PlayStation VR hasn't tamed VR's strangeness
And that's as problematic as it is exciting.
Earlier this year I spent what felt like an entire week inside Oculus, and now I'm taking off the PlayStation VR and blinking in the harsh light of actual reality after a straight run of days in which I sat, like a lonely Daft Punk, lost in new worlds, surrounded by games, embedded, in the truest sense, in the heart of the action.
It's been wonderful and puzzling. Wonderful because PSVR is wonderful. As Rich has already said, Sony's take on virtual reality feels entirely coherent. We've had a faulty unit, so you might want to wait for the hardware to prove itself, but once it has, the lower definition compared to Oculus and Vive doesn't matter as much as you might expect, the device itself is very comfortable to wear, and the Move controllers are far more precise than I remember them being. The games are frequently great, too. Tumble VR is the clear winner for me, with its weaponised take on Jenga, but Battlezone is fun, Thumper is suitably transporting, and Batman: Arkham VR is absolutely fascinating.
Here's where it gets puzzling, though. I always suspected, given the slightly flat launches for Vive and Oculus, that PSVR would be VR's best chance at mainstream success. It's cheaper, it seems made for the living room, and it feels, in an odd way, like less of a gamble: Sony's turned VR into a peripheral, and console manufacturers have sold us all kinds of weird peripherals before. Now I've played with it, though, and despite the fact that I think it's much better than I had even hoped for, I am starting to suspect that the mainstream is not beckoning. Not yet. Maybe not for a long time. I'm starting to think that I had this all back to front. I'm starting to think that VR is simply not a mainstream proposition - whatever a mainstream proposition means for games anyway.
Up until now, I have had three basic worries about VR taking off. The first is that I can't afford it. The second is that I don't have anywhere to stick it even if I could afford it, and the third is that I just worry I'm going to feel weird playing it at home. How does PSVR stack up in terms of these, admittedly very personal, criteria? It's cheaper than everything else, but it's still pricey. It doesn't require the space of Vive and its room-scale VR (which is, if Budget Cuts is anything to go by, where the really exciting prospects for VR are waiting), but it's still a major faff. So many cables! A weird new box to plug them into! A camera to find a home for, and Moves if you're going to take this seriously. But so far, all of these problems can be solved by time, right? Prices come down, tech gets simpler. Oculus is already working on a wireless Rift, apparently - that's got to be good news for my second problem.
But the third problem feels as big as it ever did. I love VR, but it's weird to play - and maybe it has to be weird. Maybe weirdness is part of the magic. Still: it's weird to not know who's around you when you're wearing the headset. It's weird to sit with someone who's wearing one, even if, as is the case with PSVR, everyone can watch what they're up to on the TV screen. I keep trying to think about PSVR in my own house, surrounded by cats and children, and it just doesn't make much sense. I'm knocking over lamps, I'm being laughed at, I'm cutting myself off from the people I've come home to be with in the first place. Tech goes mainstream, as the old saw goes, when it gets out of the way: WYSIWYG, touchscreens, contactless payments, the Gameboy rattling around, scuffed and scratched, in a school bag. VR is never getting out of the way while you have to clamp it to your face.
That said, I can imagine staying up at night when everyone else has gone to bed to work through Budget Cuts. I would spend the fifteen minutes needed to set the room up for that no problem. I can imagine doing an all-nighter for Minter's new joint, and I can imagine telling my wife she needs to try Arkham VR or the whale demo, just for an hour or so, and just to see what they're like. VR has offered me some of my best gaming experiences of recent years, and these are experiences I think that anybody would love, regardless of whether they're interested in games or not. While wearing the headset is weird when there are other people around, it's also amazing. I love that sense of being in a private cinema auditorium just as the lights have gone down. There's something about the isolation of VR I actually love. I'm just not sure that many people are going to feel the need to own this. I think many people are going to want to check it out and then get on with their lives. (Remember Kinect, incidentally? Kinect is a bit of a failure in the living room, but I've seen it used brilliantly in installation art. Kinect works when it's in a bespoke setting, when it's something you go to see.)
Is this a problem? Not in one sense: I think people are still going to be moved to make stuff for this. I'm not sure Minter's betting the farm on it, for example: it's new technology and he loves the potential and is compelled to explore it. Ditto a thousand other devs, from indie to triple-A. VR is undeniably very exciting, and it does weird and thrilling things to games.
It is transformative! Just look at Batman. Rocksteady's listened to VR, and it's allowed VR to turn Arkham games from brilliant open-world brawlers into something that feels like an adventure game mixed with a sort of stage play. Sure, if you're feeling negative about things, it's a Batman game with no fighting, but it's also, on the plus side, a Batman game with no fighting. Instead, it's a carnival of new ideas, some of which work and some of which don't. Famous characters suddenly feel like they're the same size as you. You're being leered at by The Penguin, while Joe Chill - if it still is Joe Chill and he hasn't been retconned out by now - leans in close and is more terrifying than he's been in years. No traversal, but you're doing autopsies, listening to Bruce Wayne's answerphone messages and doing Liberace glissandos to access the Batcave. People are going to do amazing things with VR, whatever happens. The weirdness of Arkham VR is a win for VR, as far as I'm concerned. It has already justified itself in the sense that here is technology that really forces developers to experiment, and re-evaluate.
But how long will they be able to? This is what going selling to a large audience gives you, after all: it gives you the freedom and confidence to properly invest in something brilliant and do something really special with it.
Will it take off? It's worth remembering that, if I'm worried about it, it's probably safe. I have a proven track record at being wrong, in both directions, about the potential of new hardware and new ideas. All the same, look at how you interact with PSVR: through the PlayStation Camera, with Move controllers in your hands. It's not too hard to see PSVR ending up filed away in the same forgotten drawer as those other gadgets. Even if it is quite hard to imagine PSVR fitting in that drawer.
Perhaps the safest thing to say right now is that Sony's done a lot of the really hard work brilliantly. The hardware is here and, that faulty headset aside, feels so much better than you might have expected. If VR's ever destined to take off, this is a good starting point. The question now is: what is VR's true destiny?