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Op-Ed: The Thing About the Holodeck...

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Op-Ed: The Thing About the Holodeck...

The thing about the holodeck is that it's not a game anymore.

All spaceships will have patriotically red white and blue-themed control consoles. It's only American.

All spaceships will have patriotically red white and blue-themed control consoles. It's only American.

It's the elephant in the room whenever people talk about VR, but in order to really get into what it means, let's go back a couple decades, to early on in gaming's modern history. It's 1979, and Atari is releasing Asteroids. The cabinet is pretty similar to its contemporaries'- the monitor is recessed into the unit, with walls on either side to block off the sights and sounds of the arcade around you. The control panel is designed to look like the controls of an imaginary spaceship. It's not just a facsimile of the ship's cockpit, designed to be a cute amusement. It's deliberately put together to make you focus in on the game and immerse yourself. Even from what is ostensibly the beginning of modern interactive media, the desire for immersion is present. Games aren't necessarily where the idea of virtual reality was invented- Pygmalion's Spectacles, a short story from 1935 was the first science fiction story to theorize on the subject- but they certainly awakened something in people. Video games held (and still do, to a certain extent) held promises of entire virtual worlds waiting to be escaped to.

Think of art as a machine. Books, games, movies, music, it's all a bunch of machines that are static, unmoving until we interact with them in some way. Specifically, imagination is the fuel, the force that turns their gears and makes the worlds they want to create pop out at us. Some machines, like books, need more imagination to draw the worlds out of them. Some, like movies, have more engaging visuals and sounds that build the world with very little imagination necessary. Not to say that these mediums are more or less creative than the other, but in order to get the most out of a book's world, you really do have to work your imagination harder than you would with a film. Games though, are a bit unique as an "art machine", they occupy both the high and low ends of that spectrum. Like a movie, all the visuals and sounds present the world to you automatically, without much need for the fuel of imagination to make it reveal itself. But like a book, the more imagination you pour in, the more detailed and deeper that world becomes.

Project Holodeck used motion tracking cameras with the Oculus Rift to try to simulate a Holodeck-like enviroment.

Project Holodeck used motion tracking cameras with the Oculus Rift to try to simulate a Holodeck-like enviroment.

Unlike a film, games allow you to poke around the world and discover things, to use your imagination to flesh out what is left unexplained. Sure, you can put more thought into a movie than just what it presents on the surface, but that doesn't build a deeper world so much as deepens your understanding of one already there. So games rely on that imagination to breathe as much as they don't. It's a weird thing to say, but if you've stuck with me this far, your reward is that we're finally getting back to that Holodeck thing.  See, the promise of the holodeck is an amped-up version of the promise of today's VR. It's absolute and total immersion. It's pure simulation. You aren't controlling Gordon Freeman, you ARE Gordon Freeman. Star Trek presents the Holodeck as a near-perfect simulation. The goal of its programs are that the user is never able to discern that it's not reality. In fact, that's the only real difference between the Holodeck and the Oculus Rift. The Rift, due to technological limitations, can't create a visual environment of the resolution it would take to be thoroughly convincing without using a headset. But above that, the Holodeck also has the benefit of impossibly (for now at least) clever computers.

Project Holodeck became Survios, which is developing a full-body motion tracking unit that eliminates the need for too much camera tracking. The trade-off is that for now, you look insane wearing it.

Project Holodeck became Survios, which is developing a full-body motion tracking unit that eliminates the need for too much camera tracking. The trade-off is that for now, you look insane wearing it.

The Holodeck is smart. Smarter than any computer that's out there right now. On a dime, it's able to react to anything its user does, within the confines of the simulation programmed into it. It uses Star Trek's fictional replication and force field technologies to create physical objects for the user to interact with as if they were real. In that sense, the Holodeck is not a virtual reality, but a virtually-made reality, rather than the realities made virtual that we experience via the Oculus Rift. The first writer to theorize about a holodeck-like system was Ray Bradbury, in his 1950 short story The Veldt. There, the playroom in a family's new automated home has the ability to generate any object or environment that its occupants imagine. Without going into the story itself too much, it's interesting that Bradbury, the first person to write about the concept, already singled out the virtual-reality space as a "playroom". Even from the very moment it was theorized, the Holodeck was always, at its very best, an entertainment space despite its boundless possibilities.

Wesley, pictures here either pondering old sci-fi, or generally being a twat. Hard to say.

Wesley, pictures here either pondering old sci-fi, or generally being a twat. Hard to say.

