Oculus VR, the company purchased by Facebook this week for $2 billion, brings to life a childhood fantasy, if your childhood fantasy was strapping a big black box on your head and trying not to vomit.
I guess that's a little mean. Lots of people love the idea of Oculus Rift, which by many accounts is a great way to pretend you are in another world. You put these goggles over your eyes and you get to inhabit a video game, exploring and interacting by tilting your head and pushing buttons. People who have tried the Oculus like to rave about it, and many high-profile game designers and pundits have spent the past two years proselytizing for the cult of virtual reality. Also, Facebook bought it for $2 billion, an amount so ridiculous that it'd might as well be delivered to Palmer Luckey via giant novelty check.
Sony's taking on Oculus too, with a spaceman helmet they're calling Project Morpheus, and rumors suggest that Microsoft has their own VR device in the works, perhaps planned to integrate with Kinect to create the Star Trek-inspired future I've never, ever wanted.
Sorry, VR advocates. I'll never be one of you. I'm not interested in the cyberpunk fantasies of Snow Crash and Ready Player One. I don't want to shut off the world and put my head in a box for the sake of immersion, that glorious buzzword that has been used by PR people and hack reviewers to describe just about every video game you can think of. A search for "immersive" in my email inbox brings up ~800 press releases. Just imagine the buzzwords once Oculus Rift is on the market. NEW LEVELS OF IMMERSION. VISCERAL AS HELL.
When I was a kid, I played a lot of MUDs. Later came World of Warcraft, and I spent almost a year raiding and grinding in a fantasy world that was created to give millions of people a temporary escape from real life. I've felt the tug of virtual reality—that jolt of addiction that comes with inhabiting a digital world full of relationships to maintain and loot to snag. But—at risk of sounding like one of those technology-fearing neanderthals—I've never had the urge to strap on a set of goggles and feel like I lived inside any of those worlds. I like maintaining the division between video games and reality. I'm okay with never blurring that line.
We play video games for many reasons—to kill time; to challenge ourselves; to play around with tools and systems to see what we can break—but I've always preferred the ones that get ambitious about storytelling. I like games that take me on a grand adventure, games with big stakes and interesting characters. And to some extent, part of what draws me to these games is the lack of immersion. I don't want to pretend I'm in Spira playing blitzball or fighting through life-or-death situations in Hope's Peak Academy; I'm perfectly happy looking at a screen, pressing buttons, and feeling like I'm playing a video game.
I didn't grew up wishing I lived in the Metaverse; I grew up wishing I could hang out with characters like Locke and Celes and Kain the emo dragoon—and hoping that the future of gaming meant better characters, better writing, better stories. Not VR goggles.
So when I see my friends and colleagues exploding over virtual reality, all I can think is thank god for handheld gaming. Thank goodness for the 3DS (currently playing: Professor Layton and The Azran Legacy) and the Vita (currently playing: Final Fantasy X) and even my iPhone (currently playing: Threes, always). Handheld gaming is not concerned with technological innovation or immersion—it just wants to give you a game and get out of the way. Thank god for that.
Even as Japanese developers pursue the inane and shortsighted trend of hacky mobile slot machines, and even as the big tech companies obsess over gimmicks that I'll never believe in, handheld gaming makes me feel like there's a place for people with my tastes. If VR takes over gaming—if the PlayStation 5 turns out to be a helmet and the Xbox Two is actually a full-body scanner—at least I can still find comfort in the gaming machines I can carry to work every day. I just hope they stick around.
Top photo by Michelle Mazurek/Ars Technica