(My first iteration of this post was thoroughly dramatic on account of an open italics tag. Let’s try this again.)
Somehow, and the route is somewhat odd, but somehow we became:
- Creators of a comic which posits gaming as a discrete culture
- Founders of a convention based on same
So far, so good. But then we also became
- Founders of a charity that delivers toys and games around the globe as though Santa Claus were real and knew what games were cool
which is a little oblique maybe from the other ones, but sometimes you have to be the person who is needed at the time. Once a year, in the prosecution of that goal, we operate an amazing Dinner & Auction where people dress up and have dinner and then, as though by magic, a process is catalyzed which comforts the young and suffering. Tickets for this event are available now, by the way - tickets for individuals, and tickets for sponsored tables if you want to roll deep. For charity.
Something Gabriel and I offer at this auction is a custom comic strip, to be displayed on Penny Arcade, and this time Popcap was able to elbow others (charitably!) out of the top spot and secure the strip for themselves. We got back in touch with them a few months ago about it, did they have any specific ideas, etcetera, and they said they were working on something cool but couldn’t talk about it yet, and maybe that would be a good match. I said that was fine, provided that it was sufficiently rad.
Plants vs Zombies: Heroes is a game I played a paper prototype of, hand-cut cards sleeved for durability, and I disappeared into the table. I was floored by it. In the same way that PvZ made “tower defense” digestible to humanity at large, Heroes has the potential to take Magic: The Gathering and take the concepts of type, deckbuilding, and even PVP and finish the work that Hearthstone started in the wider culture. Here’s the strip they commissioned, and it was a pleasure to do it; if they need another strip, I’d gladly accept payment in digital cards.
This is how I tried to explain to Gabriel how wrong he was, about Gears, certainly, but also about every other topic. Hummus. Cravats. There’s simply a disconnect between him and the reality we experience. I’m fucking with him of course, but I also believe what I said. Anytime the environment is more than just occlusion, my proposal is that we’re talking about something that isn’t a straight shooter. It was when I realized that I thought of a Gears level not as a three dimensional space but as a 2D kind of maze that I thought there might be something else going on.
I spent a bunch of time with the PSVR over the last few days. The question I asked myself as my left hand shimmied and then sailed into the distance was this: does the PlayStation VR know where my hand is? Because if it doesn’t know where my hand is, or my head, and that’s why everything seems to be breathing in an odd way, we’ve got a pretty substantial problem.
My initial experience with it must be considered optimal: I had a chance to try Wayward Sky with the actual Wayward Sky guy, camera placed high, high up looking down. That’s one of the major tips you hear about improving the tracking already. Then, the whole thing took place in a green screen cube that Josh had built, whose light was reliable and even. The camera was close, ish. Within four feet. The experience was great, I’d say; a real tip-of-the-spear moment for consumer VR.
Things are not the same at home, and it reminds me of all the Kinect shit frankly. This stuff has to be a good guest in your house: it absolutely must not shit on rugs. I’m probably the only person on earth who had to move a Crokinole board to improve my tracking. But if I’m not close to the camera, my hands are wobbling. Games like Driveclub, EVE: Valkyrie, or Rez - oh, sweet Rez - don’t have these problems because they use the regular DualShock inputs and don’t endeavor to place the controller anywhere in the virtual space. They’re exquisite, landmark experiences. And when I’m closer to the camera, something not every game likes, the hand drifting stops completely - it operates like the much more expensive versions of these products, except it’s in my living room. We talked about rituals on Friday, and that’s the phase we’re at now with PSVR if you go online to seek restoration. Center your tracking area in the left camera, I have heard it said. Recalibrate for different times of day, rasps the sage. Look, I like troubleshooting. But there is troubleshooting, and then there is boiling the organs of things in a cauldron in the hopes that a woman will love you. Right now, the needle on some of this collective wisdom is edging toward the latter.
I can’t tell if my feelings on this are because it’s actually a serious problem, or if it’s the result of my having used prototypes forever, and then retail hardware for substantially more expensive, more future-proof visions of these experiences. I think about the Wii Motion Plus; an add-on peripheral that nearly three years after launch made the promise and perceptual magic of motion controls real. What Sony has accomplished here, with what they had, is stunning. The question is: are they done?
I was able to secure a PSVR at my local Fred Meyer yesterday morning and spent a good chunk of the day exploring the virtumal realms. I’ve had some bad experiences with VR in the past and so this time I decided to take some Dramamine before donning the headset. I wasn’t sure it would work but it did and I was able to play a bunch of games without any nausea.
