There’s a lot of emphasis on how well virtual reality emulates the real world. Are the visuals in the same resolution as your eyes can see? How do we get the wind to blow on our faces when we look out over a clifftop? Can we pick up a jug of ale in a tavern and drink it down as months-old peanuts crunch under our feet?
But sometimes, virtual reality is at its best when it isn’t trying to be a perfect simulation of the world.
Remember the TV show Reboot? It was the very early days of computer-generated images, and a lot of television and movies tried to show off how impressive it was by diving head-first into the uncanny valley — er, rather, by animating people. They were…. Well, terrible. Hair was especially difficult, as were all hairy animals. Reboot, on the other hand (made by a tiny Canadian studio with a shoestring budget), decided to embrace the frailties of the genre. They created characters who were humanoid, but cartoonish — with blocky hairstyles and unnatural skin tones that worked with the constraints of the genre.
A Reboot reboot came out a few months ago, and people complained that the CGI seemed to have gotten worse since 1994. That isn’t because the graphics are bad or the show is underfunded. Rather, it’s because they tried to make it look more slick, more modern, and in so doing they lose the simplicity that made Reboot work.
It’s a lesson that applies directly to VR, and one that some game developers are embracing.
We were recently playing around with SUPERHOT at the office. The game features grey, blocky landscapes filled with red, multi-faceted humanoid shapes. Everything is planes and edges, with the addition of fairly realistic guns and knives. One of the fascinating game mechanics of SUPERHOT is that the enemies only move when you do. Take your time (take a breath!) to aim, and the enemies will stop moving. Crawl around and they’ll crawl towards you. Shoot a gun or swipe a knife, and they’re on you in seconds.
This un-reality that exists in both visuals and time doesn’t just help the game; it makes the game. In no way does it reduce the immersion, either. Speed is of the essence, and the physicality required draws you in effortlessly.
Games don’t need to be perfect recreations of the world. Leave that to the hardware developers, who obviously want to get us to the best place possible. For now, software developers need to learn to weild limitations like strengths, and create games that are real enough, instead of games that are real.
Written by Wren Handman for Hammer & Tusk.