A defense of single-player, distraction-free, actually immersive gaming in VR
By MARTIN REZNY
Wow, I don’t say that often, but what a glorious example of uncritical, one-sided thinking. As someone who’s been playing games for about 25 years now and has had a chance to try out VR recently, I feel I must interject. First, a proof that it isn’t just grandpa talk — I don’t hate new fads on principle. Against my expectations, I was pleasantly surprised, nay, impressed by VR. What I’m decidely not impressed with is the always-online multiplayer creep.
Let me start from the obvious. There are game genres which simply do not benefit from multiplayer, or especially social interaction. Take Diablo. For some reason which had pretty much nothing to do with what the fans of this franchise wanted, Blizzard decided to make the third installment an always-online game, because social (but really because fuck you pirates and we wants more money from an auction house). Diablo is, or rather was, a game most famous for its single player. It had co-ops or duels too, but those were not the point, and not mostly with random idiots online. How did that go you ask?
How about immersion? How do you think it helps your immersion when there’s a chat window jammed into the screen. Just by being there. But it’s not just there. It’s a chat window where even in a “private” game, random weirdos from around the internet butt in to spam you with nonsense you didn’t ask for. What about the auctions? They were ruining the game about finding and crafting cool stuff by selling the best stuff immediately. Who would have thunk. So they at least got rid of that. And the always-online component adds only unnecessary disconnects and lag deaths (ruining the hardcore mode).
My point is you cannot just say that a whole platform always needs a social dimension or a multiplayer, and you cannot get around how it always brings technological complications and distractions that break immersion. Maybe if it’s very tame by just involving your actual friends only when you want it to it doesn’t actively become a burden, but that’s not where it’s going to stop, is it. It’s just more profitable to involve masses and microtransactions and all that. I’ve never played games to always be socializing, as many other people don’t.
The Vital Importance of Solitude
And there are reasons why sometimes one really shouldn’t. I wonder how to get the absurdity across… Consider this: What if I told you that reading books should be more about being social while you’re reading? That’s how absurd it is. Games like Diablo already don’t have much story, and anyone else encroaching on one’s experience of playing those is distracting. Single player gaming is mainly about storytelling and actual immersion when you specifically do forget about the external world and people you know, for a sec.
For the same reason I would be annoyed if a number of people watched me while reading and commented on my reading, I’d hate it in VR too. I really like stories and immersive worlds in my games, and one of the things I liked a lot about VR is precisely how it allows one an even deeper level of immersion into another world. What I immediately thought it needed were not more people in there with me, it was more story and actual game in it. So far, it’s mostly tech demos meant to wow the players and demonstrate what’s possible.
I do get why some people play games to interact with other humans, it’s for the same reason why people do sports, or play board games. Those types of games of course do “benefit” from a social dimension or multiplayer, because those only function socially and make the most sense as multiplayer. I do like playing multiplayer matches in strategy games against people, maybe even random people of the internetz in some kind of ladder, if the game is quick and simple. But that’s not in any way uniquely always the best for VR games.
And it’s not like book-reading type experience is entirely asocial. You can always talk to humans about the experiences you’ve had, for starters. There are book clubs, you know. Which, arguably, can be a much more healthy and profound social interaction than text-only, short message chatting. But whatever, let the tweets out, I’m not a luddite. The point is, people typically don’t read books, watch movies or TV shows, listen to music, and do other things alone to be more lonely. Engaging with any form of art has a social dimension, and sometimes, doing it alone is actually necessary for personal growth. Into an individual.
Defending Against Peer Noise and Insanity
I don’t think I would have liked growing up now. Maybe this one’s just me, but having computers from an early age is really great, if they’re offline. Do you know why? There isn’t a global hivemind at the back of everyone’s mind constantly, trying to push each of us to give it attention or money. It must be a real strain especially on the young, developing persons among us. After all, in psychology, peer pressure already was a clearly defined problem before this. Imagine if it’s millions of peers pressuring you to buy a new app, or iCrap.
