Shoot first, ask questions later
Steven Poole ponders VR focusing on environment over movement
Look, I’m in a tank! Well, I’m not really in a tank, but Battlezone on PSVR makes the illusion extraordinarily compelling. At least at the beginning, before you have to start driving the damn thing. We seem to experience something akin to rapid hedonic adaptation in these new VR worlds — the initial immersion, a kind of magical teleportation to a new world, is a repeatable thrill, but then we just disappear into the virtual universe.
In the current line-up of PSVR games (a lot of which, it must be said, are little more than tech demos), one can already spot a couple of future generic directions for the medium. This is obviously the perfect next step, for example, for the walking simulator, and I for one also welcome the resurgence of cockpit-based air- and space-combat games. But another evident future direction of VR, which will (thankfully) cater particularly for those prone to motion sickness, is for videogames to become less dependent on the rush and twitch of fast movement, and more dependent on atmosphere and environment.
It was fascinating to learn, then, during a recent visit to the National Theatre’s R&D headquarters, that theatrical experiences themselves are about to become more virtual. In a car park behind the NT Studio, four shipping containers have been welded together to make an Immersive Storytelling research department, a kind of internal garage startup littered with Oculus, HTC, Samsung, and Sony headgear. There is a portable wood-hewn mini-set in which you can experience an immersive documentary film about life in the Calais jungle. Or you can watch a VR piece called Easter Rising, which casts you as a participant in the Dublin street battles of a century ago.
In Easter Rising, as in the Calais documentary, the action is on rails, but here the visuals are entirely computer-generated, and you are encouraged to peek around corners and so forth. The National Theatre actually used this VR piece to help the actors prepare for a production of Seán O’Casey’s play about the Easter Rising, The Plough And The Stars, last year. The stylised visuals are aesthetically very arresting: figures and objects are made up from polygons that don’t quite fit together, like shards of memory. Interestingly, however, one of the National Theatre’s dramaturgs, Tom Lyons, tells me that some people don’t like the VR piece – because it looks like a videogame.
“When you start looking at developing ideas for this technology,” Lyons says, “you do think, ‘Hang on, is this a computer game? Is this experience that you’re going on a computer game? And where is that boundary?’ Of course, computer games as a form of storytelling and entertainment are huge today. I think the boundaries are really interesting and there to be interrogated.” And, we might add, the blurring of boundaries goes both ways. Already with some VR games you think, ‘Hang on, is this more of a kind of interactive-theatre experience?’ And that is all to the good.
What is really interesting, and pushes beyond the sedentary VR game/experience, is the set of tricks that directors are thinking of playing on actual theatrical audiences, who might all have VR headsets supplied to each seat. And these ideas for tricks often revolve around what Lyons calls the visor-on/visoroff moment. “So if you’re at a play,” Lyons imagines, “and there’s a moment when you put your headset on, and that environment is interacting with the real environment, or if you have it on and then you take it off, and you’re still in that world, what does that do?” Even more spectacular head-fakes are possible. You are in a theatre watching a play. You are directed to put on your headset and you’re transported to somewhere else in VR. And now you’re told to take the headset off – “and you’re somewhere entirely different in the real world!” Lyons says gleefully. “Which is eminently doable, because we do it at the moment with blackouts.”
Home VR developers can’t count on being able to pull off such elaborate stunts, but the very nature of the technology encourages fantasy and experimentation more than any other milestone in videogames since the move from 2D to 3D, and maybe more so than that. Theatremakers on one side, and game developers on the other, are exploring uncharted territories. The future looks bright for artistic experimentation, at least until we all wear miniaturised VR contact lenses permanently glued to our eyes, and society collapses completely.
“If you have it on and then you take it off, and you’re still in that world, what does that do?”