With not-one-but-two VR games released this year and a keen eye on the technology to come from Meta and Apple, Jörg Tittel feels questions about the platform’s legitimacy should be consigned to the past. Richie Shoemaker is on board with that.
For Jörg Tittel, the writer and producer behind dystopian warehouse fulfilment satire The Last Worker and Dreamcast-era racquetball reboot C-Smash VRS, virtual reality video games seem to be fighting the same battles they were ten years ago when Oculus was still reliant on its Kickstarter backers and Sony had yet to put its head in the game, so to speak. Despite the obvious success of Meta’s Quest 2 headset, soon to be superceded by Quest 3, and Sony’s renewed PSVR interest, it bothers Tittel that journalists – even those that admit to being VR fans – keep banging on about VR gaming’s immersive qualities, as if the worlds that people enjoy are more closeted and their appeal is down to splendid isolation. Tittel insists that a game’s immersiveness is only a small part of their physical appeal.
“The interesting thing about VR games is that they are intense, but they also feel physical,” he says. “The one thing I’m preaching – or trying to – is that games have always been physical. They started out as a physical medium. The way you enjoyed it was physically – you actually moved your body across town to go to this dingy old arcade and smell the cigarettes around you, and you pushed your way through to the Street Fighter cabinet, or whatever, and then you stood at this thing and you’d physically manipulate things. It was a physical experience.” Usually, you would be meeting friends there, so it was social too. “Bizarrely, it seems like we’ve been gaslighted by the big tech companies who have co-opted the games industry into thinking that it’s thanks to tech that games are social now. No, we started that way!”
For Tittel, VR is a way of re-establishing how games used to be, immersive, social and physical, while pushing the limits of the medium. Discussions over whether VR games are successful in comparison to those on console or smartphone don’t interest him at all. “I don’t care. I don’t sell the stuff. That’s not my job. It’s like saying, ‘Is the theatre ever going to take off? Marvel superhero movies are so much more successful!’ The theatre is fine, it’s just not mass market, and that’s okay. Does everything have to be mainstream before it’s valid?”
BEHIND THE WHEEL
It’s fortunate that our meeting came shortly after a week that not only saw Meta announce the Quest 3, but Apple finally reveal the Vision Pro. Two headsets at very different ends of the value spectrum. What does it say about the state of VR gaming to see Meta forging ahead with new hardware, despite its obvious metaverse woes, and Apple coming out of stealth mode with its more conceptual proposition?
“I think, finally, the very boring and stale question of ‘Do you think VR will ever take off?’ can be put aside and people can understand and accept the fact that it’s here to stay.” As to the the merits of each device, despite what he called the crazy price of Apple’s offering (likening it to Tesla’s flagship Model X), he’s excited more by what it will mean for subsequent and competing devices than for the Vision Pro itself, which will clearly in its first iteration be beyond the budgets of most VR gamers. “The fact that Unity is involved is very exciting, because whatever R&D they’ve put into [the Vision Pro] it’s going to trickle through to all the other platforms, whether it’s Quest or Pico or Vive, etc. So I think it’s amazing to have this big player there.”
Of course it’s Meta, nee Oculus, that has laid much of the groundwork for the current success of VR, and is reaping the benefits of it by being neck-and-neck in the current gen console race with Xbox. “They’ve opened so many doors,” says Tittel. “They’ve legitimised VR, but to me VR is exciting because it’s a place where there are no rules yet. We haven’t been told what the mechanics should be.”
Tittel likens 2023 VR gaming with the era of the Atari VCS, in the sense that gaming was constantly pushing at the limits of the technology, unlike today’s AAA games, it would seem: “I feel like I’m still playing Tomb Raider, except with better graphics, 30 years later, all the time. I’m still using the same triggers on the same control pad and it all feels the same to me, like all the third-person games are essentially the same game over and over and over again.” He likens AAA games to cars, where performance and economy improves with each iteration, but at the end of the day you’re still turning a steering wheel and heading down the same streets. “[AAA games] seem to be devoid of the actual meaning of the game itself, if there is any. With VR, the fact that you have to physically embody it, whatever you’re doing … the meaning at the centre of it is you. It’s very exciting.”
SEEING THE DELIGHT
White he accepts that the homogenised standards and accoutrements we’ve come to expect of flatscreen games have long been making their way into VR – things like achievements, standardised controls and the like – Tittel is emboldened by the fact that the most successful games in VR are very specific to the platform.
“If you take a look at the games that are actually the most successful right now on PlayStation VR2, it’s Beat Saber and Walkabout Golf. Those are games that are actually pure fun. I’m not saying that pure fun is better, but what I’m excited about is that we’re seeing a return of joy and delight in the space of VR, and that’s something that AAA games have moved away from.
“I just think in VR the games that stand out the most are actually delightful and that is gorgeous. I love that. With delight, you can also then hopefully see a sort of new form of interaction between players; it’s not about winning and outdoing each other. It’s more about sharing something special with each other.
“Listen, I don’t know, we seem to constantly be swimming against the tide of ‘progress’ right now. We have global warming and fascism on the rise everywhere, and it’s all very, very scary. So maybe I’m clinging on to some sort of false hope and trying to find light in this ‘emerging medium’, but I do actually see that immersive spaces in which we can share stories and experiences with each other, in mind, and body and soul, are the future. I think that that can bring upon a much more positive community than what we’ve been doing so far.”