Poagao's Journal

Absolutely Not Your Monkey

May 22 2022

Above and Beyond

I just finished the VR version of Medal of Honor: Above and Beyond. There are six “missions” in the game. It starts out in Tunisia, takes you to occupied France, England, though the D-Day invasion at Normandy, through to various battles in Europe, on planes, parachutes, trains, motorcycles, ships, sleds and submarines, and finally a rocket base in Germany before a thrilling escape sequence. The game was first released in 2020, but was ported to a standalone VR version just this year. Obviously some compromises in the graphics had to be made, but with the quality set to high the game looks fine and runs smoothly. I’ve never been much for the shooting part of shooting games; I’d much rather enjoy exploring the spaces and atmosphere, and this game does that well despite being a few years old and made for mobile VR.

Now that I’ve finished it, I feel like I’ve just completed a series of good books…happy that I got to experience it, but a little sad that it’s over, and wondering what’s next. Though the lines of the NPCs are scripted, they’re reasonably well acted, and the feeling of immersion with the environment was good in general and sometimes even quite strong. I turned off the accompanying music as it interfered with the sense of being there, and sometimes lingered in spots to just enjoy them. There’s the time right after I’ve jumped onto a German train from a motorcycle; I just stand and watch the scenery go by, walk around the engine listening to the sounds it makes, maybe taking a seat in one of the cars and sitting quietly for a while looking at the luggage on the racks, at the wood and leather seats and all the other little details as the mountains and forests slide by outside. The game doesn’t care if I linger, so linger I do.

At another such point that sticks in my head even more than the storming of the beaches in Normandy (which is intense, obviously), I find myself behind a little shack in occupied France in the late afternoon of a sunny day, and I watch through a gap in the wall as the German commander orders his soldiers off and walks dejectedly back to the shack where he shakes his head, pours himself a drink and slowly sips it as he looks out over the countryside and sighs. It’s obvious he knows he’s doomed. I’m meant to just go shoot him, but for some reason I find myself just standing there watching him drink his Schnapps, thinking about how that moment really felt at the time. I found myself wandering around bombed-out cafes in France, wondering what they might have been like before the occupation, musing about what submariners’ lives were like while perusing their cramped bunks and notebooks, uniforms and other things. Throughout the game I just found myself stopping and just being in whatever moment I was in and wondering how it really felt to be there back in the day. On the ship heading towards Normandy before I shimmied down the rope into the landing craft, I looked at a sailor working in another craft on deck and actually caught myself thinking, “Damn I wish I had my camera on me, that’s a nice shot!” Obviously simulations are still a way from being able to even approximate the reality, but they fire my imagination and curiosity in areas of my brain that literature and movies can’t quite reach.

And here we come to the part of VR experiences that I simply cannot seem to communicate to people who don’t know what the hell I’m talking about. They are fixated on how silly people in headsets look, they see references in media like Community and Lawnmower Man and all the other derision hurled at the vomit-inducing early 1990’s-era simulations that are presented as modern-day VR tech, while the 80’s nostalgia-ridden mess that was Ready Player One just created less realistic expectations. And the recent attempts by tech bros to tie virtual reality to NFTs and cryptocurrency has done even more harm to the medium’s reputation.

More and more I’m convinced that people have a deeply held, tribal-level reaction to the act of someone willfully subtracting themselves from our shared physical reality. Think of how we all make fun of groups of people staring at their phones, how people used to do the same for people with their heads stuck inside of books and newspapers. It all comes from the same place: How dare you not be a part of our tribe by taking your attention elsewhere! The VR companies have tried to combat this, portraying VR as a fun group social thing in their advertising with people sitting around together, one or two with headsets and the others watching raptly on a screen, but I feel this approach is pointless and misleading. Whenever I’ve been at such gatherings, whenever you put on a headset, you were no longer really there, and people would just leave you to it, screen or no. Because the feeling of not being in your physical location is much stronger with VR than it is while looking at a phone or reading a book. Would you want to go over to someone’s house and sit in the same room reading books or looking at your separate phones? I realize this happens, but people don’t tend to make a whole thing of it. And in these Covidian Times, it would seem like a bad idea at any rate.

