With Oculus’ (now Facebook’s) Rift and Sony’s Project Morpheus, virtual reality seems to be making a strong return to digital interactive entertainment. Ever since the holodeck of Star Trek fame first appeared on television and the rise of video game entertainment in the late 70s and early 80s, gamers of all walks have dreamed of the day that their favorite games might come to life and their total immersion in a virtual world might be realized.
The technology from Oculus and Sony promises quite a lot, but the relative simplicity of the games currently in development — a street luge sim and a shark-diving experience — coupled with the admittedly cumbersome hardware that makes even the strongest of necks quiver makes the reality of this technology’s practicality appear still yet out of reach. Let’s then take a quick look at some of the other ways that video games are attempting to reach beyond the confines of digital space. From simple physical objects to global wars fought on the LCD battlegrounds of the everyday cellphone, the lines between game and reality are becoming increasingly blurred.
One of the simplest ways that games are attempting to tie themselves firmly in the world of the physical is with the advent of physical objects representing in-game avatars. The most notable of these is Skylanders, the bright, fun platform-based game with light RPG elements that utilizes a portable dock pad with a built-in scanner to bring its many characters to life. The characters, each with its own RFID chip that stores and saves player information, are placed on the pad, the scanner then reads the chip, and transfers the information to the game to generate a playable digital version of the physical character model.
As impressive as that is, the sequel, Skylanders Giants, brought even more interactivity, as it allowed players to mix and match pieces of their favorite Skylanders toys to create even more unique characters. Even though the toys used in the game are not directly interacted with and must remain on the pad in order for the scanner to read the chip, it was a big step forward in player/game interaction. So much so that, at E3 2014, Nintendo announced its own line of toys in the same vein as the already popular Skylanders figurines. Called Amiibos, the new figurines from Nintendo will be compatible with the new Smash Bros. game at launch with more games to follow. The premise is the same as Skylanders: RFID-enabled toys will transmit data wirelessly to create digital representations of famous Nintendo characters for in-game use.
Toys are just one (pricy) piece of the interactivity pie. Games in the past have tried to take advantage of every possible meaning to the word “video” in video games to less-than-successful results; the now infamous examples of the Command and Conquer series and the recently revived Tesla Effect come to mind. However, there is a new contender, a new hope, for live-action media in video games and its name is Quantum Break.
The new Xbox One exclusive from Max Payne and Alan Wake developer Remedy Studios is set to also come with a tie-in live-action television series. It ill flesh out the universe of Quantum Break and is meant to be viewed right alongside the game. Even though it’s still unclear how much the television series will change based on the play through of the individual gamer, what is clear is that Remedy is making a very bold and concerted effort to advance the use of live-action media in video game storytelling. Gamers will be able to connect with their game not only in the choices they make but by engaging with the very real characters presented in the flesh right on their own screens.
Lastly, there’s a new mobile game that has taken the connection of games with the real world to its most literal conclusion. Called Ingress, the new mobile game developed by Google Startup Niantic Labs, pits players on two sides of a global war in real world locations using nothing but their cell phones. The players win by firing digital rockets at the other side, but in order to do so, they must occupy the same space, usually a large area and usually outside, forcing players to leave their cozy gaming dens and interact with reality.
What Ingress and other games like it are trying to accomplish is the notion that gaming doesn’t have to be a hobby relegated to the relatively cramped confines of a bedroom or the anonymity of an online chat room. In this respect, games like Ingress are closer to creating a true “virtual reality” than either of the latest VR headsets. By crafting a simple narrative with easy-to-understand gameplay and pushing the entire affair outside, these interactive mobile games have achieved what VR games have been trying to achieve for decades: immersing the player entirely in a digital gaming experience.