A More “Real” VR Experience

“We hope as more people get to see VR, the experience will become more normal. People will then come into the VR experience and just see another game instead of a toy.” – Cindy Miller, Lead Designer at Culture Shock Games.

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I spent my past weekend at PAX East looking at a bunch of “new” games. While I wasn’t entirely impressed with most of the showcase, I did manage to find a few interesting things. One of the more intriguing displays was for an indie game called We Are Chicago.

At first, my friend and I were simply lining up to try VR. We were glancing at the monitor and joking about almost everything in the game world. This older guy and his son were joining in with us as we kept pointing out some of the inconsistencies of the VR experience.

The demo consisted of a scripted conversation about inner-city life and a scene where the player is supposed to set the table. I wanted to get into the demo and start flinging plates around. I wondered how awesome it would be to teleport into a fridge or smack someone in the face. I was hell bent on breaking the game world.

Weird little glitches like disappearing doors and unshapely character models were just adding fuel to the fire. It was like some low budget B-movie with a more interactive twist. Who cares what the people are saying? The real joy is in tearing it apart.

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Just look at that!! How could you resist throwing it?!

As we kept waiting, though, I realized something about my behavior; I was being a real jackass. I won’t claim that every game should be treated as a masterpiece (or even with respect), but it’s hard to fault a small team for trying to break new ground.

The non VR experience of We Are Chicago is substantially better. It still has a way to go before being released, but its ability to convey a story through a slightly interactive medium looks to be taking an already tired genre in some new directions.

“We want people to empathize with how things are,” is what Cindy Miller told me. “We like the fact that we are touching on these topics and we are going to be giving some proceeds from the game to help non-profit organizations.”

That really hit me in the gut. Here I was, joking about how goofy the VR demo looked. When my friend asked the lead programmer, Michael Block, about the intended plotline for the game, I jokingly said, “It’s about a teleporting man who is tasked with setting the dinner table and refuses to.”

I suppose that is the downside to an expo dedicated to “new” things. People want to experience VR, but the show floor is so crowded that dedicating yourself to any one thing is a monumental task. When some indie developer has a quick, accessible demonstration out, you mainly want to fuck around with it to experience the technology.

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Which way did he go, George?

“We like the fact that a lot of people come for the VR and stay for the game. We’re happy that people get to experience it,” Cindy said to me with a bright smile. It doesn’t matter if people think her game is bogus; she is mostly happy to present the idea to the masses.

Thankfully, I’m not the kind of person to shut my mind off. I tinkered with the VR experience on the first day of PAX, but I returned to that booth every other day. The second day was to take another friend over and the third day was to grab some photos and quotes. I wanted to challenge myself with bringing out the better side of this game.

I don’t know if I should explain its plot details or any of the controls. At its best, the game feels like a Telltale adventure game before they began sucking up every contract possible. We Are Chicago is taking the idea of an interactive narrative to its logical conclusion.

We’ve seen games built on making us empathize with protagonists or thrusting us into difficult scenarios, but none of them have truly dealt with real life problems. The abundance of World War II shooters may have all been based on true stories, but none of those felt real.

Most gamers also don’t have to live in a shitty slum. A lot of us have a comfortable life. The worst problem we will ever face is pissing our boss off. None of us know the emotional toll that constantly living in fear brings. None of us need to worry about stray bullets flying through our walls and killing our families.

Cindy and Michael both told me, “Everything that happens in the game is based on real events.” Cindy then added, “Our writer came from Englewood and is bringing his personal experience into the game.” Well, damn. Safe, secure, blissfully happy me gets to go home to white suburbia while these developers have grown up in a crappy reality.

Did the rest of the attendees connect with this game on the same level? I honestly don’t think so. People were so happy to get into a VR headset that the conversations might as well of not happened. You could have put stickmen in place of the character models and no one would bat an eye.

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Half of these people probably never even saw the game. I know Jed didn’t!

I didn’t want to leave the expo and have this game become a distant memory. I didn’t want others to see the low budget and think this game was a joke. VR may be the future, but if it robs a game like this of its narrative punch, then it doesn’t deserve to survive on the market. VR should be opening people to new realities; it shouldn’t be relegated to a simple plaything.

