2016 has been the kind of year that's probably best spent with your head in a bucket. Luckily for me, that bucket had two little screens wired into it and all sorts of motion-sensing gadgetry stuck on top. I have no idea how VR works - and from a business sense, I gather that it doesn't really work all that well at the moment. Yet, despite the fact that I couldn't afford the hardware myself, and despite the fact that VR games aren't going to be troubling the charts any time soon, VR's provided me with my favourite gaming moments of this year - and probably my favourite gaming moments of the last few years.
Novelty? Sure. But novelty is actually a bit of a novelty by itself these days. People are pretty good at making games in 2016. I would argue, if I had a better grip on art history, that we're into the classical stage. Everything's anatomically correct and very beautifully rendered. Even the duds are generally pretty capable. But what I've longed for is a bit of baroque - the madness of grappling with new forms, new ideas. In games that often means new tech. (I feel like I have probably made this point before, so apologies.)
Take Chronos, the first VR game I properly played this year. Chronos is terribly straightforward if you get down to it. Video game maths suggests it's a bit of Dark Souls added to a bit of, um, Darksiders? Nice enough puzzling and combat in a fantasy setting, with some elegant moments of spectacle that often hinge on drastic changes in perspective. With VR, though, this all felt wonderfully new. The third-person camera that gave me a view of this world was actually me. I was unarguably part of the game, framing the action as I moved my little sword-and-shield guy from one moment to the next and tracked his progress with a tilt of the head. Levels, which would have been artfully handled even if the game was a traditional affair, suddenly became proper dioramas, grottoes and caves I was sat inside. I have never looked at the rumpled edges of a rug so intently in a game as I did here. I had forgotten that feeling - I first got it when I had eye tests at primary school and would look into a little viewer to see an out-of-focus hot air balloon - of being firmly drawn into a private cinema, a world of expectant darkness in which the game itself was suddenly thrillingly bright and up-close.
And the further afield developers went, the more VR seemed to deliver. Crytek's The Climb wasn't just the best Crytek game in an age, it was everything the developer is good at made even better - beautiful wilderness, a sense of tactility and consequence to your presence in the world, enlivened with a vertiginous action-puzzle game that gained its power from the fact that it played out not just on the screen, but in the world around you as you moved that screen around. I bumped into chairs, into colleagues, playing The Climb. My stomach flipped when I fell from my lofty perch. I paused when I reached a summit, and felt, foolishly, like I had achieved something meaningful when I looked back at the path I had followed. There would be no point to playing this game on a traditional PC monitor, even though you probably could once you had gotten to grips with an infernal second-stick set-up. The Climb works so well because it is about being transported, and because VR is so eager to transport you.
I have played dozens of games like this in 2016: games that became truly special because of the tech. In Lucky's Tale I bumped my head on an in-game lantern. That was lovely. In Out of Ammo I reached down to remove a clip and whack in another, and I pointed imperiously at a distant enemy, like I was Dr Manhattan, to turn them into a puff of red grit with a sniper shot. But one game was in another league. Budget Cuts is only a demo at this point, but its 30 minute duration is a must-play for anybody who cares about where games might be going.
And cripes, I love where Budget Cuts is taking games. VR in Budget Cuts means your complete immersion in a world. There's nothing immediately astonishing about this world - no caves, grottoes or mountainsides, just an office suite with desks and chairs and book cases. But the world's mundanity is actually what's so astonishing about it. It's the recognisable elements of your surroundings that do as much as the Vive's room-scale VR to convince you that here is somewhere you have actually been transported to, a landscape in which, if you want to play the game, you're not only going to need a bunch of neat spy gadgets, but your whole physical presence, your ability to duck behind a desk and peek around a corner.
There are so many things that Budget Cuts nails. Traversal by means of a gun that fires a little ping-pong ball of light, spawning a portal wherever it lands. Enemies that are terrifying and fast on their feet, but who go down with a single hit. A game in which all the things you want to do in immersive games - rifle through drawers, lob everything you find - provide the basis all the things you have to do in order to succeed. But the greatest pleasure is how it ropes you into a physical space that feels as real as the one you banish when you pull on the headset. How it uses VR to cast you in a role you have always wanted to play - sneaky super-spy - and then it lets you play that role until, like me, like Chris Bratt, like everyone else I know who has played this game, you have bumped your head on the floor because the designers place you in a crawlspace above a vital room and then asked you to look through a gap in the floor tiles. Bonk.
Bumping your head! Banging into colleagues! This is what's most interesting to me in games in 2016. VR's had another slow, uncertain, financially unconvincing start, but this promising technology finally has something to say - and with that, places to take us.
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