person horror game played from the perspective of a two-year-old in mysterious and surreal circumstances. The game seeks to expand upon preconceived notions of perception, as the game is clearly aimed at adults but relates the experiences of a young toddler. The studio has seen some controversy regarding the core concept of presenting a child in harm’s way, yet I feel like these words from Krillbite’s own Adrian Husby sum up this dilemma quite aptly:

“With the discussed assumptions widespread, we will keep tiptoeing in circles on the safe paths explored a thousand times over. And where will it take us, except nowhere? We should instead encourage a climate where we punish bad taste in specific projects. Not based on assumptions regarding interactivity, freedom or a specific content category (like children or sex). This should make the discourse more interesting, and provide fertile soil for new usages of the medium. If a developer screws integrity and make something incredibly stupid, we should naturally bash it with (substantive) force, but let’s not develop patterns where the project is not accepted, ignoring the project itself. (We neither fear nor expect this destiny for Among the Sleep, but on behalf of all awesomeness currently restrained in general.)”

I truly can’t wait to see how far we can extend our ability to experience in new ways. If anything, this will be like nothing we could have ever imagined.

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