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)

The Convention That Changed It All

Absence makes the heart grow fonder; while the origin of this quote is unknown, the impact of those words can be profound. Removing yourself from your favorite place can be quite difficult. Sometimes the change is needed, other times the change is made from an irrational viewpoint.

About two years ago, I asked Andy Dixon to remove me from Destructoid. I noticed I was getting into fights in the comments section and writing crappier blogs in some vein attempt to get noticed. I just wanted to be liked, if not help people view games in a different light.

I still visited the site, but I refused to comment or make any blogs. I wanted to be done with the community and everyone around the site. I felt like I had failed them by being a petty child. I didn’t want to stain the good name of their community.

After returning to the community blogs over on Screwattack, I started to realize a lot about myself. I had changed over those few years. I was more level-headed and less angry. I was more willing to discuss instead of assert my opinion. Most importantly, I missed the communities that helped me fall back in love with gaming.

I just wasn’t ready to return to Destructoid. On Screwattack, I actually never lost respect. People accepted that I was on hiatus and the crew members looked forward to my appearance at their yearly cons. I ended up volunteering and feeling empowered and happy. I was glad to give back to a website that kindled a passion in my heart.

I never got that chance with Destructoid…that is until this past weekend. I never expected that PAX East would be the place that I would finally understand what I seek from my writing, but funny things happen to us humans. One minute can be a mundane cycle of repetition while the next is the catalyst for the fire in our minds.

After a hectic first day, my friend clued me in to a DToid meetup for Saturday night. While I skipped out on the photo in the afternoon, I made damn sure that I was able to get to the planned restaurant for that evening. I never expected to be the only person there, but life likes to throw funny curveballs our way.

When the crew ended up being late, I began to panic. I thought I had either wasted my time and money or just misread the location. I didn’t want to say no to the whole situation, so I decided to put myself on the waiting list and get food.

About 10 minutes later, Jed walked in with some friends. Seeing his Twitch shirt, I figured asking if he knew Jonathan Holmes would be a safe bet. Not only was it safe, but it was rightfully founded; Jed was with him for that evening.

This began a very surreal night for me. While I’m not afraid of meeting “celebrities” and talking to them, I never expect to get into a more personal conversation with them. I was also caught by surprise when we sat down for dinner.

This is how it looked like in my head!

Nothing felt out of the ordinary after the talking got started. It was almost as if I were a part of their crew. It seemed like old friends catching up with their non-stop lives. We talked about games we had seen that day, films that were interesting to us, how stupid Cliffy B is and awful interviews.

I also volunteered myself to hand out community awards on the show floor. For all you guys who voted back at home, know that your voices were heard. I went around with the motley crew of DToid members and we handed out those little foam cards with pride and joy.

While the award for the Witcher vanished mysteriously, everyone else was genuinely surprised and happy to be getting these plaques. Seeing their smiling faces and getting to speak with them made me feel accepted. For once in my life, no one looked at me like a psychopath; now I was the bearer of good news and a “golden” trinket.

After we managed to tear up the PAX show floor, we needed food (as most humans do). So, who could turn down a bit of lunch with Mr. Holmes? Not only did I end up meeting and dining with him the night before, but I got to do it two days straight.

Really, what more could a DToid member ask for? I finally got to put faces to the people I have been following for years. Their words and analyses have given me hours of entertainment and introspection that I am thankful for. I cannot imagine myself being alive without such a website.

So while I may have neglected DToid and been an angry little basted for a few years, I feel that I’ve finally matured into the person I wanted to be. Seeing the struggles and challenges that these people go through to give us the content we take for granted really put a lot into perspective for me.

LIKE A BOSS!

So thank you Holmes, Caitlin, Jed, Kyle and Rob. Shout outs to Jared and that partially Asian sounding guy (I’m very sorry! I forgot your name). While I may never become a full fledged friend, you guys certainly made me feel like I was important for a few days. For that, I wish you all the best of luck.

P.S. Remember to name your child Jim, Holmes!