A virtual reality room that can be programmed to have little-to-no consequence would be unimaginably influential on entertainment sure, but imagine what it would in other places. On-site job training, practice for surgery, driving lessons, education, sex work- it'd be just as revolutionary outside of the entertainment world as it would be in it. So what's this obsession with entertainment, and games specifically? It's possible that because games have, for the last few decades, been the entertainment medium most closely linked with technology, but I have another theory, and it comes back to all that "art machine" nonsense I wrote up a few paragraphs ago. If games are a machine of potential then the more of yourself you put in, the more you get out of them. Now imagine if you had to put all of yourself into the experience every time. Imagine being plopped down in a world you can see and touch and affect in ways that become more detailed the more imagination you put in. All of a sudden, it's not about putting more imagination into a world to get more out of it, it's a very tactile exchange of using more imagination to explore the world in an even deeper way. You touch an object, and all of a sudden it's real, as opposed to finding that object and thinking of what it would be like if it were.

Microsoft's RoomAlive might be our first step into a functioning Holodeck, but the fact that it isn't means we have a long way to go before we get to Holonovels.

So why isn't it a game then? Well, because there aren't really mechanics. The way Star Trek presents Holodeck simulations (and I apologize if i'm not 100% accurate, I'm not the biggest Star Trek guy and like many non-fans, I'm drawing off of my generally osmosed pop culture knowledge) is as just that, simulations. Sure, they're simulations of what it would be like to be in a scenario, much like games are, but games can't react in every single way. You could definitely play games in a holodeck scenario- if I'm not mistaken, there's a scene where Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawking and Isaac Newton play cards with Data, but its express purpose is always a form of interactive entertainment that lacks the abstractions of game mechanics. When you die, you die, there are no health meters, no quests, and, well, no "goal". Games are often defined by that whole goal thing. They have a defined loss state. We've discussed this before, but it's interesting to think how VR is probably the space for all the stuff currently roped into games that defy a lot of the traditional definitions of games. Those games focused on creating immersive worlds to pour ourselves into, worlds designed around the player as an explorer poking around, they're the perfect fit for the eventual virtual veldt of Bradbury's imagination. Microsoft is showing off how they can use projectors in tandem with Kinect to display a game all around the room you're in. But it's not a reality. You're looking over an army marching across your coffee table. It's a virtually made reality, but not a reality you can only access virtually.

Well, that's not quite it, but nice try?

Well, that's not quite it, but nice try?

Does it really matter that it's not a game anymore? No, not really. Our definition expands and gets broader all the time. But all the people designing games around mechanics and goals are going to be left in the dust when the holodeck takes over and makes environmental design and storytelling king. Nothing we know about traditional game design will carry over, to the point where “videogames” and “holdeck games” might just be two totally dissimilar mediums. The Gone Homes, the Dear Esthers of the world, those are the beginnings of the "holonovel", those are the games that are taking us into gaming's potential future, and I for one welcome our virtually-crafted overlords.

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The Next Reality- What Works With VR?

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The Next Reality- What Works With VR?

For years, virtual reality was nothing but a twinkle in the eye of the goofiest of cyberpunk-tinged games industry futures. But now, with the advent of technology like the Oculus Rift, and the Samsung Gear VR, virtual reality is just a few steps away from your eyeballs at any moment. Of course, that means the temptation to make those headset-wearing VR dreams come true is stronger than ever, and here at Built to Play, we’d like to crush those dreams. Not every game is good for VR! In fact, most games aren’t! But some work really well- like, genre redefining well.

Virtual reality displays are- and have always been - peripheral to the overall game experience. Generally speaking, games that are made for VR displays are incunabular in nature. They ape the current format of games rather than create something that requires VR to function properly.

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The Primer: The History of VR

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The Primer: The History of VR

Before we kick off this month’s Built to Play theme on Virtual Reality, let’s take a trip through the frightful history of consumer-level VR game technology, shall we? Now hold my hand, count to three, click your heels, and strap a computer to your face, because it’s time to go!

While it isn’t technically virtual reality, the Master System’s 3D glasses are the first example I can find of a game developer using dedicated hardware to push immersion. Or, more accurately back then, the promise of immersion to sell dedicated hardware. To be fair to these guys, Master System 3D is in full colour, trading out red and blue lenses for rapidly moving shutters. That doesn't make it any less a waste of money. 

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Adaptation: Three Classic Comedies that Need Games

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Adaptation: Three Classic Comedies that Need Games

Look, there are only so many times we can say this, but games can, and should be funny. Sometimes. Maybe not all the time, but there’s definitely room for cracking jokes through gameplay. Sometimes, you just need the right material. Now, I’m no game designer, but I feel like I have some idea the industry could put to good use. Specifically on adaptations of famous classic comedies, beloved the world over. Here’s some material folks- great ideas to better homes. Do with them what you will.

