If VR is the future, I’m stuck in the past

Governed by this love we have for useless, twisting of our new technology

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Not too long ago, Oculus Rift founder and guy with a cartoon rabbit’s name Palmer Luckey sent out a tweet sharing his excitement for the future of VR:

This came at the end of a couple tweets where Luckey told people not to worry about bad coverage of VR games and technology because the revolution of Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality gaming will be so much bigger than a bad review here or there. Since the launch of the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, coverage of VR hasn’t exactly been glowing. Many feel there aren’t enough good games out there to justify the cost and a lot of the promises and ideas presented during the exhaustive alpha and beta stages of development have yet to materialize. 

But this has changed leading up to this week’s launch of the PlayStation VR. I’ve heard it referred to as the first mass-market VR headset. With more than 40 million PlayStation 4 owners out there, there are millions of potential customers who could be singing its praises by the end of the year. With its comparatively low entry price and lineup of launch-window titles, the PlayStation VR could be the start of a consistent and positive conversation about VR, instead of the arguably muddled one we’ve had so far.

It’s a conversation I will be unable to participate in because VR simply doesn’t work for me. I don’t mean that in an “Oh, I don’t think it’s that cool” type of way, I mean the technology literally does not work for me.

As one Mr. Dingle Berry so eloquently put it in the YouTube comments of my, let’s say, “cheeky” Style Savvy: Fashion Forward hands-on video, my eyes be fucking jacked up something major. Yeah, I have a crazy left eye and I’m just as weirded out by it as you are when I see pictures or video of myself. Lefty, or as I call it “goddamn you eye, why can’t you be normal,” has been that way as long as I remember. Legend has it when my parents were on the way to the hospital to give birth to me, they ran over a witch who used her dying breath to place a curse their unborn son that would never allow him to take a good picture. Now, my eye leans further left than Bernie Sanders and provides a helpful visual cue for which way to swipe if you should ever come across me on Tinder.

Of course, beyond being seen as a monster by children and adults alike, my lack of proper vision has kept me from enjoying the majesty of 3D entertainment. While this sometimes works to my advantage (I can kick anyone’s ass on Toy Story Midway Mania at Disneyland California’s Paradise Pier), it means I don’t see most 3D entertainment in the same way as those with normal, non-witch-cursed eyes do. When I went to see Avatar, I didn’t see “a joyous celebration of story craft and the visual possibilities of cinema” as Anne Thompson from indieWIRE put it. Instead, I saw a forgettable film about blue people and animals with an extra set of legs. When I went to see Tron Legacy, I didn’t see the “sci-fi thrill ride, in terms of action, visuals, and unpretentious fun” that TheMovieReport’s Michael Dequine described. Instead, I saw a shitty remake of the first film. When I went to see Alice in Wonderland, I didn’t see… actually, scratch that. I’m pretty sure that movie was seen as crap by everyone.

By the time the 3D film craze had already peaked, Nintendo jumped on the train with the 3DS. This was the first time I ever felt weary about a new piece of gaming tech. I had long accepted the fact that I would be less entertained by 3D films than others, but I wasn’t ready to do the same with video games. My life, my love, my passion; the thought of the industry leaving me behind because of a physical handicap caused my stomach to turn. I seriously worried about puzzles in The Legend of Zelda that you could only solve with 3D or enemies in Kirby games that could only be seen in the third dimension. It terrified me. What would happen? Would video games become something I could no longer enjoy and instead have to start reading books for entertainment? Just kill me if that’s the case.

Thankfully, or perhaps unfortunately in the eyes of electronics manufacturers, the 3D revolution never took off. I can’t find a single 3D game I can’t 100%, 3D broadcast television remains a niche service, and I don’t know anyone who prefers seeing a film in 3D over a regular screen. When Nintendo started deemphasizing the 3D capabilities of the 3DS, I celebrated. I thought I would be a-ok from that point forward. At least I did until John Carmack brought the attention of the Oculus Rift to the world at E3 2012 with his Doom 3 BFG demo.

Suddenly, everything was VR. It was the future. It was going to change how you played games, watched movies and sports, educated kids in the classroom, and more. Like a pitch from a snake-oil salesman, VR became the cure to all the ailments we didn’t know we had. VR was going to change humanity (for first-world countries that could afford it). It seemed everyone was excited at the possibilities and I couldn’t understand why. Because of my lack of experience with 3D, I couldn’t comprehend what VR was. I get how it works and I can probably explain it to somebody who just woke up from a 30-year coma, but it would be equivalent to me memorizing passages out of a book without reading the whole thing. I just didn’t get it, but I wanted to.

For many months I tried my best to get my hands on a VR device to see how, and if, it would work for me. But as a low-income 9-to-5er, I couldn’t get out of work to visit E3 or PAX. Trying out the Rift or Vive in a local store also didn’t seem to be an option for where I lived. I had all but given up hope until a recent Best Buy visit brought on an unexpected surprise. There, in the Vita-less PlayStation section, was a demo station for the PlayStation VR.

