The Drifter is a psychogeographer of videogames. He started this blog to grow his followers and make friends: friends just like you. Hey, have you lost weight? It really suits you. And I love what you’ve done with your hair. Why don’t you come round later for Planescape and chill? I have the original sourcebooks from 1994, and if you wear plastic gloves, I’ll even let you turn the pages.
Short of an asteroid crashing into New York and releasing seismic shockwaves that knock out the energy infrastructure of the Western world, most of us are going to be spending this summer with a chunky black visor strapped to our faces, wondering if virtual reality was really worth selling our kidneys for. Already way ahead of you, guys, and let me tell you: those hours of dialysis pass like a dream when you’re playing through your Steam collection in fully immersive 3D. My only wish is that I’d known sooner that – as an internationally acclaimed videogames blogger – I could expect a headset from Oculus for free. Never mind. I guess I can auction it on eBay to pay for better medical care, or politely ask those gangsters to trade it for one my original organs.
Playing with a VR headset is like being James Stewart in Vertigo. By which I mean to imply that it induces nausea, not that it turns you into some kind of creepy stalker. (Although perhaps that’s inevitable too, given that Oculus is now owned by Mark Zuckerberg.) It’s totally worth putting up with the bits of sick in your carpet, though. I love being able to stand in my living room and turn my head and see a whole world in three dimensions. It’s even better than the real thing, because if I stand too close to someone in Dishonored or Skyrim, they share a little nugget about their lives, instead of staring at their shoes or telling me to f**k off. Which, in a nutshell, is why I don’t go out much anymore, other than to buy food from vending machines or steal it from the homeless while they sleep.
Another cool feature: when I look downwards wearing HTC Vive, I can see my virtual hands. I’m always right-handed, which I figure is because my avatars had their left hand tied behind their back at school by a teacher so they wouldn’t grow up to be evil, and the reason we’re currently on a shooting spree in an office complex or mall is because that level of repression can be really, really, really damaging in ways the educational establishment didn’t appreciate back in the olden times. But enough about someone else’s emotional problems: this article isn’t stuck in the past, or even the present. It’s about the future of gaming.
Most commentators figure that VR won’t take off in the mainstream until your grandmother can enjoy it – and there’s only one company that makes games the whole family want to play. So why haven’t Nintendo announced a VR kit for the Wii U? What the hell, Nintendo? I want to play Wii Sports Tennis in VR, so when I win a point and turn my head around to gloat to the jubilant crowd, I catch my Daddy’s eye and am filled with loathing for him and this stupid fucking game that he made me play day-in, day-out, all through my childhood so I could be ‘one of life’s winners’. Whose definition of success was that, Daddy? Because I would say you robbed me of my best years just so I could get better at hitting a ball with a stick than pretty much anyone else alive. And you know what? Even after the endorsements, the global fame, and the trophy girlfriend on my arm at every premiere, it still wasn’t worth it. I just wish I could have been a failure. Like you.
Regular readers will know that my relationship with Nintendo has been strained recently, after I spiked my plumber cousin with mushrooms to see if he’d become Super. Turns out somebody at the company was paying attention, because I was swiftly contacted by a PR rep, and invited to discuss my concerns with only the most important game designer of all time: Shigeru Miyamoto, Creative Fellow at Nintendo and creator of Jumpman a.k.a. Super Mario. We Skyped. Imagine his impish face, still youthful at an age when the rest of us would be thinking about retirement, pixelated and moving about half a second out of sync with his speech, and you’ll be right there in the room with me.
I asked Miyamoto-san: “Aren’t you worried that the VR ship will sail without Nintendo on board?”
“Our competitors can play about with boats all they like,” he said. “At Nintendo, we’re working on supersonic jets. Wait until you see what we’ve got planned for the next generation of console peripherals. The PlayStation VR team are going to be as scared as a Bronze Age tribe in a game of Civilization when the gunboats arrive on their shores. And we all know how that turns out. That confuses the sailing metaphor you were using, but you catch my drift,” Miyamoto giggled.
“Sony may have won this battle, and the last battle, and the one before that, and arguably the one before that too. But I will win the Console War.”
It’s a testament to his respect for Existential Gamer – and for me personally – that he agreed to give us a world-exclusive preview of Pan, Nintendo’s next-gen device, and the killer apps that go with it.
“If there’s one problem Nintendo faces,” Miyamoto said, “it’s this: children love our games more than their own grandparents. But children grow up. Who plays Kirby or Pokémon after junior school? The moment our audience turn 13 it’s all guns, tits, and booze. The Nintendo console goes into the attic to gather dust. To a salaryman with a wife and children of his own, the Nintendo brand is just a byword for nostalgia. But I ask you, Drifter: is he happy with his lot? When he wakes at 4am into soundless dark, with only the blinking red light of the alarm clock for company, is he proud of what he has become? Or does he wish he could still be a sweet and innocent prince, roaming free in the magical lands of childhood?