Thankfully, We Are Chicago will be releasing as a standard game first. The VR experience was mostly made for PAX (and was finished in a week), but will become available at an unspecified time after the game is finally out.

I feel that is for the best. I’d rather the discussion start with how dramatic the game is rather than how ridiculous a flying plate looks in VR.

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Cindy Miller (Left), Michael Tisdale (Center), Michael Block (Right)

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“Girlfriend Mode” My Ass!

Editor’s Note: To Gearbox’s credit, President Randy Pitchford seems pretty pissed about the whole situation. He took to Twitter stating “Borderlands 2 does NOT have a girlfriend mode. Anyone that says otherwise is misinformed or trying to stir up something that isn’t there… The future DLC Mechromancer class has a skill tree that makes it easier for less skilled coop partners (any gender!) to play and be useful.” Pitchford didn’t deny Hemingway’s statement, citing it as a “personal anecdote” and following with “there is no universe where Hemmingway is a sexist – all the women at Gearbox would beat his and anyone else’s ass.” But that still doesn’t change the fact that sexism continues to be an important issue in the gaming industry and culture as a whole.

Developers and stupid comments seem to be going hand in hand these days. First we get Crystal Dynamics shooting themselves in the foot and now we have Gearbox making asshats out of themselves. It’s insane to think how grown adults can’t figure out how to properly speak to journalists about their games.

Still, the most recent instance with Gearbox’s John Hemingway just does not make sense to me. Are the developers intentionally trying to not sell their product to women? When I first read the quick blip for Eurogamer’s article, I immediately thought of a mode where the female character would bond to one character and heal them.

Instead, the gaming world is now treated to something unintentionally sexist. To say that female gamers require additional assistance in their games is ludicrous. If the main idea was to appeal to significant others who are bad at video games, why not just label the mechanic as noob mode?

Still, I’m a white male and I’m getting outraged at something that doesn’t really impact me. I’ll never know what it’s like to be a woman and have people constantly harassing me, so I took to Twitter for some quick comments.

I asked my co-worker’s girlfriend and another co-worker of mine (the now infamous Jozie). Both play games and while they may not be experts or as hardcore as I am, they certainly can hold their own in terms of ability.

As you can clearly see, both aren’t too happy about Hemingway’s comment. While he may not be a ravenous sexist, he certainly is unfounded and ignorant. Just like the controversy over Dead Island and their “Feminist Whore” skill, developers need to realize that in-jokes aren’t funny to the masses and knocks against female stereotypes are unfounded and ridiculous.

To further drive the point home, an old friend of mine was quite the gamer. She couldn’t best me in Call of Duty or Gears of War, but she certainly wasn’t a slouch either. Gaming with her on “Hard Mode” wasn’t some futile attempt to make myself look better. She honestly was up for the challenge and liked not having the game be a cakewalk.

I’ve also known quite a few female workers from local GameStop’s that are interested in some pretty awesome stuff. My best friend Jim’s old boss loved “Dark Souls,” a game that makes most grown men cry. This very lovely girl, Jen, was a huge fan of Fable and Call of Duty and she used to ask me pointers on how to get better, instead of cowering in fear of harder difficulties.

I also recall of two twins who were gigantic Pokémon fans. While that may not be the most daunting of titles to topple, just having the sheer dexterity to finish any of those titles is a pretty monumental accomplishment. I’ve only ever beaten two Pokémon games and I sink hundreds of hours into each.

My point is I don’t understand why developers are still treating women like unskilled peons. According to ESRB polls, around 40% of gamers are women. If you total up all sales of the previous “Borderlands” (as presented by VGChartz.com), you get about 4.55 million copies. Imagine if 40% did not buy the sequel. You’d sell close to 2 million copies less.

That is something that Gearbox probably doesn’t want to face. Sadly, they may see a pretty big decline come September. Borderlands didn’t have the easiest start of any new IP, but it did well on the charm of its gameplay and word of mouth from gamers.

If the new word of mouth is that Gearbox is a bunch of sexist idiots, maybe Borderlands 2 won’t sell so well. While I can’t predict what will happen, I will say that developers need to start treating their potential customers a lot better.

Enough of the bullshit where women apparently suck or that being offended is solely your fault. Start thinking about what you say and maybe I’ll give a shit about your work. Until then, you’ve lost a prospective customer.

Cate Archer isn’t pleased.