So all I can do is shut up about VR in the few “normal” social situations I find myself in, unless I’m asked by someone who is genuinely curious and interested. Instead I watch as the companies fumble around trying to port this or that console game into the medium, looking for all the world like the producers of stage plays in the 1920s setting up movie cameras in the back row of theaters. I hope that someone, somewhere is working on developing the true advantages of this medium, attributes that are unique to it. Meta’s Horizon Worlds continues to exhibit the worst of humanity, simply-formed spaces low on detail or subtlety yet full of screaming kids and other trolls, as Horizon basically leaves moderation to the users, a tried and true recipe for disaster. The result is, despite the more advanced avatars they’ve come up with, a greater feeling of fear and trepidation, and a consequent lack of true engagement in those spaces. AltspaceVR, nominally run by Microsoft, has done much, much better in terms of moderation and engaging worlds, though they seem of late to want to follow Meta’s terrible example and are getting rid of some of those tools. VRchat and Recroom=more screaming children/trolls. The Multiverse is a shoddy, poorly-made sham designed to separate users from their money. It all feels a bit like the period of the Internet when everyone started to come online, and the social media companies hoovered up all the possibilities for creativity and put everyone at each other’s throats. That could happen in VR as well, but I still hold out hope that interacting as avatars with voices and expressions can pull in a bit more of our social interactions than just text, which hasn’t worked terribly well in that respect.

The next step, if we get that far, could feature a mixing of social apps and games…the upcoming GTA: San Andreas could theoretically become a place not just to play, but to hang out. Disney might be working on creating another Star Wars Galaxies-esque gaming/social world. Are the big dogs working on VR MMORPGs where users can inhabit places such as Star Trek or Hogwarts? Or are they all just sitting and waiting for someone else to do it first? MMORPGs such as Zenith and Illysia are doing quite well, and are both small independent companies with few resources. But Apple seems intent to get into the game as well, and if they take the iPod model of letting a few companies do their thing before modifying and perfecting it themselves, we might see something interesting as a result.

So people seem to see that there is potential in VR, but few seem able to pinpoint exactly what that potential is. Artificially intelligent NPCs, hinted at in the movie Free Guy, might be instrumental in providing more interactive experiences…we already have decent AI-driven bots, so that shouldn’t be a problem; rather, maintaining some kind of orderly storyline under those circumstances would be a bigger challenge. We’ve learned, unfortunately, from previous iterations of online behavior that people can largely suck if you promote hateful interactions, which media like twitter/Facebook/etc. have long been doing and seem poised to rip society apart. In fact this has been given as a reason why VR will never work, but it seems to me that the more intimate, multifaceted engagement afforded by more closely replicating physical presence online creates an opportunity to redefine the often toxic nature of online interaction.

I suspect that VR has the capability to let us see who we really are. Let’s hope that’s a good thing.

 

posted by Poagao at 3:41 pm  
Sep 26 2019

This world and that

Everyone at the campfire last night was talking about the upcoming Oculus Connect 6 announcements. People were speculating about new gear, new capabilities, doubting Facebook’s intentions, etc. I’ve met some interesting people there at times…other times there’s not much going on. On occasion, there are idiots. And sometimes shouty kids who have slipped past the cordon, but they are usually kicked out.

None of us were really there, of course. And there’s not even any real “there” there; it’s a virtual reality social space called Altspace. We’re all in our individual locations, living rooms, offices, cars, truck cabs at rest stops…wherever. The portability and ease of the Quest has made it easily the favorite gear to use to access these spaces. I’d been using the Sideload app to gain access a month or so before the official release, but now it seems like just about everyone there is using the Quest; you can tell because they move their hands and heads and walk around in sync with their actual physical selves.

This adds another dimension to communication beyond speech: Headnods, fistbumps, daps and other gestures are now all part of the mix…just seeing someone look away or put their hand behind their head when they say something tells you more than mere speech would. And, generally, just “being” there, with full motion, in the 3D environment that you move about in freely. Even the audio is spatial; you can pretty much tell who around you is talking even without looking to see which Lego figure (which is what most of the avatars resemble at this point; a new system is in the works, however…Altspace people say they’re rebuilding it from the ground up) or robot figure is speaking. Why some people chose more human avatars and others choose robots is a fascinating topic by itself.