“The Nintendo Pan controller is a plastic white stick like the Wii’s, with a small difference: instead of a motion tracker it conceals a seven-inch hypodermic needle. Through zany cartoon mini-games, we’ll teach children to inject anastrozole and leuprolide to suppress the pituitary hormones associated with the onset of puberty!” Miyamoto’s head rolled back with girlish laughter. “And here’s the real game-changer: algorithms dressed as your Mii avatar will go out to work and pay the mortgage, giving you pocket money in Wii Points each week to purchase new games. That means it’s all over for Sony: after all, who’s going to buy the latest Tekken in a world without testosterone?”
“But won’t prolonged use of gnRH agonists lead to the risk of osteoporosis?” I asked, disconcerted.
“More than a risk,” he said, smiling at my naivety. “It’s almost certain. Palmer Lucky might believe that the future lies in bulky headsets attached to souped-up rigs no one can afford – but fortysomething children with brittle bone disease won’t even be strong enough to lift them up, let alone wear them. In one fell swoop, we’ll have crushed our competitors and saved childhood forever. Can you imagine a pre-pubescent society, never to be tarnished by sex, war, and other pollutions? It’s my final gift to the world.”
At that point Skype crashed, forcing the interview to an abrupt close. Were Miyamoto’s plans more than just empty hype? If this sweet, innocent man was truly planning to use a next gen controller to stop the biological clock of the whole human race, I worried about what some of gaming’s less virtuous characters might have in the works. To find out I got in touch with Hidetaka Miyazaki, creator of Dark Souls and its equally morose kissing cousin, Bloodbourne. We caught up on the international promotional tour for his latest gothic monstrosity, Dark Souls 3.
“In many respects, From Software’s new virtual reality peripheral is the opposite of Miyamoto-san’s,” Miyazaki told me over a delicious ducks’ blood broth at my favorite Central London restaurant. “People complain that games are too easy these days, and it’s true. The Dark Souls trilogy has been such a success because it’s an antidote to all that. But what if ordinary life could be that difficult? There’s clearly a market for games that sadistically frustrate the player’s every attempt to succeed, wrecking their self-esteem and leaving an unholy mess where once stood a proud and resilient gamer. So why not create a suit of full-body armor that delivers a battery of Tazer-style shocks every time you fail to block a monster attack that only you can see? Even better: what if those shocks are totally arbitrary, so the patterns you seek to understand don’t actually exist? That would trigger a psychotic breakdown even faster than the Demon of Song fight in Dark Souls 2.”
“Wouldn’t you just take the suit off?” I said.
“Of course you could try to do that,” Miyazaki assured me. “But psychological conditioning will keep the player obedient in the vast majority of cases. And if you do override that and try to tamper, the suit will take full control of your skeletomuscular system and murder everyone you love. We know who they are, because as we explain in the tutorial, it’s registered to your Facebook. So unless you want to see your first-born child mutilated by your own hand, we suggest you keep the Soul Armor on at all times. Even when brushing your teeth, or doing a poop.”
I raised another objection. “Aren’t you worried that if you induce psychosis in your most hardcore fans, no one will be left to buy new Souls games?”
Miyazaki shrugged. “Ultimately From Software’s plan isn’t just to sell videogames. It’s to create a slave army we can use to take over the world. Or did you miss the part where I said the suit could take over your muscles and murder everyone you love?” He let the point sink in, then continued: “Look. I hope it never comes to that. I’d much rather use my serfs only to strike fear into the hearts of those who deserve it. Like Namika Katabatake, the only girl I ever truly loved, who left me for an American on his exchange year. Not that I would use that incident as an excuse to mount an invasion of the United States or anything, but you know how it is.”
“All I ask for is total compliance. In my country we have a phrase: ‘The crooked nail must be hammered straight.’ That’s what I’m going to do. I have a hammer. The world is a nail. I just hope I don’t stub my thumbs.” He held up his right hand to show off a swollen, purplish digit. “I’ve never been great at DIY. Still, no matter. As you people say, you can’t make an omelette without unquestioning fealty from a few battery hens. And how do you get that? By crushing their eggs in your fist while they watch, spilling the yolk straight into a hot black frying pan.” I considered telling Miyazaki that he would need to whisk the eggs first, but decided against it. His eye was twitching in a way that made me uncomfortable, so I paid the bill and made a swift exit.