It was early on a Friday evening. There was a small group around the unit and an even smaller line waiting to try it out. When I gathered, there was seated a particularly rotund man sweating up a storm on the headset while he tried and failed to play EVE: Valkyrie. I watched the television to see how he played and felt nauseous as he lost control of his ship and spiraled to his death. When his turn was over, his son took his place. Here clearly was a person who had played a game or two in his life, expertly piloting his way through the demo, taking down a dozen or so enemy fighters before his time was up. 

The next person to go was a guy who got there just before I did. Gabriel, the Sony representative manning the station, carefully cleaned off the sweat and grime of the last player before placing the headset on the gentleman. Instead of a third trip to EVE, he chose PlayStation VR Worlds. The only demo at the time available for it was Into The Deep, an underwater experience that puts you in a shark cage being lowered into the ocean depths I wanted to watch the television screen that displayed to us what he was looking at, but I was far more fascinated by the guy. This demo doesn’t use the controller as it’s a completely guided experience. I watched as he looked around, reached out to touch the fish, and stared in awe as the sunlight disappeared from view. As he went lower, passing by the wreckage of a downed aircraft, I watched as he became startled by a passing shark, and then go into a complete freak-out mode when the shark started attacking. He was literally jumping out of his seat, ducking down, and lifting his feet as if he were right there in the deep. When he finished, he had a slight laugh in his voice as he described how terrified he was, how it all seemed so real to him.

That was his experience. Here was mine.

I sat down in the chair as Gabriel placed the freshly wiped-down VR headset onto my head. I too selected the Into The Deep demo as I didn’t want to worry about handling a controller during my first time with VR. After everything was calibrated (God knows how it did that with my fucking eye), I watched as I was submerged into the great deep and immediately realized VR is useless for me. Sure, I could use the head tracking just like anyone else with a neck, but what should have been a completely immersive experience was anything but. Instead of feeling as though I was completely surrounded by water, I sat there looking at a tiny, low-res television screen placed two inches from my eyeball. Without the ability to see 3D, there was nothing revolutionary about it. The best way I can describe it would be to imagine you’re walking through one of those underwater tunnels like in Jaws 3-D. You can see the fish and marine life all around you, but there is no illusion that you’re there in the water with them.

As the demo went on and the shark started to attack, I shrugged. Like with Avatar, I was unable to see the groundbreaking imagery that others had raved about. Like with Avatar, this was all just kinda lame.

When I was done I had a thought: What if it wasn’t just me? What if other people saw VR the same way I did, only I was immune to its awe. As I walked back out to my car I asked my fellow Destructoid writers if VR was supposed to be 3D, describing my experience with the headset as similar to putting my head in a spherical television set. The first response I got back was “uhh” followed by the explanation I had expected about how VR makes it seem as if you’re actually there, like 3D, but all around you.

I don’t think the experience will be any different with the Rift or Vive, and I know that without a complete eye transplant or stem cells or something, I’m never going to be able to fully enjoy VR technology. I’ve accepted that fact. Now, once again, I am back where I was when the 3DS was announced, worried about my future in gaming and whether or not I’ll be able to enjoy my favorite franchises.

Despite a slow start, the Rift and Vive aren’t going anywhere. Sony says it has dozens of games lined up for PlayStation VR and there are rumors Nintendo delayed the NX to include VR capabilities. There is always the possibility VR will fall to the wayside or simply exist as a luxury product alongside our regular video game and television technology, but it could also take over the world as smartphones or the internet did before it. It could be the irresistible mainstream bedrock Luckey believes it will be. I’ve learned never to bet against technology.

I’m of the generation that was the first to embrace the internet, MP3 players, iPhones, Fleshlights, and all the other conveniences that have improved our lifestyles. There are people who said those were fads just as there are people saying the same thing about VR, but it would be ignorant to drop a term like that so early in the conversation. I’ve seen people blown away by what VR can do. I’ve read countless stories about how the Rift and Vive have changed people and renewed their interests in video gaming. The technology is there, it’s just the killer app has yet to be created.

I’m not naive enough to think that if it is huge, all games will immediately be VR only. That would be dumb. But I wonder about those big franchises that I love. The Legend of Zelda, Metroid, Resident Evil, Dragon Quest, Bonsai Barber, God of War, Doom, Portal, Borderlands, Bayonetta… what happens if VR gets so big those games become exclusive to the technology? I guess the easy answer is I just don’t play them anymore, and that’s a thought that kills me. I don’t know what I would do without some of these games. The Legend of Zelda is my religion. Dragon Quest is what I need when all other entertainment is too dark and serious for its own good. MarioMario is Mario and it’s something no gamer should ever have to be without.

Please don’t take this as one guy whining about the industry leaving him behind. I am all for the advancement of entertainment technology even if it leaves me behind. But before everyone else dives face first into this brave new world, I wanted to give you all a look at this future through my one working eye.

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CJ Andriessen
Editor-at-Large – CJ has been a contributor to Destructoid since 2015, originally writing satirical news pieces before transitioning into general news, features, and other coverage that was less likely to get this website sued.