Ever since her first brush with an Oculus Rift dev kit at a London trade show, Ana Ribeiro has been having unusual dreams. In one of them, she traveled to a ruined future: the people saw no point in going outside when they could live in the warm glow of a VR headset’s artifices. Other dreams bear resemblance to cinematic mindfucks like Christopher Nolan’s Inception, only with the emphasis on entering virtual space instead of a subconscious one. This is a marginal distinction, as visions and virtual experiences easily get tangled up in the imagination.
Ribeiro is the type of person who listens to dreams. For instance, when she was struggling to conceive an idea for her final project in her MA course at the National Film and Television School, she looked for inspiration in her sleep. The dream began with the familiar scene of her sitting in the living room playing an old, classic videogame, but something was off about it. She noticed that the pixels on the screen were bleeding out of the television and taking over the room. Before long, her entire dream was colored by the graphics of the game.
“I woke up with that in my mind. I was like, ‘Oh my God! That’s it!’… You’re playing a game within a game and this game changes the game world… It fit so well with VR,” Ribeiro told me, laughing the whole time.
The dream served as the inspiration for Pixel Ripped, a strange and bifurcated experience where the player ventures into VR to take on a handheld gaming device. When the schoolgirl you are playing as whips out her Game Boy (or Game Girl, as it were) in the middle of lecture, it creates a striking contrast. You have to guide a little black-and-white pixel-person safely to the end of Game Boy land, but you also have to stay aware of what’s going on around you in class. All this culminates in the very meta moment when the dragon boss you are fighting rips itself free of the dot matrix machine and hovers over your desk.
While Pixel Ripped may have spawned from the rapid eye movements of a VR-obsessed brain, the idea behind it is something any frequent flier or distracted churchgoer can relate to: using an electronic device when you are not supposed to. “I thought, ‘Why not just do what we used to do at school?’” Ribeiro said. Naturally, you have to be sneaky about it or else your nice old teacher will get upset and confiscate your game.
“That’s kind of what happens when we play games in our lives. We never just play games by themselves,” Ribeiro said. “We are playing them in an environment that has things going on, and usually that thing adds another layer to the game we are playing.” To explain, she gave the anecdote of having to slink into her brother’s room to play Sonic as a kid. It was necessary to get all the diamonds and beat the game within the hour and a half it took him to attend English class, because her brother was in charge of the Mega Drive and a stingy custodian.
To some extent, games have always been about the et cetera—the background noise of everyday stuff that goes on around you while you are playing them. Yet virtual reality seems implacable in this respect. It wants to subsume all of you and cancel out the rest. In order to recreate the sensation of playing games in a public space, Ribeiro had to build a virtual background and put it into Pixel Ripped, so that there are two layers of game nestled inside a sensory-isolating experience. But what happens when there are three or four or five layers? Does there come a point where you begin to believe the pixels are bleeding into real life?
Our conversation was long, and at times I forgot which way was up. “If you are inside the game, and you put on a headset and it takes you to a different world, and then you put on another headset, you could start to get confused,” she Ribeiro, still laughing. She and I discussed the dreams that are mistaken for being awake, and whether or not VR is capable of reproducing that effect. Perhaps VR will need a totem, similar to the top in Inception, which the protagonist used to test whether or not he was in reality. It would spin forever without falling over inside of dreams, and thus was used as an accurate reality test.
Such a mechanism—a digital item that prevents users from slipping too deeply into virtual dreams—might be necessary sooner than you think. Ribeiro recently appeared on the social platform VRChat for an interview about virtual reality while inside virtual reality. She put on a VR headset and sat in front of a live audience of other people in virtual reality while the host asked her questions about the game. Everyone watched a video of the game playing on a screen. After the interview, those who stuck around rode horses and met up with Mario and Batman. In her words, it was great.