The Good 3D, The Bad And The Nauseating

I have finally played PlayStation 3 games in 3D. Three of them. I was impressed; I felt ill. More of the former. Some of the latter.

My big 3D chance occurred last week at a showcase event for most of the big games coming to the PlayStation 3 and PSP this holiday season. Imagine a floor the size of a fast food restaurant full of PSPs, PS3s, people carrying trays of hors d'oeuvre, lots of game journalists, bunches of spokespeople, and, mostly near the walls, 3D TVs, fancy 3D glasses near them.

The Good 3D, The Bad And The Nauseating

Before attending this event I had played 3D games in past and future ways, but not in the PS3 present. I'd played games like Rad Racer with those old cardboard and plastic 3D glasses from back in the Nintendo Entertainment System (You can see Rad Racer in 3D yourself about halfway through this Nerd Balloon video).

Rad Racer in 3D was the sort of lame past. In June I experienced the 3D future when I tried Star Fox 64 in 3D on the forthcoming Nintendo 3DS and saw graphics popping with extra depth without me needing to wear any special glasses. That seemed like a cool future.

Today's Innovation: The PS3 In 3D

The present of 3D, though, is the PlayStation 3. Since the spring, anyone with an expensive new 3D TV, special 3D glasses and a PS3 can play specially-programmed games in 3D.

This is a present in which I had not participated until recently. My home TV is big and high-def, but not 3D. My games play flat.

At E3 last month I walked past a PS3 that was set up to play Super Stardust HD in 3D. Recalling that the game's developers had told me that the game was even better to play in 3D, I put on some glasses and stood a comfortable distance to the side of a guy playing the game in that recommended way. It didn't impress me, but I may have been too drunk on 3DS at the time. I could not judge PS3 3D from the sidelines.

3D Tunnel Vision, Bodies Flying At Me

The Good 3D, The Bad And The Nauseating

The Super Stardust test didn't count. No, I will deem MotorStorm Apocalypse as the first PS3 game I gave an honest try to in 3D. It was in a corner of last week's Sony event, unattended by Sony professionals. There was a couch in front of it and two pairs of 3D glasses. I put one pair on and started playing.

MotorStorm Apocalypse is a race through the end of the world or at least through the end of a city. You drive as skyscrapers crumble and, sometimes, you wind up driving up the collapsing structures... other times you are driving into the punctured ground. In 3D, the game has more depth, but the spectacle of the 3D competes with the spectacle of the graphics. The graphics, the actual content of the visuals, arrests your attention.

When do you notice 3D? Often when nothing very interesting is happening, like during the start of a race. At that moment, the city seems so full of depth.

When do you not notice 3D? When buildings are collapsing into your roadway. Those toppling buildings surely appear to be more threatening thanks to the added depth of 3D, but the 3D-ness of the graphics is ultimately a delivery system — a new viewfinder. A falling building is content. Content is what shocks you most, not any lens through which you see it.

You wouldn't want the 3D-ness of the graphics to be a constant shock. It doesn't turn off and such a perpetual state of excitement would be wearying. After the starting gun, I only remembered I was playing in 3D when I drove into a person and their body seemed to fly out of the screen toward my face.

Recall that I said MotorStorm was set up in front of a couch. Also know that I am polite. I offered another attendee the chance to play the game, using a second pair of 3D glasses. I scooted over to give him space. Scooted over, I noticed, the game's 3D wasn't as 3D. I stood up and moved even further to the right. The game's graphics doubled and the 3D effect all but vanished. Off to the side, 3D was not impressive, a problem with the viewing angle, I figured, and an explanation why my sideline spectating of Super Stardust HD didn't impress me.

I shot a video that won't let you see MotorStorm in 3D but should help you appreciate the viewing angle issues:

3D On Steady, Snowy Ground

I said that the 3D of MotorStorm, while impressive, was happily forgettable. I don't want to play a game in constant amazement. I need a sense of calm. Yet when I saw Killzone 3 played on Jimmy Fallon's show, the impression I got was that the game in 3D was going to deliver constant euphoria. I was worried.

Click to view

Might Killzone 3 in 3D be too much for me?

No. I discovered that, like MotorStorm, Killzone's 3D was impressive but easily forgotten. I put the 3D of the movie Avatar in that category as well: You are wowed briefly and then forget you have the glasses, forget that you are seeing 3D. The idea is, I think, that if we watch enough content in 3D, everything that isn't in 3D will look bad, the way standard definition TV looks so cruddy to those of us who have been looking at HD TVs for a few years.

The Good 3D, The Bad And The Nauseating

The main difference between Killzone 3 and MotorStorm in terms of 3D is that, in the former, you can stand still. MotorStorm is a racing game, and every yard forward with your car is another chance for 3D to smack you in the face like a bug on a windshield. Every yard forward is also a chance to focus on the roadway and miss the 3D depth because you are trying not to crash.

Killzone is a first-person shooter. Most of the time you can stand still and just gaze. As you gaze, you may appreciate how deep the world looks, how far the vista of ice floes appears to go, how far beyond your feet the gray seas roll. I don't know if I was much more cognizant of Killzone being in 3D than I was of MotorStorm, but with Killzone I felt I was soaking in more of the landscape — the nature of a shooter vs. a racer and a sign that 3D might be more magnificent in games that allow you to stand your ground. It helps, of course, that Killzone is played from a first-person perspective.

There wasn't much in-my-face pop-out in 3D. Just one instance: an enemy rocket fired at my face. It was startling, aided by the powers of 3D.

3D As Stomach Upsetter

My third 3D try at the Sony showcase was the one that made me feel ill. The developers of Tron Evolution have made a third-person action game that trades off from the running and jumping of a Prince of Persia to the high-speed futuristic racing of an F-Zero or WipEout. Seems fun. The developers have also not calibrated the 3D in their several-old-weeks pre-release build of the game very well, so in this case, content suffered a broken lens. Even with the 3D glasses on, I saw a doubled image. My Tron hero seemed to have a ghost self half-next to him. I asked for a settings tweak. We switched glasses. Still doubled.

A minute into the demo, my eyes felt strained and dry. A minute later, my stomach felt uneasy and I remembered, of all things, that when I saw Tron in the movies as a kid, I was sick that day. I had forgotten. The 3D effect was negligible, the developer apologetic. Of course the game could be played with 3D off and that the 3D would be calibrated better. Not this time.

I would learn from another developer that 3D Sony games might get a slider that would let me calibrate myself potentially out of nausea.

3D As IMAX

3D was twice a success and once a failure at this showcase event. But the successes were, as is the nature of 3D, swiftly not noticeable, the kind of magic you forget, like how you forget that the IMAX screen is six stories tall about five minutes into an IMAX movie. In theory, you are still getting something superior out of the experience, but it is not common enough yet to make the old way of looking at things seem inferior.

It's impressive but not indispensable. It is potentially finicky, what with bad calibration and weird angles. Frankly, it's a new technology that I don't feel I need, one I feel I can go at least another season playing without.

Video games can be played 3D. They benefit from it. But they might make me sick. More importantly, I might go through all the machinations to have the experience, and then, a few minutes in, forget — lest a body on the race track flies at me or I look out into the snowy distance in a first-person shooter.

3D gaming may be the present, but right now, I'm comfortable hanging back just a little, in the flat past.