By Rob McCarthy
Illustration by Blake Jones
In the ‘80s, after-school activities often included hours spent at the local arcade pumping quarter after quarter into PAC-MAN and Galaga. Some fortunate folks could enjoy playing games such as Pong and Pitfall in the comfort of their own home. If you were mathematically inclined enough, you could dominate PAC-MAN in a very short period of time because, at its root, the game revolved around good timing and formulaic strategy.
When console gaming took off with the Nintendo and Sega Master System, a lot of things changed. Video games began to weave stories into the mix. It wasn’t just about racking up a high score, but also about seeing the game through until the very end. When you played The Legend of Zelda, you were compelled to complete the quest. The player became much more immersed in the alternate universe provided by the video game experience and games were no longer just an equation.
Naturally, as technology improved, so too did the ability of the designers to more fully immerse the players in the world they were creating. From 8-bit onward, each generation of gaming console brought a revolutionary approach to not only what you were playing, but also how you were playing it. First-person shooters put you behind the trigger and long-winded RPGs offered an opportunity to build challenging and beneficial relationships with characters.
Games began to tell their stories utilizing voice acting and computer-generated cut scenes. They became longer and more complex. That’s not to say that the new generation of games became more challenging; try beating Altered Beast sometime. They just became more engaging. When games like Metal Gear Solid were raising the bar on how developers approached writing, acting, direction, and other production aspects, game playing evolved.
Nowadays, most video games, especially the big-budget ones, are essentially lengthy narratives and epic stories that grip the gamer for hours on end. Video games may be replacing books and movies by doing something that neither ever could-giving you a feeling of control, of responsibility to the story.
Take a game like Heavy Rain, for instance. When I played this game for the first time, I remember getting a group of my friends together over at my apartment with the understanding that this game would be a very intense and extended experience that could last for hours. Without giving anything away, the game requires that the player make decisions throughout the story that ultimately decides the fate of the protagonist. It’s not a new concept, but the developers nailed it. You become so engrossed in the plight of the hero that you actually begin to think like they do. We played the game for 11 hours straight, right until the very end.
A lot of new video games are providing an experience that is as annoying as it is enjoyable; they are basically designed like a thrill ride. You strap yourself in, journey down a given track, and encounter and experience what the developer wanted you to experience all along the way. On the one hand, it is a lot of fun to play the game like a movie, knowing that you are in for the ride. However, with games such as Call of Duty, I often feel uninvolved in the progression of the on-screen action, and I want to be more in control in setting the scene.
If you’ve ever seen the movie eXistenZ, you may have some idea as to what the future holds for gamers. Video games become an escape from reality, and not just the games themselves but the worlds they create.
My reasoning for this is simple: technology. Quite recently, a developer perfected 180-degree virtual reality with a device they are calling the Oculus Rift. This device, like most virtual reality headsets, is worn over the eyes, fully immersing you. Unlike most VR, however, this device has seemingly perfected a majority of issues that have kept VR from becoming mainstream. A lot of the developer giants, such as Valve and id Software, are standing behind Oculus VR. They believe that the Oculus Rift is the future of video games (and so do I).
Imagine standing in your living room. You’ve powered on your game console of choice, strapped on your VR headset, and whether it be Wii-like technology or Kinect camera, motion sensors capture your every move. To anyone else in the room, you’d look pretty silly, but you’re too busy being the hero of some faraway world, blowing shit up and kicking a ton of ass.
But, that’s the thing. Who would be in the room? There was a time not long ago when gaming was a social experience. You brought your friends home, grabbed four controllers, and killed each other endlessly in GoldenEye or Halo. You can hardly have that experience these days because everything is best played online. Arguably, you have a more accessible social network online but you lose the personal proximity, that essential human contact. Internet friends become your only friends.
I bet that if developers created a small, claustrophobia-inducing room for you to stand in for privacy and immersive purposes, gaming would absolutely become the ticket out of the monotony of your everyday life- not that it isn’t already. But things could certainly take an extreme turn in that direction.
Imagine all your sick fantasies becoming a purchasable pastime. Buy the ticket, take the ride.
Soon enough, the boundaries that separate real life from fantasy will become so blurred that you probably will prefer living the fantasy. How about taking equal parts Second Life and mixing in the fantasy experience of your choice. Add a limitless, open world and there’s pretty much no reason to come back to the boring, asleep-at-the-wheel existence that you so often take for granted.