The real question with VR: What happens if we can’t get out?

This article originally appeared in Kill Screen’s Virtual Reality issue. You can buy your own copy here.


I once heard someone say that cinema is a window into other people’s dreams. If that’s true, I thought, games are a window we can reach our hands through. In a fumbling way, we steer the course of events on the other side of the screen. But developers have never been able to make us forget our surreal vantage, as dreamers do. The promise and threat of virtual reality is to finally pull us through the window. Why else would Sony name their headset after Ovid’s god of dreams?

A convincing simulation is one that’s hard to wake up from. A story in Stanislaw Lem’s The Cyberiad, a book of arch sci-fi fables, suggests VR’s potential as both an escape and trap for the mind. The vizier Subtillion builds a series of “dream cabinets” for his king, each promising a fantastic diversion. But in truth each of the cabinets is a snare meant to prey on the king’s vices and lock his distracted mind within the machine, “sink[ing] into dreams lurking within dreams.”

Once inside, however, the king proves too capricious to follow Subtillion’s designs. Cast as a legendary knight, he runs from the battlefield rather than risk his life. He fails to make his rendezvous with an eight-armed temptress because he’s too stingy to pay her doorman. After blundering through a series of near-misses, the king plugs in to the last cabinet, which appears to do nothing. Frustrated, he activates the cabinet again and again. He realizes too late that it was working each time, and he’s already fallen through countless identical levels of simulation. Eventually he cannot tell whether his actions are turning the cabinet on or off. He breaks the surface of the real world without recognizing it, then submerges himself in the dream again.

Besides serving as a parable about game development, Lem’s story suggests a useful rule: once we make a VR helmet that can reproduce the sensation of taking the helmet off, we’re all in trouble. That’s the bit of art needed for a false awakening, in which one wakes from a known simulation into a counterfeit of the familiar universe. To live in a world where such technology exists, we’ll have to learn to recognize a false reality from the inside.

Heeding the unconscious mind’s warnings means denying the evidence of your senses. 

In fiction, the markers of constructed worlds have been various and subtle. The human brain inevitably picks up slight discrepancies in the machinery of deception, but pushes them to the back of the mind. The famous glitch in The Matrix was deja vu. In Philip K. Dick’s Ubik and The Man in the High Castle, characters fixate on song lyrics (from Verdi’s Requiem and HMS Pinafore, respectively) that hint the world around them is illusory. The protagonist of Frederik Pohl’s “Tunnel Under the World” notices that his house isn’t messy enough—it lacks “the things that are just a little bit wrong.” Heeding the unconscious mind’s warnings means denying the evidence of your senses, which is why these stories are always also about going crazy.

Once you find the first cracks in the construct, deeper faults appear. In Dick’s Time Out of Joint, familiar objects disappear and are replaced by slips of paper with labels like “SOFT-DRINK STAND.” In Fassbinder’s film World on a Wire, people themselves start winking out of existence, erased by the computer world’s higher-level operators. But even once the investigator has seen enough to confirm the gut suspicion that he’s living in an artificial world, escape can be far from automatic.

Finding the wall of the box is only half the difficulty; breaking it down is a second problem. Fortunately, a practical guide to crashing virtual realities has already been written. It is the 1992 computer game Frederik Pohl’s Gateway, a mostly text-based adventure that contains one of the cleverest VR traps ever conceived.

Gateway predicts that VR sims will be powered by computers with vastly more power but similar architecture to today’s PCs. (Given that most of Gateway’s observations about computer programs hold up well 22 years later, this may not be a bad assumption.) Breaking the game’s virtual realities is a simple but immensely satisfying process: you just figure out what they’re supposed to do, then extrapolate what they can’t do.

The first VR puzzle in the game bears a passing resemblance to the Oculus Rift’s “virtual beach” demo. In the program, you can do nothing but sit in a chair and swill daiquiris prepared by an affable bartender with a replication machine. Violent acts have no effect on the simulation, and you can pour endless daiquiris down your shorts without upsetting the bartender. The solution is to offer the bartender cocktails until he passes out, then set his machine to replicate an infinite number of drinks. The program crashes like an instance of Oblivion where somebody spawned too many pumpkins.

The game’s final gauntlet is a series of nested VRs without compare in game history. The illusion runs three layers deep. After breaking the first two simulations, you’re told that you have won, and return to your home station in triumph. Of course, this is only another reproduction, one made to be bland enough to keep you occupied indefinitely. A cruder game might tell you the way out is to destroy the station, or jump to your death, like the hero of Open Your Eyes.

But in Gateway, escaping this final layer entails plugging yourself back into a (now-simulated) VR device on the station used previously in the game for a psychological test of your deepest fears. A virus from earlier in the story, piggybacking on your unconscious mind like a bad dream, escapes to destroy the encompassing simulation. As in many VR fictions, the subconscious is the key to escaping a false reality: the warning messages that bubble up to the surface are signals from an internal compass that resists simulation and deception.

Gateway breaks from the bulk of VR fiction by demystifying false realities, treating their destruction as a technical task. Rather than building up each simulation as a nightmarish hall of mirrors, it points out that they are only puzzle boxes. In the context of an adventure game, their disorienting potential suggests a challenge: enter this trap willingly to prove you can get out of it. Simulations of this kind could finally give us a chance to test the skills of pattern recognition and exploitation that we’ve developed over years of looking in at games from the outside. We may never have computers sophisticated enough to realize these programs. But as players, we’ve been training for years to defeat them.