Mrs. Doubtfire:

This summer, Robin Williams is still doing vaguely offensive voices.

This summer, Robin Williams is still doing vaguely offensive voices.

The Pitch:

There’s a new Mrs. Doubtfire movie coming out. Now, I know movie tie-in games aren’t quite as popular as they used to be, but licensed game doesn't carry the same baggage as it used to. It’s a trade off. I’m fairly sure the only movie licensed game coming out for the major consoles this year is Amazing Spider-Man 2, so the market for a tie-in movie game is underserved at best. Now, it’s also nonexistent at worst, but you can’t make money without taking a few ungodly risks. And the biggest, stupidest, most ungodly risk available to you as an investor is getting behind this Mrs. Doubtfire game.

Like, just make that broom a trident and we are halfway to pig monster.

Like, just make that broom a trident and we are halfway to pig monster.

Robin Williams has effectively pissed away his popularity with projects like RV and those Zelda commercials where he had a crazy beard. Actually, can we get Robin Williams to play Ganon in a Zelda game? Check on that after we’re done here. Robin Williams is only slightly more popular than crossdressing comedies. Other than the shambling franchise zombie that is Medea, zany drag comedies don’t really pull in the audiences anymore. This probably has something to with the fact that playing crossdressing as hilarious in and of itself is crazy offensive, but then again, White Chicks in on Netflix and we as a society haven’t started rioting yet, so what do I know?

What I know is I have a killer pitch for a Mrs. Doubtfire game.

 

The Gameplay:

The game has two distinct gameplay stages. The first is a makeup portion, think Cooking Mama meets a dress-up doll game. You have to do Daniel Hillard’s make up perfectly for whatever the occasion calls for. Going out on the town, staying in to take care of the kids, top-secret missions in North Korea, whatever Mrs. Doubtfire needs to do.

That sweater is actually kevlar. 

That sweater is actually kevlar. 

Yes, that’s right, Mrs. Euphegenia Doubtfire is now a top-secret agent for the US Government, the world’s best disguise artist, able to infiltrate any compound without detection, all while maintaining an impeccable falsetto British accent. Depending on how well you do your makeup in the pre-mission portion of the game, the level may be easier or harder in certain places Your makeup affects your ability to blend in and attract interest from NPCs. Different makeup styles will lend themselves better to certain strategies, and don’t forget to try and track down the secret looks, which can unlock special skills like invisibility and constant-being-on-fire.

During the mission portion, you’ll be tasked with infiltrating an area with the least amount of casualties. Like Snake in Metal Gear Solid, Doubtfire only procures weapons on sight, and attacking guards and innocents is likely to arouse suspicion. Be careful not to blow the mission, your president is counting on you to stop terrorist attacks from a country that hopefully won’t be an ally in six months when this game is on store shelves. Games are missing this blend of tactical espionage action and makeup simulation, and Mrs. Doubtfire 2: When in Doubt, Fire, is just the game to give gamers what they crave.

 

Borat:

Every promotional image of Borat involves that green swimsuit, and I just don't want to put you through that.

Every promotional image of Borat involves that green swimsuit, and I just don't want to put you through that.

The Pitch:

You know it, I know it, the nation knows it. We, as a society miss Borat impressions. People aren’t saying “My Wife” enough anymore, or parroting anti-semitic and/or misogynistic comments sans satirical context. We’ve lost the Borat spark. Sacha Baron Cohen has disappeared to parts I do not know where, and there is no one to fill the void left behind by the lack of Borat in our collective life. But now, there is. Look, the Ghostbusters game was supposed to be Ghostbusters 3 until it wasn’t. Then Ghostbusters 3 went back to being a thing that will never happen but we’ll keep hearing news stories about until we’re all dead, so why can’t Borat 2 do the same?

He is ALREADY A MII. It's that easy people.

He is ALREADY A MII. It's that easy people.

See, Borat 2: The Game won’t be a good game. That’s literally impossible. What kind of game would it even be? We’ll get to my pitch in a moment, but seriously, it’s terrible. Don’t bother. The point is, it’ll light a fire under Mr. Borat’s ass to work on the real Borat 2, or better yet, Borat 3: The Canonical Sequel to the Trainwreck Known as Borat 2: The Game. It’s sure to be a film loaded with laughs, hoots, hollers, and guffaws galore. Maybe there will be a celebrity cameo or two? Maybe I’ll appear, and Mr. Borat can say something mostly offensive to me. It’ll be very exciting. The point is, we need to make this game happen, and then we can all go back to the halcyon days of late 2006 to early 2007, where your dad thought the Borat voice was the key to comedy.