I’ve witnessed roast sessions and rap battles, and yes, they were most entertaining. There’s even an amateur improv show every week, stage and all. By early next year, supposedly, our hands will be mapped directly from the headset, rather than using controllers. These are people in all corners of the world, yet somehow standing next to each other, just talking, as if you bumped into them on the street. And since the streets these days are filled with people texting on their phones, it actually feels refreshing to just talk with strangers from literally anywhere, as if you were together. The armor of the keyboard warrior is somewhat thinner; these are your actual words, not text to impress and be impressed by; you hear them as does everyone else in the vicinity. It’s…different. You can still be a jerk, of course, but when doing so, you feel more like a jerk than you would just typing impersonal letters on a keyboard.

It should of course be noted that Facebook itself is launching Horizon, its version of a virtual social environment, though after seeing how Facebook censors certain voices and allows others to voice BS, I can’t say I’m not concerned that that space could end up being similarly toxic.

But it’s strange, the feeling of presence in these places that don’t exist. After greatly enjoying the first episode of Vader Immortal, a canon Star Wars story produced by LucasFilm, I’m looking forward to going back into that world for the newly announced Episode II. And it does feel like actually going back there; the detail and atmosphere of these worlds can be jaw-dropping. When a door opened in front of me in a corridor and a stormtrooper charged out, I literally jumped back and said, “Oh shit!” while my virtual companions actually dealt with the situation. Not the most heroic of actions (I suspect I’d be rather useless in a real Star Wars environment), but honest at least. And at another point when we were edging along a shelf high above Mustafar, I just sat down on the ledge for a minute to enjoy the view of the lava and occasional TIE fighter flying by, even though my droid kept reminding that we were, uh, like, kind of in a hurry, you know? Being chased, threat of imminent capture…any of that ring a bell? The dialog is actually well written, I have to say. And the view was nice (again, I would suck at actual Star-warring).

But the point is that I was there.

Some friends have expressed concern that these virtual environments will cut off our connection with the real world, but, perhaps ironically, I find myself with a renewed appreciation for the details and subtleties of said world, sometimes just letting go and looking around me at all the wonderful things that, if they were part of a simulation (as some argue this world actually is), are so intricate and beautiful. Could it be that virtual reality’s greatest gift is an appreciation for actual reality? That’s not to say I’m not looking forward to meeting up with Monsieur Vader once again. Dude is downright intimidating when he’s standing in front of you, threats in his voice as well as his stance and movements. It’s a good thing there’s no real way to “lose” the game (that I know of), because I suspect one of the smart-ass remarks I make to him would earn me a force-choking.

Whenever I see VR being discussed on “traditional” media such as Facebook or tech sites, many people seem to have long-since dismissed it, especially after Spielberg’s dismal rendition of it in Ready Player One. It’s mostly tech people who are dissatisfied with the specs of the gear involved. “Deal killer” is an oft-mentioned term (then again it’s the same for camera gearheads). But there seems to be a general gulf of awareness between that world and the Internet As We Know It, like using radio to convince people to try television (which eventually worked? I assume?). Will it become impassible, or will it eventually disappear? Time will tell, I guess. When I started this blog in early 2001, even such things as smartphones weren’t even around yet, but after a few first-iteration clunkers, they’re now so commonplace that hardly anyone would entertain the thought of leaving the house without one. Will it be the same with VR? Noted photography critic A.D. Coleman wrote in 2014, “Much of the incunabula in any new medium tends to rely on mere novelty — look, I can do this! I can do that! — because its pioneer practitioners have to concentrate on mastering the toolkit, and the technology is unfamiliar and cumbersome…Once they learn how to control the tools, and the tools become more sophisticated and easier to handle, creative attention gets turned to what the artist has to say.” So it would seem that we are in this first, vital stage of the medium’s development.

What happens next? Maybe we can talk about it at the campfire.

posted by Poagao at 12:44 pm