Open Worlds

AQPDesertMy golly-gee education in state-of-the-art-form video games continues. For the past couple nights I’ve been playing Red Dead Redemption, which came out six years ago, or the Pleistocene era in tech terms. I’m coming to understand the possibilities of open world games in which you can just sort of wander around. I’ve shrugged off the main narrative to embark on excursions to a variety of regions in the game’s expansive geography. Last night I found myself in the north, amid trees that evoked my native Pacific Northwest. I hunted coyotes and encountered two guys fighting. I shot them, stole their money and ammunition, and wandered over to another guy who challenged me to some sort of herb-picking contest. When I took out my knife to attack him, he shot me, which returned me to the porch at the ranch where my adventure had begun.

Extra-Lives-book_240I’m also reading Tom Bissell’s Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter. I’ve always admired Bissell’s writing and remember when this book came out around the same time as Red Dead Redemption. I don’t really know Tom, but we have friends in common, and I remember hearing that he had gone off the deep end, gotten addicted to cocaine, and holed up with video games for days on end. Those of us in the literary community who care about such things shook our heads and figured the world of literature had lost a bright mind to an inferior medium.

It’s dawning on me just how prescient and ahead of the curve Bissell was. He was there to document an extraordinary moment in the evolution of storytelling. I imagine there are a lot of people who would respond to my realization by saying well, duh.

Bissell brings up the concept of a ludonarrative, or a miniature story that depends upon the player’s choices rather than the larger, framing narrative of the game. The framing narrative might be that you have to defeat a posse of outlaws. The ludonarrative might be that you decide to murder a frontiersman and steal his horse. These oftentimes competing narratives result in something called ludonarrative dissonance.

What’s even more interesting to me is that the non-player characters are governed by artificial intelligence. Last night I had beers with Halo lead artist Tom Doyle, who is quickly becoming my go-to advisor on making sense of the world of video games. Tom explained that an AI is essentially a decision tree. This is making me think differently about how to create characters. Instead of fleshing out characters with back stories and attributes, what if I could create an AI that would simply govern what the character chose to do in a variety of situations?

I’m beginning to imagine an explorable open world in VR as vast as the west of Red Dead. If I were to design such a world, I’d make it full of things to do but with no pressure to accomplish anything, with NPCs governed by sophisticated AIs. I’d want the NPCs to behave in weird, unpredictable ways. Sometimes they could even seem crazy, irrational, prone to bizarre outbursts. I’d want to create a world that offered rich aesthetic rewards just for exploring it.

I’m not nearly as interested in solving the objectives that Red Dead Redemption lays out before me than I am in simply discovering the world and engaging in little ludonarratives along the way. The game came with a physical map of the territory, and after playing it the last couple nights I consulted this map to see how much of the world I’d actually explored. Not much, it turns out. There’s so much more to explore. This is true both for this particular game, and the world of video games in general.


Mal de Débarquement

A little over a year ago, my sister came down with a strange vestibular condition called Mal de Débarquement. It’s where you still feel like you’re on a boat, plane, or other form of transportation long after you have disembarked. It’s an unpleasant, unbalanced sensation that typically afflicts people who have taken cruises or long flights. Amy deals with it with some balance exercises, but I have been wondering whether VR could offer a way to confront this syndrome.

Motion sickness is a problem with VR that a lot of brilliant minds have been puzzling over. I wonder if there’s research that could be helpful in developing VR therapies for Mal de Débarquement. By the way, I just like saying Mal de Débarquement because it makes me sound like a sophisticated French guy.

If you’re working in the medical sector of enterprise VR and have insight into motion sickness, I’d love to hear from you. If you develop a therapy that helps my sister stop feeling like she’s on a cruise ship, I will buy you a bag of the Trader Joe’s trail mix of your choice.

The Ethics of Taking Pictures of People While They’re in VR

Since I answer to no one with this blog, there’s no set of ethical guidelines but my own governing what I choose to post. Recently, I decided that I’d start asking permission to post pictures of people while they’re wearing headsets. There’s something gratifying about taking pictures of people in VR. They’re unaware that they’re being photographed and their body language is mapped to the world within VR and not the world outside. Since they’re not aware they’re being photographed, I can take my time setting up a shot. Watching someone use a Vive is almost like watching ballet. It can be quite beautiful.

How come people don’t look stupid when they wear a VR headset? Unlike the Google Glass, a Vive headset doesn’t make you look like a dork. Maybe part of it is that there really is no cultural precedent for this chunk of black plastic that you wear on your face. It’s not trying to get away with looking like an accessory that has existed for over a century. But maybe part of it also has to do with the absence of self-consciousness that the wearers exhibit in their posture and gestures.

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SIXR’s Summer Cinematic VR Challenge and Hot Tub Party

Jeff Lewis demos one of the VR experiences created over a weekend near Discovery Park. Photo by Nikola Costa.

A quickly growing cohort of artists is inventing cinematic VR in Seattle. Last weekend about fifty cinematic VR pioneers gathered at a home known as the Birdhouse near Discovery Park to create 360 VR experiences. SIXR organized the event and suggested a theme: relaxation, inner peace, leisure, and introspection. I stopped by the event for a few hours on Saturday, finding myself in a funky private home full of good books and good people sharing ideas, food, code, and laughs. Despite the theme, the scene was buzzing with activity. Continue reading

Seattle Invents the Future Again

An article I wrote for Seattle Met magazine about the city’s VR/AR community has just gone online. You can read it here.

When I started researching this piece some months ago, I barely understood VR. Now I know slightly more than I did at the beginning of the summer, and find myself at CoMotion Labs, writing about VR and AR among a group of brilliant inventors and artists. Writing that article changed the trajectory of my life.

I want to say, too, that the article only covers the tip of the iceberg. There are so many more people, companies, and organizations pushing this new medium forward in Seattle. I plan on writing more about them here and elsewhere.

Thanks to everyone who played a part in the article, and thanks to everyone for reading.