Ahhhh, nostalgia.

 

The Gameplay:

I’m not going to lie to you, folks. This cannot be a good game. I mean, first of all, Cohen refuses to play the Borat character anymore, since he’s too famous to trick people with. Second of all, what do even gamify here? I was thinking to go the easy route, and have Mr. Borat platform his way through America, but we’re not lazy here at Built to Play. We’re innovators, and we have a trainwreck of a design pitch for you. Imagine a 3D exploration game, where you, as Borat, walk around a town, asking for interviews with various townspeople. Using a Mass Effect-style dialog wheel, you find the best way to keep the conversation going, which builds up your catchphrase bar. Once full, you can decide to end the conversation by making them uncomfortable, and physically yelling on of Borat’s many catchphrases into a microphone. By the way, you’re also wearing an Oculus Rift, two Playstation Moves, and Wii Vitality Sensor, so your body language, heartbeat, and head positioning have to be perfect for the NPCs to trust you during the interview.

Remember this? No? Good.

Remember this? No? Good.

Alternatively, you can use the catchphrase bar for point multipliers, which will increase your score the longer you keep the conversation going. It’s a classic risk reward system, like quoting Borat in 2014. You have one life, and villagers react as you move, so it’s pretty much a roguelike too, because the kids are into those these days. And everything has Minecraft-style graphics, because we aren’t made of money here. We’re already packing three high-end VR peripherals into the box, and one of them doesn’t even exist. The game also features a day-night cycle,which affects which NPCs you find roaming town, as well as your tiredness meter. It’s also the key to the endgame. After ten in-game years, your character will be retried, all your relevance is shot, and you’ll still hear people saying “my wife” is a dumb voice.

What’d I say? Trainwreck.

 

A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

No, that is no Donkey from Shrek, but that you for pointing out our cultural touchstones.

No, that is no Donkey from Shrek, but that you for pointing out our cultural touchstones.

The Pitch:

If it makes you feel better, pretend we're adapting the manga.

If it makes you feel better, pretend we're adapting the manga.

Shakespeare is classic. And I don’t mean that in the patronizing, pretentious, you have to read him because he’s so important. You don’t, and he isn’t. I mean it in the literal sense, he’s old, and kids don’t care. But, he’s public domain as all hell, which means a cheap game idea is ripe for the picking. I flicked through a list of his comedies, and the dude didn’t really “get” being funny, but hey, this one has donkeys and fairies in it, and that’s probably good enough. We polish this thing up, give it some grit, market it to the Mountain Dew generation, and we’re golden.

In case you don’t know, and who am I kidding, you probably don’t because who pays attention in high school english other than nerds like me, A Midsummer Night's Dream is about four dumb teens who get messed around with by some fairies in the woods. Puck, the fairy court jester, makes some of the teens fall in love with each other, and the whole thing becomes a confusing love quadrangle. After that, a guy called Bottom shows up and he gets turned into a donkey before everything gets sorted out, and Puck tells you it was all probably just a dream.

There’s a couple directions we could go with this. Obviously, kids love “it’s all a dream” endings. They’re all over video games. Hell, Mario 2 was all a dream, and that’s the greatest story in the history of video games. It has frogs, it has vegetables, what more could drama need? Second, kids love fairies. It’s all over their media. Name me one show that doesn’t have a fairy in it. They all do. They’re tiny and magical and only visible to the pure-hearted, so of course you don’t see them. Maybe stop being such a jerk and work with me here.

 

The Gameplay:

Like this, but with more boredom!

Like this, but with more boredom!

I have two ideas for this project. Both are first person titles, but only one is a shooter. That one has you in the woods, playing as one of the four dumb teens. Each has a different special ability, and is fighting to make their way back to their friends for sweet group makeouts. Hermia is a sniper, Helena uses rockets and explosives, Lysander is an all-around character with an assault rifle, and Demetrius is a close-up shotgun character. There’s no real reason for any of that, but no one’s read the play, they won’t know. They fight all kinds of twisted monsters in the forest, and at the end of each level, they fight one of the fairies as bosses. Threatening monsters like Mustardseed, and Peaceblossom. The final boss is Bottom, with his donkey head as a horrifying, gruesome visage that will scare the daylights of of children for decades to come, guaranteeing our place in gaming history.

Alternatively, my other idea is a first person VR experience, where you sit and watch a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream from any seat in the audience. But, no matter which you pick, you’ll always be bored. It’s art!

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