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.

IMG_0137

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.

IMG_0135

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.

IMG_0131

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.

IMG_0130

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.

IMG_0134

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

Advertisements

Does Doom Still Matter?

No name speaks more of a quintessential first-person shooter than Doom. Doom was the catalyst for a cacophony of violent games in the 90’s that eventually led to the ESRB being founded to regulate game content. Not only that, it popularized a genre of gaming that had yet to break out into the mainstream.

While the initial sequel, Doom II, was actually better than the first game, developer iD Software has yet to make a game that follows up on the legacy set forth by Doom. Maybe it’s a mixture of nostalgia and genre evolution that keeps holding them back, but for some reason, Doom cannot be topped.

In a few months, the confusingly titled Doom reboot will be launching. Taking inspiration from a mod for the original game, Doom looks to up the violence and make the game as fast paced as it’s forefather. The big question on my mind is; Does Doom still matter?

Obviously one cannot debate the importance of the original title. It was one of the first 3D games with an arsenal of weapons and motley crue of enemies that was unparalleled for the time. It had revolutionary online play and extensive modding tools that allowed fans to make their own creations.

I have no idea what I’m looking at.

It also had some incredible graphics, a rocking soundtrack and some genuinely outstanding level design (that still holds up). Make no mistake; Doom was the real deal. My first encounter with it was in 4th grade. An old friend introduced me to it on the playground with the instruction manual.

I didn’t have a Windows PC, so I actually had my parents run out and buy a Mac compatible Windows 95 launcher just so I could try this game. While I did eventually get it running, it was missing some features and would often crash.

My fascination with the game didn’t stop until we eventually did get a true Windows computer. That was my very first computer, actually; a Packard Bell with a 3 gb hard drive. Those were much simpler times.

Regardless, Doom was almost a taboo for how it “corrupted” the innocence of gaming. Parents were sickened at the depiction of “violence” the game had and it’s demonic villains. I guess killing hellspawn is evil, even if it saves the Earth.

News outlets were shocked at how you could mangle police officers (I still, to this day, want to know what game they played). Activist groups wanted the game removed from store shelves. The world was coming to an end and it was all because of this little game.

This is just the second level of the game.

Needless to say, the controversy was overblown and gaming continued to evolve. We now have more grotesque displays of violence in games and sexuality is even becoming a common occurrence. Gaming is a pop-culture staple that is slowly becoming less niche by the day.

So what can a new Doom game in 2016 bring to the table? Does Doom need to be more than a simple throwback? Are fans ever going to be impressed with what gets released? I’m not sure I can answer all of those questions.

The easiest to tackle would be the intention of a new Doom. Not every piece of media needs to have a deeper message or mean something more to it’s medium. On occasion, a good, mindless, violent trip through excess and escapism is precisely what a person needs.

A rough day at work can be capped off with a good, meaty rocket launcher explosion of your best friend (in game form, of course…). The cathartic quality that Doom always exhibits can’t be understated; to this day, I still fire explosives in games and expect splash damage.

The original Doom wasn’t made with the purpose of reinventing the wheel. The developers saw a thing they liked, a new way to do it and set off to make it the best product possible. The main reason Doom succeeded so much was because of it’s business model; a freeware version of the first episode was available for free through mail order and the internet (if one was lucky enough to own a modem in 1994).

That gaming had not seen anything like Doom was merely a coincidence. Most game makers, artists and musicians don’t set out to specifically enhance their art form; they tend to fall on an idea they all love and furnish it into something unique.

How could you not be in love with this?

Will fans accept a new Doom? Well, initial reaction says yes. Fans reportedly cheered at the unveiling during Quakecon 2014. No one but those attendees got to see the footage of the game and everyone was claiming it was going “back to basics”. I guess they were on board.

Then a year went by without much information leaking. No one was talking about the game and people hadn’t seen what the gameplay was going to be like. Eventually at E3, a trailer was released that showcased footage to the general public. Now fans were skeptical.

The “official” box art actually typifies everything wrong with the industry in 2016. The colors are muted, limited and saturated. The main character is faceless, staring at the ground and “gruff”. The font takes up more space than anything else and shows nothing of what the game is.

It just reeks of a cash grab. That is completely disregarding the actual quality of the game, but it seems that Bethesda only commissioned a reboot of Doom because reboots are the new, hot thing. Movie franchises are increasingly doing reboots and even Tomb Raider, another gaming institution, had a successful reimagining.

Look how many shits she gives.

Fans never seem to be pleased with anything. Gunning for that crowd will usually end in disaster. Still, whom else are you going to market a reboot of Doom to in 2016? Falling back on the legacy of your series will do nothing for newer gamers.

Which brings us to the final question; What can a new Doom bring to the table in 2016? As I mentioned above, the main source of inspiration seems to be a mod for the original Doom called Brutal Doom.

One of the creators of the original game, John Romero, was quoted as saying, “The only thing I think about now is.. what if… when we released Doom, we actually released Brutal Doom?” (laughs). We would have destroyed the gaming industry, I think. Brutal Doom is hilarious.”

I’m guessing that was all Bethesda needed to hear to fast track progress on a Doom reboot. A lot of the animations for weapons look like they were taken from the mod. The gore factor seems to have been clearly inspired by the mod. Sadly, the mod seems to be faster paced.

Without taking that into account, though, what else could Doom do? Shooters have become a stagnant genre in recent years. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare seemed to be the last big shakeup to the genre in terms of evolution. It’s online, RPG-lite system of unlocks caused a plethora of copycats that still haven’t gone away in nearly 10 years.

Level design has also remained the same…

Call of Duty is also responsible for popularizing the down sight aiming that basically every shooter uses today. Along with Resident Evil 4 redefining third person combat, action gaming hasn’t truly changed since 2005. The industry is falling back on old ideas and past successes to keep their inflated budgets and massive paychecks going.

While Doom may not have started out with the intent of reinventing gaming, it’s launch was special. It was a fundamental shift from being marketed as a toy for children into becoming a hobby that anyone could enjoy. It expanded the horizons of what software could do.

Doom in 2016 just looks like the same boring stuff we’ve seen for decades. I’ve never taken Doom as a serious, scary, horrific trek through a nightmare. Doom has always been a goofy, colorful, fun filled time for me. How can you look at the original graphics and not feel happy?

Even the defining features of this reboot, it’s gore filled executions, was done in Gears of War. You would be forgiven for mistaking Doom as a first-person sequel to that series; the art style is practically the same.

So, does Doom still matter? For cultural reverence, I’d say yes. As far as being an exciting, landmark event; hell no. There is nothing that Doom can do to become interesting again, apart from a complete shift in tone and setting (which would then defeat the purpose).

What film producers, game developers and artists need to realize is that certain things take off because of their time frame. Doom was a massive hit because nothing else was like it in 1994. In 2016, we’ve seen so many things emulate Doom that gamers just don’t care.

And no one cares about this.

Naming your game Doom and expecting it to sell is just naive. You would be better set creating a new IP and shifting focus away from the nostalgia laden masses. It’s fine to claim the game is a spiritual successor to Doom, but to drag the actual legacy into the dirt is shameful.

Then again, come May, I may be eating these words. The game could be good. Whose to say?