Like Doc Brown, I once hit my head and saw the future. I didn’t come round in the bathroom having the idea for the Flux Capacitor, but I did bonk my noggin pretty hard in the office games room and sit back, dazed but delighted with what had just happened.
I was playing the Budget Cuts demo on Valve’s room-scale VR. Budget Cuts is a game about infiltrating an office that’s patrolled with deadly robots. Because of the room-scale VR, you’re really there: your actual body is your in-game body. This means that the robots are the same size as you – which is terrifying – and it also means that when you have to duck your head through a missing panel in the floor to look into the room below, you really have to do it. Except that while the game floor might be missing a panel, the real floor isn’t. Bonk. I did it. Chris Bratt, who had also played the demo, had done it. A day later, so moved by what I’d played I brought in a friend to try it out. They did it too. We all hit our heads and we all saw the future.
More than just the future of video games, I really felt like I had seen the future of one series in particular. I still think this. I still think that Budget Cuts is essentially the closest I’ve ever gotten to playing Half-Life 3. It’s not set in the Half-Life universe, although its mixture of horrific technology and the banal and bureaucratic is not a million miles away. It wasn’t made by a Valve team, although I gather the people who made it did end up working on the final game at Valve as incubees. Instead, it channels that magical thing that Half-Life has always done.
Half-Life, right, has always moved things forwards in terms of immersion. You can illustrate this pretty simply by looking at the introductions to the first Half-Life and the second. That tram ride in the original Half-Life was mind blowing. Here was a first-person shooter, but you weren’t doing any shooting! Instead you were riding into work, getting into character, learning about the strange, frightening, promising place that the game would have you explore. It was world-building! First-person tram-riding world-building. And it meant that when the shooting did start, the game felt like more than a shooting gallery. It still felt like a place that was in the middle of something pretty awful happening. Half-Life’s gift was to show that a game could build a world around you that seemed like a world that might exist.
Half-Life 2 starts on a tram of sorts, but then you’re offloaded at some railway station, one amongst a sad handful of muttering refugees. You’re being processed, and the cops seem pretty awful. One of them makes you pick up a drinks can and put it in the bin.
Commonplace now. Kind of. But back then? One of them makes you pick up a drinks can! And put it in the bin! Half-Life had shown how restraint when it came to what you were actually doing, and lavishness in terms of scripting and world design, could root you right at the centre of a game. Now Half-Life 2 showed you a world you could touch, where different materials had different qualities – where wood was wood and glass was glass and magnifying lenses magnified and NPCs seemed to actually know where you were when they spoke to you. This was the game of the gravity gun, sure, but the gravity gun was just one expression of a world that hummed with material physics. Material physics! No Half-Life 2, no Angry Birds. What a thought.
How do you top that? You don’t. Not for ages, anyway. I played games that stumbled with physics and then games that steadily became more comfortable with physics. But still nothing else happened that suggested Gordon Freeman should be released from his intermittent slumber.
Then Budget Cuts. Room-scale VR. A world you could touch, sure, but a world you could touch with your hands. In Budget Cuts I opened drawers and stamped pieces of paper. I picked up phones and went through fax print-outs. The things Budget Cuts solved felt akin to the things Half-Life was so good at solving. Movement in VR was a bit like shooting here – you fired a little ball of light that offered you a new spot to warp to via a portal. The ball had a bit of physics to it, an arc and a bounce. It was fun to play with, and as you played with it you learned to master it, to become easy with it as a means of traversal. Combat, meanwhile, was about throwing knives – and you threw them as if you were throwing them in real life, judging angle and aim and all that jazz, waiting for the right moment.
What really sticks with me about Budget Cuts, though, was a wall. Early on I warped to a bad spot where I was right up against a door and a wall. And I just looked at the wall hovering in front of me, right up to my face, its paint cracked and peeling. This wasn’t like walls in other games. It wasn’t just a texture. Somehow, it felt like a real wall. It tricked me utterly into believing in its substance. The world wasn’t just a thing of playful physics anymore. It was completely convincing.
The best VR makes the future seem very close and very distant at the same time. It’s wistful technology. It shows you stuff that you have not seen before – perhaps not the kinds of things you were expecting. It is playful in a very pure and unfussy way, but it needs all this space, all this fussiness of wires and sensors and doodads. It works as technology, but it does not work – not yet – as commerce. You go somewhere very special, and then you have to return to knocked-over lamps and a sofa that needs moving.
It’s worth remembering, I guess, that the fuss around Half-Life 2’s launch was a fuss around Steam. You had this game, but you had to activate it online?! If any series could get you over that it was Half-Life. Now, maybe it can get people over the sofa that needs moving.