Although on the surface Miyamoto and Miyazaki’s blueprints for next gen hardware appear to have precious little in common, I was struck by the fact that both plan to meet the promises and perils of VR by re-engineering not just videogames, but gamers themselves. Though I was initially daunted by the sheer scale of their ambitions, it’s important to keep a sense of perspective. The Japanese are our benchmark for kooky weirdness: little of their culture ever takes a meaningful hold over our own. With that in mind, I resolved to see what designers closer to home were cooking up. I tracked down Peter Molyneux, the legendary designer of Populous, Theme Park, and Fable, in his castle just outside the Surrey commuter town of Guildford. Cats roamed freely through the corridors, feeding on the community of mice that had bedded in for the winter and now refused to leave. Molyneux was living with no Wi-Fi, only sporadic hot water, and as far as I could tell, no other human company. Most of 2Cans Games abandoned him after he broke in to Chessington World of Adventures, a local theme park, and tied the RockPaperShotgun journalist John Walker to the tracks of a rollercoaster. Thankfully no one besides Walker was hurt, but the damage to Molyneux’s reputation was done.
“The press thinks you’ve given up game design to become a Batman villain,” I said. “Would you say they had a point?”
“Batman isn’t the enemy,” Molyneux told me. A crown of thorns dug deep into his forehead and occasionally drew discrete beads of blood, which he dabbed away at throughout our meeting with a crusted handkerchief. “The real enemy is journalists like you, slagging off my future projects before they’ve even been announced, so I can’t get seed funding. Batman is just a lonely guy with too much money and time to kill. He should get a proper job.”
“Batman,” I said kindly, “isn’t real.”
“What would you know about the difference between fantasy and reality?” he snapped. “Also: take your boots off. I don’t want germs contaminating my mind palace.”
“I thought a mind palace was a memory bank inside your head?” I said, wondering if Molyneux’s condition was worse than the gaming press had believed. “This place looks very much like a bog-standard medieval castle.” I paused briefly to consider the Sunday afternoons of my childhood, most of which had been squandered watching falconry and hideous medieval tortures in tourist attractions very much like this one. I trapped my sister in an iron maiden once, and we never saw her again. Reporters were camped outside our house for so long my parents put out a chemical toilet to stop them pissing in the street, but they never turned up a shred of evidence. That’ll teach her to chew the arm off my Action Man.
Molyneux didn’t have an answer to that, so I said: “All I know about fantasy and reality is that the new VR headsets blur the line convincingly. What can you tell me about your plans for the future of VR?”
“It’s a distraction,” he said, “on behalf of agents who don’t have humanity’s best interests at heart. I’m convinced we already live in a virtual reality simulation.” He rapped his knuckles against the west wall. “You think that’s stone I’m touching now?”
“Yes,” I said.
“You’re sure about that? You don’t want to change your mind?”
“No,” I said. “Yes, I’m sure.”
“Then consider this. Given that according to Moore’s famous law, processing power doubles every two years, how long until we have the capacity to perfectly simulate reality? The exact answer is irrelevant. The point is: it’s inevitable. And what are we going to do with all that processing power? Simulate virtual worlds, of course. If you consider that possibility, doesn’t it seem very, very likely that we’re already living in the simulation of a more advanced civilisation?”
“No,” I said, and left Molyneux to carry the conversation forward alone. I was scared enough about the future as it was, without adding new paranoiac fantasies to the mix. As I stood in the castle car park ruminating on his strange ideas, I looked up to marvel at orange and black streaks running wild across the firmament, like God had hired Jackson Pollock to fill out the sky. I considered Instagramming it on my complementary iPhone 6s. After the conversation I’d just had with Molyneux, though, I wondered if I wouldn’t be happier off-grid. At least if I learnt to make my own fires and cook my own meat, I could be sure of being Authentic and Real. Or could I? What if the countryside was just some crappy crafting sim running on an inconceivably powerful computer? It was a possibility I could no longer dismiss.
I turned it over in my mind on the journey home until, somewhere along the A3, I ran over a pigeon. I stood in the middle of the road watching it flail for what felt like forever, until I finally decided to wring its neck. I probably could have saved it, but if Molyneux’s theories were correct, I would have been missing a good opportunity. Pigeons are flying rats, and I need the grind: I don’t want to be the only L10 weakling in a reality full of buffed L60 heroes who kick sand in my face and steal my gal. Not to mention loot all the treasure I’ve hoarded offshore from my earnings as an internationally acclaimed videogames blogger. So this is my advice for you, reader: VR isn’t the future. It’s already here. Forget buying an Oculus Rift. Get a couple of new swords and go out at night, laying the smackdown on anyone who looks like trouble. Maybe wander into a few pubs and ask around for work: soon those scimitars will pay for themselves. I’ll see you in the tabloids, heroes.