There was some back and forth with my friends, but for the most part, I got to choose which games I wanted to play, for how long, whether by myself or with anyone else. Multiplayer actually required a physical gathering of people for a LAN party, btw. After knowing the alternative (online match-ups), the old version of multiplayer gaming for me still remains definitely the more social one. In a world where games are more offline than online, the whole social dimension isn’t non-existent, it’s just deeper and way more manageable.
But again, to each their own. What isn’t arguable is how the interference of “social interaction” ruins specifically immersion. That’s the problem of noise. In every game, the immersion is dependent on the strength of the signal, the intended messaging. Even if there isn’t any explicit story in a game, for it to have any immersion, it still needs to have some tone, some style, some way it feels. Unless the players are effectively muted or extremely disciplined (think very involved D&D roleplaying), they will only work to undermine any tone.
Unless the tone is randomness, profanity, immaturity, spamming, scamming, racism, ignorance, unwanted sexual advances, or some other usual content of internet chatrooms. When given the chance, humans vote to name a scientific vessel Boaty McBoatface, and this kind of nonsense is a major problem for immersion. I would barely trust my friends to not ruin the tone of a game by naming things in a stupid way. In fact I don’t trust them, since when we play Master of Orion 2, they do give ridiculous names to their planets and ships.
Now scale that kind of game to an MMO level. I can see it already: Let’s go where no man has gone before, in our flagship Gayfly to the Titty Twister solar system! In case you’re wondering, the original Czech name for that ship that my friend has come up with in one of our game sessions was “Buznolet”. Then again, he was playing as Humans, so it still kinda worked in-universe. Anyway, the point is that in order to maintain immersion in specific settings, the social dimension must intentionally be toned down or removed altogether.
The Real Promise of Virtual Reality Gaming
While VR is undoubtedly great for sports, even bringing some healthy physical exercise back into gaming, I don’t think that’s the best it can do. I also don’t wish to minimize the benefits of some kind of 3D skyping for people who otherwise cannot meet in actual physical space, or the better than life new version of Second Life for people with disabilities or social anxieties. These uses of VR are great examples of where more social interaction is desirable.
Given that the deeper immersiveness of VR is its main defining attribute, I’d say that it may actually shine the most on the opposite side of the spectrum, in pure single player, especially as AI advances further. If VR proves anything, it’s how easy it is to fool our brains into believing the realness of the virtual reality on a visceral level — just try not dodging when something jumps at your head in VR, or not stopping a virtual flight with your legs as if you would actual skating. For that reason, especially horror can be exquisite, too intense even.
VR is also the ideal medium for science fiction and fantasy storytelling, since nothing makes a made up world feel more tangible than standing right smack in the middle of it. When I was trying various omnidirectional backgrounds in VR, the one that impressed me the most was made of hyperdimensional fractal objects, an M. C. Escher-like sight that one cannot experience in normal space at all. But it looked and felt real. Teleportation, a classic staple of sci-fi, is extremely satisfying in VR. Or the space launches and disembodied flights of Google Earth VR.
If I had to choose one type of game that I think could become the ultimate one for VR, I’d say it would be a grand space strategy/simulation. Even in scifi itself, the ability to have a VR interface inside of a flagship from where one can control the whole fleet, or a space empire for that matter, is one of the ultimate futuristic techs. In the VR that we already have, one could easily jump from ship to ship to pilot them, oversee planetary colonies or asteroid fields as full 3D holograms, or just fly through space and explore planets.
Well, that one’s a long way off, at any rate. There isn’t one truly decent example of that kind of complex gameplay even in our old boring games on flat screens, just fragments — only 4X strategies, only spacesims for individual fighters, only tactical fleet battles, only freeform exploration, etc. But in VR, much like teleportation, it would be pretty much indistinguishable from the real thing, and it’s not like the “real thing” is even real, or in fact can actually become real, not any time soon. Until then, just leave me alone, please.
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