The setup was incredibly easy and I was playing games within 10 minutes or so of cracking open the box. There’s really just a handful of cables to pop in and then you are off to the races. Once you have it plugged in the PS4 will take you through a quick set up that teaches you how to put the headset on and get it situated correctly on your face. After that you’re just looking at your PS4 menu as though it were projected on a giant screen floating in front of you. From here you can do all your normal PS4 stuff including playing any normal 2D game. I gave this a try for Destiny and it was pretty cool. I would never choose to play a game this way all the time but the novelty factor is high and it was fun.
The first actual VR game I fired up was REZ Infinite. I was honestly surprised with how good a lot of the launch titles I played were, but REZ is by far my favorite. I have always had a soft spot in my heart for this game. The original still ranks somewhere in my top five games of all time. Playing it on the PSVR was absolutely incredible. Ben over at Polygon called it “one of the first masterpieces of VR.” and he is right. I have experienced a lot of “interesting” things in VR space but REZ Infinite is proof to me that VR is a place I want to play games.
I checked out a few other games as well. I had a lot of fun in Battle Zone and loved the retro vibe. Valkyrie was a blast, especially when I got in a squad with Tycho and we were dogfighting in VR space together. The Driveclub VR demo has very nearly sold me on purchasing the full game, it’s that fun. The real winner of yesterday was the Playroom VR edition though. For a collection of mini games that comes with the device it was surprisingly awesome. The best thing about it is that it lets a group of people play along with the person in the headset.
Normally playing VR games is very isolating. I told my wife I was “going in” and she understood I would essentially be gone for the next 30 minutes or so. The Playroom let’s other people play along on the television screen with their own control while one person plays inside the PSVR. It’s similar to what Nintendo did with Nintendo land when the WII U came out. In one game for example Kara, myself and Gabe were all mice trying to steal cheese. Noah was playing as the cat and trying to stop us. He saw the game in VR through the cat’s eye’s and tried to swat us. We saw the huge cat looming in the background and had to move quickly to avoid him pouncing on us. The kids loved these games and I have to admit I really liked the little platform game they put in there.
I’ve had some experience with various other VR set ups including the Vive, the Gear VR and the Oculus. Out of all of them I have been most impressed with the PSVR. The helmet itself is easily the most comfortable of all the headsets I’ve worn. It was easier to setup and use than the Vive. It’s also much more comfortable than wearing my burning hot phone on my face with the Gear VR. Really it comes down to the games for me though. REZ Infinite is certainly the killer app but I came away really impressed with a lot of the games I played. The PSVR has delivered the best overall VR experience I’ve had. Like I said, I’ve played a lot of this stuff and I have to say the Sony offering is my VR platform of choice.
I’ve told the story before, because it is very instructive, and bears retelling:
My father-in-law grew up on an “orchard,” a word I never really had the opportunity to consider deeply before. That’s a weird fucking word. But they were surrounded by fruit, it was literally suspended in the air around them, and it was a common thing for people to eat peaches off trees, because they were peaches.
My father-in-law understood that there was definitely something about peaches that people liked. They tasted good at first, certainly, but then your tongue began to feel hairy, and strange, and thick. Then your throat began to shut and breathing became difficult. So whatever virtues peaches might have, fully enjoying them was difficult at best. But he saw everyone else enjoying them, which was confusing. Cooked or canned peaches didn’t have this effect, which is how he eventually discovered that he was allergic; whatever enzyme made the fruit homicidal was destroyed by that process. But for a very long time, he thought there was just something he didn’t quite understand.
I always vote for 3D when it comes to seeing movies, and I assumed that my son Elliot was just being a “complicated, interesting” person when he voted otherwise. This does happen sometimes. Eventually, I asked: did he not like the objects and so forth shooting out of the screen? From his perspective, no objects did shoot out. The whole picture was a gigantic blurry mess, he said; it wasn’t a bonus to an existing movie, it actually ruined the regular movie and provided no additional benefit. This was because his eyes did not “team” correctly, and thus could not parse the three dee aspects that had been painstakingly added. He needed vision therapy to see this stuff at all. It stuns him, now; even the regular world looks different. That is to say, it looks like the regular world.
Being on a plane is a profoundly nauseating experience for Gabriel, which makes the Australia trips more than full day of almost throwing up while suspended in mid-air. He couldn’t really ride rides at Disneyland, and he didn’t understand why you would, because sure maybe things go fast or are weird and interesting, but the omnipresent nausea was a vote against. VR was also interesting, as a concept, and he understood why it would be cool, but feeling sick the entire time did not recommend it as a life practice. Many people get sick in there, so he thought that was why he was also, but in truth all these scenarios are motion or perceived motion situations and this is something you can take a pill for. Like my father-in-law, or like my son, he was receiving information that he was parsing as “truth” when it was actually a perceptual aberration. He was in there all day, yesterday, and eventually I was in there with him, in space or some other place, which we’ve never been able to do. As is so often the case, a ritual was required.