I have seen the future, and it still contains breast physics. “You can lean in and inspect the character model,” I was told before playing Smashing the Battle, a third-person action game that will debut with the Oculus Rift on March 28. The character model had bright red pigtails, and she wore immense metal armor that still somehow allowed her bosom to heave up and down. In the game, which was rather impressively made by a single developer from Korea, you run through various arenas, attacking waves of robots and dodging obstacles. Dotted lines arc through the air, and red circles indicate blast radii for hordes of missiles. As the lines and explosives mount, the game takes on the frenzied feel of a good Treasure game; when you dodge a metal fist at the perfect moment, the game slows down to let you savor your success, just as in Bayonetta (2009). The developer later told me he was inspired by Bayonetta.
This was a trend among the Oculus launch games I played—they reminded me of a game, and that’s because they were intentionally designed to remind me of that exact game. There was Radial G, a futuristic racing game set to a pulsing electronic soundtrack, and if that sounds like the pivotal 1995 PlayStation game WipeOut (1995), that’s because it is supposed to. (“We want to relive our youth,” the game’s producer told me with a joking-not-joking shrug.) There was Fly to KUMA, by the developer Colopl, which I was told moments into the experience was like Lemmings (1991). It was. Afterward I played a tennis game that is like other tennis games. Dragon Front is a CCG, which played like a CCG. Other games that were available, that I did not play, offered similarly tried and true experiences: tower defense, The Legend of Zelda, a cartoon mascot jumping around in the third-person.
This sort of disastrous re-learning felt more appropriate for a new medium.
There’s really only one news item from having spent a day playing the Oculus Rift’s 30 launch games, and it’s that they’re between fine and pretty good. Really! I found myself by far the most drawn to Adr1ft, a deeply personal and gorgeously designed exploration game … that also feels a lot like other recent games I’ve enjoyed, such as Gone Home (2013) or the works of The Chinese Room. It can be played in essentially identical form on the Xbox One, but with the headset on, its creator told me, “It amplifies the claustrophobia, the stakes feel a lot higher.” This feels about right, and in some way or manner could be applied to any of the games I played. It was nice, in the Lemmings-like game, to feel like I could pick up and eat the little teddy bears I was guiding forward. The heaving chests of the two playable characters in Smashing the Battle seemed just as tactile, were that my thing. (“You will be tempted to buy costumes,” the game’s designer told me with a laugh.) The card game Dragon Front, which is so clearly connected to meatspace that its designers actually had printed-out copies of the game on-hand, utilized the Oculus’ face-tracking ability so that, while playing, I could see the metal visage of my opponent slowly surveying his hand and the field in real-time.
These are all, in short, neat versions of games we’re already playing. The whole of them reminded me of something the VR theorist Janet Murray told attendees at the Versions conference in New York last week: that many of the earliest movies were just filmed plays. This eased audiences into the medium until pioneers like Porter and Eisenstein invented film-specific techniques like the close-up or the montage. That the Oculus Rift is shipping with an Xbox controller underlines this problem; it may more simply be the cause of it. Most of the games barely even use the controller’s manifold buttons and functions, relying instead on just a joystick or trigger. Later on, I used the Oculus’ touch controllers, which will be out later this year, to throw and catch a football and sink a couple threes. I was awful at it, just as I am in real life. This sort of disastrous re-learning felt more appropriate for a new medium.
In the meantime: we’ve got an Xbox controller. I’m not sure what it says that the most revolutionary-feeling game on offer was Damaged Core, of that most-maligned of videogame forms, the first-person shooter. A few years ago, VR was aglow with shittily made first-person shooters, and so the rallying cry among the videogame cognoscenti was to not simply remake Call of Duty in VR. But Damaged Core, while still being very much about shooting shit, felt the most daringly reimagined of the Oculus’ controller-based experiences. The game’s producer told me that one of the first things his team bailed on in developing the game was traditional first-person shooter movement; instead, you beam your consciousness from robot to robot, either progressing in a linear path or popping up and around, flanking and taking cover. This felt radical, in practice, and the game’s guns felt radical in a very different way, letting me alight into a robot’s brain and then shotgun other robots’ brains out. (There were no literal brains.) The game also played with height and movement in a manner more confident than its straightforward sci-fi-shooter trappings may’ve suggested: I was twirling in circles, a vision of hell, and zipping up to mounted cameras and towering sentinels in no time.
All of which is to say that the promised VR revolution may be here—everything works, and it’s imminently available—but for the art, well, look to the fringes. I’ve played about half of the Oculus Rift’s 30 launch titles, each for 15 minutes or so; none were disastrous, but few merited much more attention than I was allotted. The Oculus Rift is eager to assert itself as a gaming platform, full of titles that reassure players that VR will not be like motion-control, which struggled so mightily to deliver traditional videogame experiences. In VR, you can shoot shit, and it’ll feel good. You can unlock new cars, and they’ll be fast. You can buy costumes, and the women will put them on. Change is coming, but not if you don’t want it.